By Bishop James Conley
This past Sunday, November 11, people throughout the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.
Since 1954, in the United States, this day is commemorated as Veterans Day. It is on this day that we honor all the men and women who have bravely fought to keep our nation free.
For my family, Veterans Day has always had a special significance. My own father was a veteran of WWII, who served aboard ship in the South Pacific. He died November 7, 2006, and we buried him on Veterans Day, November 11, 2006.
As citizens of the United States, we are given a great inheritance. The Declaration of Independence, our charter document, speaks of our rights as “inalienable” and “endowed by our creator.” These are not rights that are earned or given to us by a government, but given to us by God.
However, these rights that God has given to us as inherent in our human nature must be protected, and our veterans have risked their own lives to protect these rights.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French commentator on American democracy, said that “when the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.”
Our country has been built on the sacrifices of those who have gone before us. We must never forget these sacrifices. At a time in our history when we are experiencing great division among Americans, we perhaps need Veterans Day more than ever. A nation that forgets its roots forgets its identity and is destined to fail.
Remembering the sacrifices of those who have gone before us is of particular importance to us as Americans. The story of the United States of America is not a story of one ethnicity, race, or even religion—even though our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Rather, we are a great melting pot of races, ethnicities, and even cultures that have come together to live by certain ideals and laws.
Again, we must never forget that men and women have died to preserve these freedoms and ideals. If we forget those who fought to preserve them, how easy it is to forget the ideals.
Throughout Sacred Scripture, we witness the necessity of memorial or remembrance.
The sacrifices offered by the Israelites are done as part of living out their covenant with the Lord. By doing this, they were reminded that they were God’s holy people, a people set apart. For example, when the Israelites celebrated the Passover meal, they were not merely recalling a historical event, but they were entering into the past, recalling their identity.
Jesus at the Last Supper, in giving us himself in the Holy Eucharist as love made visible, tells his Apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me,” as he established the new covenant. Every celebration of the Mass is a re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery, and those who participate enter into this mystery.
The Scriptures also warn us about the disaster that ensues if we forget the Lord. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we hear: “Be careful not to forget the LORD, your God, by failing to keep his commandments and ordinances and statutes which I enjoin on you today…” (Dt 8:1). The prophets, likewise, would tell wayward Israelites to turn back and remember the Lord.
It is fitting that we as a country remember the sacrifices of veterans in the month that we as Catholics remember to pray for all the faithful departed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
The souls in purgatory have passed from this world in the state of sanctifying grace. They died in union with God, and they will one day enter into eternal glory.
Even though the souls in purgatory will enter into eternal glory, they require further purification of their souls. The Book of the Revelation says that nothing unholy can enter the presence of God (Rev 21: 27). In the Gospels, our Lord himself tells his disciples to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
The tradition of praying for the dead goes back to our ancestors in the faith, the Jewish people. The 2nd Book of Maccabees tells us “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46).
As Americans, we have a great bond with all of our veterans. Through their sacrifices, we are able to live in freedom. As Catholics and members of the Communion of Saints, we have a great bond with the poor souls in purgatory, who have fought the good fight here on earth, remaining in the Lord’s love. When we, the pilgrim Church on earth, pray and offer sacrifices for these souls that await full glory in the Lord, they most certainly will never forget us.