For many, Memorial Day means the beginning of summer. To others, it is a day off to go shopping. But as I am sure you know, Memorial Day is really a day to honor those who have died in the service of this country.
The word “memorial” comes from the Latin “memorare,” which an imperative meaning “Remember!” So Memorial Day is “Remember!” Day. To remember something is to allow it to be present in our minds and hearts such that we are grateful, sober, aware, and different.
This is a day to remember that there are men and women who have died so that you and I are able to live with greater security, justice, and peace. May these fallen soldiers rest in peace. We owe them both a debt of gratitude and our prayers.
As a focal instance of this day I recall that this past year, I celebrated one of the most remarkable funerals of my 25 years as a priest. With the body present, I sang a Requiem Mass for a man who died ten years before I was born.
On January 1, 1951, Private First Class Arthur Richardson of A Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division went north with his platoon into what is now North Korea. The platoon was overtaken by a much larger group of North Korean soldiers and he was taken prisoner. This was the last that was heard of Pfc. Arthur Richardson. It was reported to his wife later that month that he was missing in action. In 1954, he was declared Killed in Action, though his body was not recovered and no definitive word had been received about him. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
It now seems certain that he died in or near a prisoner-of-war camp in Suan, since his remains were returned by North Korea in 1994 along with those of as many as 800 other soldiers from that region. After years of painstaking work, the U.S. Army was recently able to definitively identify his remains using DNA evidence, and informed his family.
Last September his family asked me if I would offer the old Latin Requiem Mass for him, since that was the only form of the Mass he had ever known. And so I had the great privilege of celebrating a Missa Cantata Requiem Mass. (Pictures are online here: Requiem.)
What is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated. But what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something that is heavy. Hence, to “honor” someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.
Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that others can live, be more free, and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that some carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly.
War remains controversial (as it should). But soldiers do not create the politics they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be addressed, an injustice to be ended, and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson went north during the Korean War; he did not return to us. But he carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly; he gave his life.
Honorable Private First Class Arthur Richardson (Bronze Star and Purple Heart awardee), and all who so died, rest in peace.
The Love of one’s country (patriotism) is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism teaches,
It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC # 2239).
The Lord Himself makes it plain: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord
No more weeping,
No more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just Divine embrace,
In the Mansions of the Lord
Where no mothers cry
And no children weep,
We shall stand and guard
Though the angels sleep,
Oh, through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord