I am biased, but I have a particular affinity for tomorrow’s feast of St. Martin of Tours. He is the patron of the Amityville parish where I was baptized, and I am old enough to remember the sight of the then newly-constructed church, with its gorgeous mural of Martin and the beggar in the reredos. (To say nothing of the intoxicating fragrance from incense and bees wax that lingers to this day.) Moreover, as the patron saint of military chaplains, he is dear to my heart.
It’s difficult to put into words one’s emotions regarding the relationship between Catholic faith and military service. Certainly, there are people of conviction who argue strongly in favor of a pacifist ethic, that no circumstances warrant violence: ever. St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing St. Augustine, reminds us that if war were always and everywhere unjustified, “then the Gospel would forbid soldiering; but it does not.” This is not to rationalize the righteousness of any and all military conflicts, but simply to affirm the prerogative of a nation to protect the lives and rights of its citizens. In fairness, thoughtful pacifists like Stanley Hauerwas argue that those who oppose war don’t simply look away when human rights are violated; indeed, they seek to resolve the conflicts that precede military intervention, certainly a noble endeavor. Yet as Elizabeth Anscombe (the magnificent British Catholic philosopher, scholar, and mother of ten) points out: we live in a fallen world in which unspeakable evil is real. The power behind human law, imperfect as it may be, is its coercive force to respond to injustice, and prevent civilization from devolving into chaos. A nation deputizes a segment of its citizenry with the awesome responsibility of protecting the common good by the use of force. Their task is unpleasant, tragic, and thankless, but these noble men and women in uniform make it possible for the rest of us to live without fear of violence, to pursue the ends for which God created us: the dignity of work, the joy of wisdom, the enrichment of culture, and the blessing of divine communion.
As a veteran, I would ask you in your kindness to keep our nation’s guardians in mind this week. Most Americans can appreciate the danger our military personnel face on a daily basis, particularly when they are on deployment. (I must say that among my most cherished memories as a priest were the years I spent with our young men and women in Iraq: truly.) What I think escapes people’s attention, however, is the impact that a year-long deployment has on a military family. Imagine a year without your Mom or Dad looking out for you and your brothers and sisters: going to PTA meetings, Scouts, and concerts, or supervising homework, teaching life lessons, eating dinner, and tucking you in at night. And whatever problems the family experiences before the deployment will be right there to welcome one back home. In a word: we owe our men and women in uniform an enormous debt of gratitude for the sacrifices they make. Please: pray for their safety and well-being. Heaven knows, we have a number of patron saints for the military who can intercede for them: St Martin of Tours, of course, but also St. Barbara, St. Joan of Arc, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Ignatius of Loyola, just to name a few.
St. Augustine tells us that because Christians are citizens of Heaven, we should be the best of citizens in the earthly city, precisely because we can envision our world according to the pattern of the City of God. May Christ, the Prince of Peace, equip us with the “armor of God”: “the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:13-17).