A Memorial Day Meditation on Honor

Back in 2014, I celebrated one of the most remarkable funerals of my 30+ years as a priest. With the body present, I sang a Requiem Mass for a man who died ten years before I was born. And his story speaks to the fallen soldiers we honor on this Memorial Day.

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 American 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.

The family asked me if I would offer the old Latin Requiem Mass for him since this was the only form of the Mass he had ever known. And so on September 18, 2014, I had the great privilege of celebrating a Missa Cantata Requiem Mass. (See photo above).

091814-BThe burial that followed at Arlington was with full military honors. (See left – click to enlarge)  Horses pulled the caisson that bore the body of Pfc Richardson and all were saddled, but the horses on the left had riders while those on the right did not. Also in the procession was a marching band, a group of about a dozen riflemen, a bugler, and the honor guard. It was a very moving sight. The band played “Soul of My Savior,” “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” “God of Our Fathers,” and “America.”

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 many carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly. Jesus says, Greater love has no man than he would lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13).
War remains controversial (as it should). But soldiers do not create the politics or injustice 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 our collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly. He gave his life.
It was a privilege for me to render honor and prayers for his sacrifice. I did so not only as a priest, but also as a citizen of the United States. That day in 2014, both Church and State gave due honor to our brother. We recognized the honos, the onus, the weightiness of his sacrifice and the burden he carried. We rendered thanks to him and buried him at last in a place of great honor, where the weight of human struggle and honor is visible in the 400,000 white tombstones standing like silent sentinels whispering, “Honor, honor to those who have carried the burden of our struggles.”
Honorable Private First Class Arthur Richardson (Bronze Star and Purple Heart awardee), rest in peace.
And to all soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice we render due thanks, reverence and honor this Memorial Day of 2020

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,
Eternal light,
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

One Reply to “A Memorial Day Meditation on Honor”

  1. I appreciate the beautiful reflection. I do ask for prayers for myself as, due to Covid and other sickness, I had to stay home from playing Echo Taps in my hometown for the fallen who gave their lives so I could be free.

    In remembering those who fought for me, it brings me to tears, and it’s times like these I’m so grateful to be a Catholic and American.

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