Today we tread on sacred ground.
Maybe not physically,
but surely in our minds and hearts we visit cemeteries and memorials
to honor Americans who have died in military service.
Today, TV programs take us to Arlington National Cemetery
and to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
do they take us to the other 147 National cemeteries scattered throughout the country,
or to the many State veterans’ cemeteries.
TV celebrations on Memorial Day
don’t take us to the thousands of cemeteries in the United States:
church cemeteries, public cemeteries, private cemeteries, family cemeteries
where our war dead are buried.
They don’t take us to the battlefields where soldiers are buried where they fell.
They don’t take us to foreign cemeteries where an estimated 130,000
American war dead are buried.
They don’t take us to Arctic Russia, or to the mass graves, or to the burials at sea.
They don’t mention the thousands of Americans who fought and died
under foreign flags before the U.S. entered the world wars,
thousands of American soldiers buried as foreigners.
Some grave sites of buried American soldiers are just being discovered.
It was only within recent history that 200 US casualties from the War of 1812
were found in a cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
On Memorial Day there is little mention of American war dead
who rest in unmarked graves in foreign countries, or who were lost at sea.
There is sometimes mention of those MIA (missing in action).
It is estimated that there are 83,000 American soldiers who have never been accounted for.
As Americans, today we honor all soldiers who died in military service
by putting flowers on their graves, by placing an American flag
in the soil now holding their remains, by taking notice and paying tribute.
It is a part of our national history to commemorate the sacrifice….soldiers,
both men and women, have made for the good of our nation,
for the freedom of our people,
for the right to live in peace.
It is essential for us to remember, to feel the pain of loss once again,
to recall the uncertainty war always brings,
to awaken the knowledge and memories of the consequences of military action.
We do this not to glorify destructive forces.
We do this in part to keep us from all to quickly resorting to arms to resolve our conflicts.
To forget history is to repeat history.
Both as individuals and as a people defined by national boundaries
we need to find other ways to cultivate peace, for the cost of war is far too great.
War is ugly. Those who have ever lived through a war know this.
Many people today only know the fantasy of war.
Modern day computer games sell war, depict war as fantasy.
If you are killed in one of these games…..You can always start over.
You are given many lives. You come back to fight again.
Death is something without consequence.
In true war, life ends with terrible finality,
blood spilling from fragile bodies and mixing with the mud.
I want to impress upon all of us the ugliness of military action.
I have no doubt that if every soldier who died in service could speak to us
they would all say “avoid war at all costs.”
I have a few war stories to tell
and I want to let you know ahead of time, one of them is graphic.
My uncle Bob was in the Air Force in WWII. He was a tail gunner.
Each plane’s crew slept in the same bunk house….
with bunkhouses stacked next to each other, one after another.
He told me…one day all the planes in his squadron went on mission.
His plane and crew were fortunate. They were able to return to base.
That night, as he lay down to sleep, he couldn’t help but notice,
the bunk house connected to his was completely silent.
All the beds still perfectly made were now empty.
The entire crew living in that bunkhouse was lost as their plane was shot down.
My uncle knew as he fell asleep, at sunrise, there would be another mission.
A Viet Nam veteran tells this story: “Patrol went up the mountain.
One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.”
This next story is one that makes me want to cry.
About 8 years ago, I met a priest who was a military chaplain on the front lines,
I believe it was during the Iraqi war.
One day while exchanging gunfire with the enemy,
he heard a mortar shell explode close by.
He looked over and saw…
where one of his friends was standing before, there was now a cloud of red mist.
His own uniform, his skin, his face, was now speckled with his friend’s blood.
Two weeks after I met this priest, he committed suicide.
We cannot properly honor those who have died in military service
if we remain ignorant of and untouched by what they had to endure.
Yes, we might feel loss that comes with separation,
and we grieve with families who endure such pain.
But the inner pain and suffering experienced by those who served,
what they saw, what they felt….is beyond description.
