Faith

What Dunkirk Can Teach Us About Faith

This important historical event has instructed millions of people about the battle between good and evil

Jan Struther (1901-1953) wrote popular hymns but is best known for the book that became the 1942 film “Mrs. Miniver,” starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.

The Dunkirk evacuation figures into it and was emotive propaganda, as the United States was just getting involved in the war. A new film about Dunkirk is educating many young people who never knew the story — and who may not realize that if it had not been for the “miracle” of events from May 26 to June 3 in 1940, the world might be unrecognizable today.

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With 338,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army in danger of being annihilated, optimists expected that no more than 30,000 could be saved. The British civilians manned every boat they could muster: barges, tugboats, pleasure crafts, lifeboats and fishing trawlers and, led by the Royal Navy, rescued 335,000 soldiers.

One of the great characters I knew, the novelist Barbara Cartland, told me stories of the period. But she spoke little of her beloved brother Ronald, who was killed behind the lines at Dunkirk, an anti-appeaser and the first and youngest member of Parliament to die in the war. She wrote his biography — and her good friend Winston Churchill wrote a preface to it.

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In the House of Commons on June 4, Churchill delivered perhaps the greatest speech of the 20th century. The text I have has 3,767 words, but every line is riveting, especially its conclusion:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

But what he said is disserved if his warning halfway through is forgotten: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

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In the spiritual life, too, there must be strategic withdrawals from time to time. “Flee from any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). So the spiritual fathers enjoin us to flee from the devil. In our own trying times, we have all the saints to help in the evacuation, like those who lent their boats for Dunkirk.

But spiritual wars are not won by evacuations. The church regroups and then charges the enemy.

Fr. George William Rutler is a Catholic priest and the pastor of the Church of St. Michael in Manhattan. This article from his parish church bulletin is used by permission.

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