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Bishop's Column

Bishop Barbarito Column

May 24, 2024

Memorial Day: The Truce of God

As we celebrate Memorial Day, we give thanks for and honor the men and women of our great nation who gave their lives in the armed forces to protect our freedom. None of them wanted to go to war, to leave their homes and their families, and to give their lives, but they did so out of love and courage. Their sacrifice is one that speaks of what is so precious to our country, upon which it was founded, and that is the freedom of being made in the image and likeness of God with unique dignity that defines us as human persons. We honor those who did not, by any means, love war, but understood it is a necessary evil to bring about a greater good, which is the peace of freedom. Our nation is built upon this willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.

Memorial Day has a history which is associated with Decoration Day, first celebrated on May 30, 1868. Decoration Day was called to honor the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. The national celebration was proceeded by many local ones in which the graves of the deceased who died in the war were decorated with flowers. The two World Wars in which our nation was involved altered Decoration Day into a day of remembrance for all members of the military who fought and died in them. It became known as Memorial Day. In 1971, the day was officially established as a federal holiday on the last Monday of May with the custom of placing flags on the graves of those memorialized. The poppy became the symbolic flower of remembrance taken from the poem, In Flanders Field, commemorating a battle of World War I.

One of America’s great 19th century poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, well known for his work Paul Revere’s Ride, also wrote the poem Decoration Day. He wrote it in 1882, on the occasion of Decoration Day. It is a good poem to reflect upon as we celebrate Memorial Day as it prays for rest and peace upon those who gave their lives for the Union. One stanza is significant in a particular way as it reflects,

All is repose and peace,

Untrampled lies the sod:

The shouts of battle cease,

It is the Truce of God.

The Truce of God is referring to the peace of eternal life for the deceased men. However, the Truce of God also refers to the practice in the Middle Ages of suspending war during certain times and feasts called for by the Catholic Church.

How appropriate is the Truce of God today in a world torn by the ravage of war around the world. While we honor the bravery and sacrifice of men and women who gave their lives in war for peace and freedom, we do not honor war. War should never take place. We are experiencing the evil of war as we see in the media before us the horrors against the dignity of the human person it inflicts. The Truce of God is always part of Memorial Day, for which we pray and for which we long.

The call of those we honor on Memorial Day is that which St. Pope Paul VI made in his famous address to the United Nations during his epic visit to the United States in 1965: “Never again war! Never, never again!” In that address, he also stated, “Listen to the words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.” How much, those words are needed today.

Pope Francis frequently calls for the Truce of God and an end to all war. At the beginning of the new year this past January, he expressed, “War itself is a crime against humanity. People need peace. The world needs peace.” In his most recent message of May 22 in his Wednesday audience, Pope Francis pleaded, “Let us pray for peace. We need peace. The world is at war. Let us not forget tormented Ukraine, which is suffering a great deal. Let us not forget Palestine and Israel: may it stop, this war. Let us not forget Myanmar. And let us not forget the many countries at war. Brothers and sisters, we must pray for peace in this time of war all over the world.” How much this is also the message of the brave men and women we honor on Memorial Day, who gave their lives in war to protect our peace and freedom. They did not honor the wars in which they made their sacrifice of life, but they honored the people for whom they made the sacrifice.

Memorial Day is a special one that reminds us of courage and sacrifice on the part of our military personnel who gave their lives for our country. The witness of these men and women also calls for an end to war so much needed in our world today. We honor them and their sacrifice by decorating their graves with flowers and flags, but most especially with the resolve for the Truce of God and War never again.

Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito