Our military veterans as examples of Christian life and service

By Father Pat Travers The North Star Catholic

Among the special celebrations in which we engage during November as a Church and as a Nation is November 11–Veterans’ Day–the national holiday that honors all the men and women who have served in the armed forces. This day was originally chosen to commemorate the end of the First World War in 1918, “The War to End All Wars,” as it was optimistically hoped. Subsequent historical events quickly thwarted that vision of lasting world peace. The day is now a celebration of the service and sacrifice of all those who have been members of the military services and their family members and loved ones who have supported and cared for them.

As the origin of Veterans’ Day illustrates, we tend to think of military service primarily in the context of the violence and tragedy of warfare, and rightfully so. We begin each summer with Memorial Day, commemorating the extraordinary sacrifices of those who have been killed and wounded in combat throughout the history of our nation. But on Veterans’ Day, we remember all the sacrifices–both great and small–that those in the armed forces make for us every day whether or not they are actively engaged in combat. Membership in the armed services is very much a way of life, with its sorrows, joys, challenges, and opportunities. From our Catholic standpoint, it is a particular way of living out the Christian vocation to love and serve God and others. It is no accident that many saints and other holy people were also military veterans. The first gentile Christians we know were the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family, baptized by Saint Peter. Saint Ignatius of Loyola modeled certain features of the Society of Jesus on the military life he had previously led. Saint John XXIII was a veteran of the Italian Army as an enlisted soldier and chaplain. Saint John Paul II’s father, who inspired him in so many ways, was a sergeant in the Polish Army.

Indeed, from the spiritual and social standpoint, the members of military service or unit have much in common with members of an “intentional community”–a group of persons who have come to live and work together with a common vision, living in accordance with rules and customs that enhance their common life and the accomplishment of their common purposes.

In the Catholic Church, religious orders and congregations are the most prominent form of intentional communities. However, many others, such as the Focolare, the Community of Sant’Egidio, and lay organizations affiliated with religious communities like the Jesuit Volunteers, have played such an important role in our archdiocese.

Like the members of religious communities, members of the armed forces live within a structured hierarchy based on obedience, selflessness, sacrifice, and service to others. They wear the same clothing–the religious habit or the military uniform–and their appearance can have other distinguishing characteristics, such as hairstyles. At least in their early stages as members, they live, eat, and recreate together and engage in common work. They express their values and dedication in visible ways–liturgies and religious processions or military drills and ceremonies–often in public. And they do all of this in fulfillment of a solemnly assumed commitment–religious vows and clerical ordination or the military oath.

Thus, while not all members of the armed forces are believing Christians, for those who are, their service provides a structured way of life that can be conducive to Christian discipleship when it is open to the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit. This is often manifested most visibly in times of warfare and combat when members of the armed services are called to risk and even lay down their lives to defend and protect their people.

But it is also manifested in the less visible but still noteworthy sacrifices that soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard members and their families make every day in much less violent circumstances. When a man or woman is a member of the armed forces, they give up the right of control even over such intimate details as their dress and appearance and the arrangement of their family life. They must live and work at the places and jobs they are ordered, often making changes on very short notice and in very stressful circumstances. They may not express their political views with the same freedom enjoyed by others that they are called to defend. Their spouses and children must frequently transfer between jobs and schools in widely distant locations, leaving behind the friendships and activities they enjoyed before, often with an impact on their future plans and opportunities. In all of this, they must continuously work within a plethora of rules, regulations, and bureaucratic structures that are highly inflexible and often massively time-consuming in their own right. And on top of everything, they are subject to frequent, rigorous, documented reviews not just of their job performance, but of such intangibles as their “attitude” and “military bearing,” not to mention their physical fitness.

It is for sustained sacrifices like these that we honor all who have served in the armed forces on Veterans’ Day, whether or not they served in combat, and regard Christian veterans as models and examples for our own lives of discipleship. They truly have “taken up their crosses” in imitation of our Lord, collaborating with him in the work of salvation in ways they might not have fully realized at the time. We hope and pray that reflection on this experience will inspire them through the rest of their lives to continue following in the footsteps of the Lord and that all of us will follow their Christian example.

The writer is the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau. He served for 28 years as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

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