As our country becomes increasingly individualistic, secular and materialistic, the risk is that we forget who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
One example of this is the way we commemorate our holy days like Easter and Christmas, and civic holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day. On Easter and Christmas, do we remember the religious meaning of those days while we hunt for eggs, eat candy or open presents? And today, as we celebrate Memorial Day, is that just regarded as part of a three-day weekend when swimming pools open, or is it a day when we remember in a special way our brave servicemen and women who, in the words of President Lincoln, gave their “last full measure of devotion”?
Memorial Day calls to mind Jesus’ words: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). For generations, there have been Americans willing to lay down their lives for their fellow citizens, to protect their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Each Memorial Day, we celebrate special Masses at the Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, to remember those who gave their lives for our freedom. When we visit and pray together at our Catholic cemeteries, we know that we are on holy ground, made all the more hallowed by those laid to rest there who served our country in times of war and peace and are now counted among the Church Triumphant. This day, like All Souls Day, gives us the opportunity to visit our Catholic cemeteries, and pray for the souls of all the faithful departed buried there, including our family members and friends.
At our Catholic cemeteries, we are reminded that our belief in new life here on earth and eternal life in heaven is rooted in our profession of faith. Our Church is that bridge between this life and the world to come. And we remember Jesus’ assurance to us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live forever.”
When we prayerfully remember our departed members of the military on Memorial Day, we might also remember all those in our community who served our country through public service and government work, and who have now gone home to God. We might also remember the Christians and other religious minorities being persecuted for their faith, even to the point of death, in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Praying for our suffering brothers and sisters in the Church Militant on this day, and indeed on every day, is a way to stand in solidarity with them, and also a reminder to do what we can on their behalf at a time when much of the world is silent or indifferent to their plight.
Our Washington area includes many special places that we can visit on Memorial Day and throughout the year to remember those who gave their lives for our freedom. At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, row upon row of headstones beginning from the Civil War remind us that freedom has a cost.
On the Washington side of the Potomac River near the Lincoln Memorial, we can visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial, with it sculptures and mural wall reminding us of the sacrifices made in that conflict. Across the Reflecting Pool is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its black stone wall engraved with the names of more than 58,000 servicemen and women who died in that war. Each name reminds us of the human cost of war, that behind every casualty figure is a person who came from a family in an American city, town or rural area, someone who died for their country so that we might remain free.
At the top of the Reflecting Pool is the National World War II Memorial honoring the 16 million American men and women who served, and the more than 400,000 who gave their lives so that others might live and be free. One of those heroic men for whom we will sound Taps and salute is Chief Petty Officer Albert E. Hayden, who was killed at Pearl Harbor and who finally returned home to Maryland earlier this month after his remains were identified in January.
On Memorial Day, we remember, we pray, and we are thankful for the sacrifice of so many of this band of brothers and sisters. The day can also remind us of our own responsibility to remain vigilant in our defense of freedom, especially our religious freedom which is increasingly being eroded by local governments and federal policies.
President Lincoln’s words in his 1863 Gettysburg Address ring true for us every Memorial Day, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”