A couple of years ago, my friend and classmate, Fr. Mark Knestout, and I were able to realize a long hoped-for trip to Normandy in France. We did some “holy” things – visited Mont Saint-Michel and Saint Thérèse in Lisieux – but mainly we did historical things, specifically visiting D-Day sites and museums.
It was great. I have a nearly inexhaustible appetite for such touring. I did not know how high Fr. Knestout’s threshold would be for obscure locations and marginal events, even though he and I have travelled together a lot. It turned out that he was at least as interested as I was! So we clattered about the Norman countryside quite happily, prowling the hedgerows and coastlines in our rented diesel Peugeot.
At the Utah Beach museum, one of the displays particularly moved me. It showed the response of the local populace to the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought and died around their homes, and before their eyes, to liberate them. One large picture showed an elderly couple, standing by the body of a fallen GI. He had been covered with cut flowers and branches, and they stood reverently beside him, obviously praying for him.
Another photo showed the dedication of one of the several cemeteries for the fallen liberators, set aside and filled in the first few days after the landings. At the edge of a field of identical wooden crosses, several Catholic chaplains were offering Requiem Masses on makeshift altars, or on the hoods of Jeeps. Around them crowded servicemen and women, along with obviously devout local folk, all praying for the repose of the souls of those who had given their lives.
Grainy black-and-white photos can make the subjects they depict seem remote from our own life and experience. However, seeing these images of an action that touches me and touches eternity, the Mass for the Dead, brought everything closer, and gave them immediacy.
Even though not on the hood of a Jeep, we still offer the same eternal sacrifice of Christ in the Holy Mass, and hold up to God the one redeeming work that will offer redemption and life to those who have died. Especially when the dead have given their lives in sacrifice and service, it is a right and just so to do.
Fr. Knestout and I offered Masses while in Normandy for the repose of the souls of all the fallen. Not only for our countrymen, either; we visited a German cemetery as well. We walked the rows of graves praying for them, offering our rosaries in a way all of them would have recognized. Respect for service, and charity for souls, has helped transform that long–ago enmity into friendship. This lesson seems to be lost on activists in our own more partisan and even ideologically-puritan times.
I would eagerly recommend such a trip, whether to Normandy or to any site of our nation’s great historical working-out of “liberty and justice for all.” There are cemeteries very near to us, both military and civilian, where lie the remains of many whose sacrifice amplifies their importance to us.
But more accessible, and no less moving or important, is the journey into prayer and sacrifice on behalf of all who have given their lives for our nation and our safety. And the one Sacrifice which will bring them to glory is only as far away as the nearest altar.
To call to mind these lives offered and given is to put the “memory” in Memorial Day. To place our memory of their sacrifice alongside Christ’s own sacrifice in the Mass, transforms our visit to historical things into a holy thing.Monsignor Smith