As the United States begins commemorating Memorial Day, a friar who celebrates Mass for veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center offers thoughts about the holiday and the importance of serving “the wounded warriors.”
Memorial Day is an official holiday on the U.S. calendar. Originally called “Decoration Day” because of special decorations placed on the graves of those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate Union and Confederate soldiers who died in that terrible conflict. It is now extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military.
Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day; Memorial Day is a day of remembering those who have died while serving, whereas Veterans Day honors the service of all military veterans.
For friars of Holy Name Province, it is frequently a day of prayer and memorial services — either in our parishes or local cemeteries — where we gather to remember our brothers, cousins, friends and all others who have served our country with unstinting generosity and completed their earthly journey to the Lord.
A significant number of our own friars, both living and deceased, are either veterans or chaplains who ministered in the military, either full-time or on a contract basis. When we page through Holy Name Province’s Necrology, we read touching stories of friars who ministered at significant peril to their own lives. Many memorial pages recount ministries in dangerous situations and tell of the measure of generosity and care that resulted in military commendations. Of course, we honor our current retired chaplains, and those who work at various military and veteran posts. Throughout the stories, we read of one or the other friar serving in dangerous combat. Almost all friars later returned safely later to minister in the Province, but at least one friar died while ministering.
The story of the Catholic military service has produced its share of dedicated religious and priests who have served so generously. An outstanding figure in Catholic chaplaincy was a young Maryknoll priest, Father Vincent Capodanno, who gave his life bringing the last rites to wounded soldiers. His generosity and courage have been noted nationally when he was posthumously named the recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest award in the military.
Sometimes the question arises as to whether we Franciscans who preach a Gospel of peace and reconciliation should serve in military chaplaincies. Does serving the pastoral needs of the military conflict with those of us who espouse pacifism? This is a dilemma that faces four friars who live at Holy Name College in Maryland who serve either full time or part time the wounded warriors and medical staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Currently, John Heffernan, OFM, David Schlatter, OFM, John Ulrich, OFM, and I serve as contract chaplains at Walter Reed. We are conscious that approximately one quarter of the military describes themselves as Roman Catholics.
Our service members have volunteered to serve our country. Many of them — young women and men — joined the military shortly after graduating from high school or completing their GED. They come from a cross section of American life today. Most are from families of modest means.
These service men and women reflect the difficult family situations so prevalent now in the U.S. — single-parent families, blended families, little opportunity for upward mobility. Marriage in the military is under significant stress. Young black and Hispanic volunteers see military service as a pathway to better education, even perhaps a pension in the future. Problems of addiction — both drug and alcohol — are issues that must be faced in the service. The simple fact is we are serving the poorer and neediest segments of American society. Given this profile of the human condition of so many people in the service, how can we friars not serve them? The wounded are found not only on battlefields, but right here in the folds of American society on military bases.
— Fr. Vincent, a resident of Holy Name College, Silver Spring, Md., served as president of Washington Theological Union from 1975 to 1999.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, holy day or other seasonal theme – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. The previous reflection, about collaboration, was written by Louis McCormick, OFM, of Mt Irenaeus. Additional friar reflections can be found on the HNP website — on Spiritual Resources page, as well as on the blogs of HNP members and ministries.