Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles on Pentecost marks the beginning of the missionary activity of the Church. Gathered in the upper room with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles have prayed intensely, confident in the promise our Lord made to them that an Advocate would come, one who would remind them of all He had taught and who would empower them to proclaim the Gospel to all the world. The Holy Spirit rushes upon the Apostles, and from that moment on, the Church has not ceased to proclaim the Good News to all people. Today, we are reminded that we share in this powerful mission, impelled by the Holy Spirit. Each of us is called to give witness to the Gospel, to bring Jesus to the world. The task is daunting. If we look at the lives of the Apostles, we see that they witnessed to Jesus unto the point of shedding blood. All but the St. John the Evangelist gave their lives as martyrs for the faith (and John endured exile and repeated persecution). Countless saints, known and unknown, through the centuries have born witness and made great sacrifices for the sake of bringing the light and mercy of Jesus to others. On this Pentecost Sunday, we are invited to take up their task, to imitate their zeal, and to allow the Holy Spirit to work through each of us in the ministry of the Gospel.
If Pentecost reminds us of heroic witness, so too does the civic holiday we mark this weekend. On Memorial Day, we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our country. While there is an important distinction to make between the sacrificial laying down of one’s life out of love for Christ, and the sacrifice of life made in service to the American ideal and dream, the similarity in these sacrifices deserves notice. The martyrs of the Catholic Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, offered themselves, not only out of love for God, but also as a public witness, so that, as Tertullian famously wrote, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.” From the heroic witness given by so many Christians through the centuries, countless souls have come to believe in Christ. We Americans are taught from an early age of our connection to those who died fighting for freedom. As aware as we have become of the horrors of war, we still hold a deep respect for those who have given their lives. And so on this Memorial Day, we honor our fallen heroes.
As a priest, this particular holiday calls my attention to heroes who had a similar profession. Since its inception, the US military chaplain corps has ministered to the needs to of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, both on bases and on the front lines. Upwards of 419 chaplains have been killed in the line of duty since the Civil War – the first was a Catholic priest killed while giving last rites to a fallen soldier, and the most recent, a Baptist minister. Of the nine chaplains who have been awarded the Medal of Honor, five were Catholic priests, including one, Fr. Emil Kapaun, whose cause for canonization was recently opened. My mind also turns to those priests who were interred as prisoners of war, or political prisoners, especially the Servant of God Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ, an American Jesuit who spent over twenty years in Soviet labor camps in Siberia, ministering secretly to those imprisoned by the Communists. These priests give a new meaning to concept of the priest as shepherd of his flock, as they endured privations, dangers, and even shed their blood for the sake of caring for the souls entrusted to them.
Pentecost marks the beginning of the missionary activity of the Church, an activity that often demands heroic witness and even the laying down of one’s life. Memorial Day reminds us of the heroic sacrifice so many have made for us. Holding these two ideas together, today let us remember the heroic witnesses of our past, those we have known and those who we have never met, and ask the Holy Spirit to inspire in us a similar spirit of courage and charity, that we may bear witness to Jesus wherever we go, and be ready to lay down our lives for the sake of our friends, of those we serve, and of the generations that will follow.