Catholic chaplains and veterans remember, honor and pray for the fallen. Memorial Day 2016 falls on May 30, the day it was celebrated for decades after it began as Decoration Day to honor the war dead after the Civil War.
Some veterans and Catholic military chaplains described what the solemn day means to them. “I would liken it to a national All Souls’ Day, as far as a Catholic chaplain goes,” observed Father Carl Subler. A chaplain on active duty with the U.S. Army, he has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and various bases around the United States, most recently at Fort Drum, N.Y. A priest of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, he has been a chaplain since 2007.
We commemorate all the faithful departed on All Souls’ Day, while on Memorial Day, “I pray specifically for those who have died in our nation’s wars, whether you agree with them or not,” explained Father Subler. “I pray for their souls and the special sacrifice they made for our nation.” He also prays specifically for those he ministered to overseas, as well as those who lost their lives in past wars.
Additionally on Memorial Day, from his first parish in Somerset, Ohio, he accompanies a busload of veterans—all in uniform—to visit local cemeteries “to say prayers for the vets at the cemeteries,” he said. “Every veteran lays a rose or flower at the tombstones, then salutes, and we say prayers for them. Then we gather in the town to say prayers, and the high-school band plays during the day. … That’s what Memorial Day is for me, as a Catholic priest and a chaplain in the Army.”
Then and Now
A graduate of the Air Force Academy, Raymond Leopold was an associate professor at the academy and then worked at the Pentagon.
“When I was a boy, Memorial Day meant a day off from school and a day during which I played the bugle marching with a drum and bugle corps in Chicago,” he said. He remembered that, sometimes, a parade ended at a cemetery. That was during the 1950s, when most of the men had fought in World War II and some of the older ones had fought in World War I.
“Some of them still called the holiday ‘Decoration Day,’ as it was first named during the Civil War,” with many decorating the graves, mostly with U.S. flags.
“As I got older and wore an Air Force uniform myself for 24 years, my perspective on Memorial Day changed,” he said. “We were fighting in Vietnam, and people I knew were among the casualties, including my pilot-training roommate, Richard Chorlins, whose remains were only identified and repatriated a little over a year ago, 45 years after he had been shot down in Laos. I drove the thousand miles to his funeral last April. I needed that drive to finally put his sacrifice to rest. His memorial service was a Jewish memorial in the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, followed by his burial in the academy cemetery. Like so many of our classmates who were also there for his service, I shoveled some of the dirt into his grave.”
Fighting for Freedom
“It’s always a day in which I thank God for the United States of America and remember many people who have gone before me, protecting the freedom and liberties I have to live as an American, not only in this nation but around the world,” said Father Michael Mikstay, a Navy captain serving with the Marines at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
Memorial Day “is just another way of acknowledging that there are lives that have been paid for our nation,” he said. “I’m proud to be allowed by my bishop to serve as an officer in the military, to guarantee a free exercise of religion for those I serve.”
Father Mikstay is a priest from the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.
When he noticed the recent trend to refer to the constitutionally guaranteed right to “freedom of religion” as the much lesser “freedom of worship,” he started making it a point to correct that notion because it changes definitions.
“Freedom of religion means we live this publicly and we’re free to do this. That’s the basis, the real reason why chaplains are here,” he said. But freedom of worship means you keep it within your church or temple, not in public.
On Memorial Day, we remember the true freedoms Americans fought to keep alive. Said Father Mikstay, the United States can still be “a sign of hope and a sign of faith, not only to people who live here, but those who live throughout the world.”
Memorial for Mercy
U.S. Army Maj. Father William Kneemiller, founder of the Holy Land Military Rosary initiative (HolyLandMilitaryRosary.org) will celebrate Memorial Day in his home Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, before assisting this summer with chaplain support for 7,000 cadets going through the ROTC Academy at Fort Knox, Ky.
“One key feature to Memorial Day is that, in December 2000, the president signed into law the National Moment of Remembrance Act,” he said. He pointed out that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ website says that this act “encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3pm local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”
“When I saw that, it seemed perfect,” said Father Kneemiller, who served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. He finds a strong connection for Catholics who should be familiar with 3pm being the “Hour of Mercy,” especially in this “Year of Mercy.”
“The early Church Fathers stated that this is the hour when Christ died on the cross,” he emphasized, “and it is a beautiful link for us to invoke the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ for our departed heroes. It’s just about as perfect as it gets, in terms of connection.”
He suggests praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for those individuals in appreciation, praying for Christ’s mercy across the span of time, because “Christ’s mercy is not limited to our timeframe. His mercy is beyond our expectations. I can’t imagine not availing ourselves of Divine Mercy. That’s my key insight of Memorial Day: the hour of the Day of Remembrance.”
“As a Catholic, I like to say a special Rosary for that day,” shared Montana state Rep. Albert Olszewski, R-Kalispell, about his Memorial Day observances. “It is a time for special reflection when I deal with [the loss of] family members who served and friends who served, especially those people I worked with in the line of duty.”
Dr. Olszewski spent a decade in active duty with the Air Force as a flight surgeon. He served at the Air Force’s Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center and then as part of a rapid mobility surgical team that did disaster medicine as well, assisting victims from the Oklahoma City bombing to those affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
“As a flight surgeon, I lost a number of pilots I trained or worked with,” such as in the Persian Gulf, “and in other accidents as well,” he said. His Memorial Day commemoration includes a trip to the cemetery to pay tribute.
As a state representative, Olszewski is asked to speak to veterans groups and others at various ceremonies. He tells people it’s really important to educate our young on what Memorial Day is really about. “As we educate and remember those who have lost their lives to give us all freedom, we should really promote that people fly the flag as a purposeful process to remember, and that’s a great way to engage the young.”
“We fly the flag on this day to remember people sacrificed,” he said. “I bring it back to the Bible: ‘There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).”
“As a Catholic, I point out love is not just an emotion,” he explained. “It’s an act of the will, an intention and an action. When you have great love for your family, for your country, you need to always remember—never forget—what people have done in their service and their sacrifice.”
One poignant example came this year on the morning of May 18, when his retired pastor and friend, Msgr. Donald Shea, died. Before assuming his parish, Msgr. Shea retired as a major general, the 19th chief of chaplains of the U.S. Army.
Olszewski shared a discussion he had with Msgr. Shea when he was dying. The chief of chaplains and humble parish pastor told him that when he would leave this earth he just wanted the people of his parish and his family to know why he did his service to our Church, to our country and to the soldiers, whether he was jumping out of planes in Vietnam or working in the Pentagon.
Maj. Gen. Msgr. Donald Shea told the good doctor: “I just want people to know all this service and sacrifice is [founded on] great love for them.”