After the Iraq war, I received an email from a friend asking if I would perform a Catholic burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, for a 19-year-old Marine — who also happened to be an only child.
As we were waiting for escorts to take us out to the young man’s gravesite, I noticed a small group of former Marines — who had been his close friends — standing together. These courageous young men were getting little or no recognition from others. The particular crowd that had gathered that day was very much against the American military.
After observing their isolated status for about 10 minutes, I walked over to them. “Gentlemen, thank you for your service,” I said. “So many people are grateful for everything you do. It must be so tough losing a buddy in combat, and my heart and my prayers go out to each of you. God bless all of you.”
At the end of the burial ceremony, I walked over to the young man’s mom and dad to offer condolences. In their tremendous pain and suffering, the tears were flowing. Their young Marine had done nothing less than give his life in service to our country.
The catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.” However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”
The church also asks us to honor those who have served, remembering that “if they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.”
I have been blessed to know several former military men and women throughout my priesthood, and for several years I contributed to a Catholic group, Compass, at the U.S. Naval Academy. One of the midshipmen consistently awoke 40 minutes earlier than he needed to every day to spend time in front of the Eucharist before morning call.
Others gave up most of their lunchtime to attend daily Mass, and most were involved with outreach and service projects for underprivileged people in the area and beyond.
These were some of the most impressive and morally sound men and women I have ever known.
“To me, Memorial Day is a 24-hour moment of silence, reflection and celebration that reminds us that this great country of faith, courage and conviction has an enormous capacity to produce such selfless men and women and has done so for nearly 250 years,” Jeff Moore, a former Marine and business professional in the Washington, D.C., area, told me.
Memorial Day is a holiday — celebrated by Americans this coming weekend — but let’s not forget why most businesses and employees have off that day. Let’s honor our fallen men and women, pray for their family members who continue to grieve their loss — and be sure to thank all who are giving their lives in service to our great country.
Fr. Michael Sliney is a Catholic priest based in the New York City area and an adviser to the Lumen Institute, a professional business group.