Some were brave, some were frightened…
but all endured what war brought upon them
knowing that others would benefit from their sacrifice…
that their families and neighbors at home would be safer,
better off, enjoy a better future because they risked life and limb.
With all this being said,
with the horrors that come with war, the ugliness, the destruction, the violence, the death…
I have a very difficult time using military terms to describe the mission of our Catholic Church.
There is a need for military personnel and armed forces in our nation.
It is a necessary reality if peace is to be protected.
But such need I can never accept in our church.
I conclude that those who promote the use of terms like army, soldier, battle, fighting, defeat,
when they describe the Christian mission,
are people who have never seen or experienced war in person.
They’ve never fired a gun, or launched a missile at another human being.
They’ve never seen their friends killed, or seen broken bodies red with blood,
or heard the cries of pain because a limb is gone
and/or skin is burned to the bone,
and/or a wounded soldier can’t move or do anything to get to safety.
I think it is an unreflective and careless use of language.
Using such language motivates us to do terrible things in the name of Christ.
The use of such language leads to thoughts and desires not compatible with the Gospel.
I will never see myself as a soldier for Christ.
I will never do battle to defeat the enemies of the faith.
The enemy of the faith is Satan, the devil.
And any human being who attempts to fight such a battle is a fool.
As human beings we cannot win this battle.
We cannot defeat sin.
That’s why Jesus Christ came into the world.
With love, obedience, truth, wisdom, forgiveness, mercy, with the power of God
Jesus brings a light to this world that cannot be undone by darkness.
Love, truth, wisdom, forgiveness, mercy, the power of God….
these are not weapons.
And they surely are not meant to destroy any human life.
Weapons do not foster conversion, they incite resistance.
Christian truth is an alternative to weapons, a possibility, a path.
It is a choice that cannot be forced on anyone.
Jesus never forced anyone. God forces no one. Everyone has the freedom to choose.
And everyone will be responsible to God for choices made.
Christian truth is more like music for a certain dance. Evil is music for another way of dancing.
Life is a dance, not a battle.
And the music you chose to listen to will determine how you dance.
Christian truth is the antidote to the poison of sin.
It is a remedy for the sickness of sin.
It is the best answer to the question: what is the purpose of human life?
I can never see it and will never use it
as a weapon to be used to beat someone into submission.
I will proclaim the Gospel.
I will give witness to what I believe.
I will explain why I hope.
I will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger.
I will explain the doctrines of the Church.
I will celebrate the mysteries of faith, participate in the sacraments.
I will pursue justice, work for peace, live in love….
but I will never imagine myself to be a soldier in a spiritual army
who carries a weapon, who does battle with the enemy,
thinking that I’m doing something that pleases God,
something that builds up the Body of Christ,
something that helps bring God’s kingdom of peace to this world.
War is ugly. It is obscene.
Anyone and everyone who engages in this reality….
their heart, their mind, their spirit, is changed forever.
Fortunately, there are heroes among us, rising up out of the human community,
who accept the task of military service (including priests).
And there are families who give their sons and daughters over to the need
of protecting, defending and preserving the freedom we love so much….
allowing us to use our God given gifts as we see fit.
In a perfect world this would not be necessary.
But we do not live in a perfect world.
We look forward to that time when all swords are turned into plowshares
and all spears into pruning hooks.
We look forward to that time when there will be no need to train for war.
We look forward to that time when God will reign over all the earth….
in the heart of every person.
But until that time, soldiers will give their lives.
On Memorial Day we honor Americans who died in military service to our country.
We remember their sacrifice.
With their very lives, they have contributed to the peace and freedom we now experience.
We pay our respects.
We pray that God too will honor them
by giving them a share in his glory.
We ask God to bring comfort and consolation to their parents, their spouses, their children,
to bring comfort and consolation to their comrades in arms.
Today’s prayer: “O Lord, we were not there…but You were. We did not see…but you did. We do not know….but You do. In Your mercy and love, raise up our fallen soldiers to everlasting happiness. Bring them home to You. Amen!”
Today we tread on sacred ground.