Anzac Day 2015
A commemorative Mass marking the Gallipoli landing and WWI centenary was led by Cardinal John Dew in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Wellington, on Anzac Day. His homily follows:
Growing up in a little town in Central Hawkes Bay, my friends and I loved to go to war movies and read war comics, movies such as The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Bridge on the River Kwai. I could never understand why Dad discouraged me and showed no interest at all in such movies. As a youngster I had no idea what it had meant for him to serve in the Second World War. For us it was exciting and an adventure.
This week, the classic film, All Quiet on the Western Front, was shown in Wellington – a 1930s black and white that pioneered the sound effects of war in a dramatic way. It portrays the human drama of several young men, once keen volunteers, being confronted with the grim reality of life in the trenches of the Somme. My own grandfather was killed in the Battle of the Somme. Part of that reality was mud, mud and more mud – both in the trenches and on the battlefield. There is not a tree or blade of grass in sight. War is definitely not good for the environment.
It is almost impossible to imagine the image that Jesus uses in the gospel today in that situation: ‘the grain of wheat that falls on the ground and dies…’
In these scenes of destruction it looks as if nothing could survive. Yet we have the promise of Jesus: ‘Unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’
In this ANZAC centenary year we are all struggling with making sense of the wars of the 20th century, with the First World War being described as ‘the war to end all wars’. We know it wasn’t. It ushered in a century of war, world wars, proxy wars and genocide, wars of decolonisation and civil wars, perhaps the most destructive wars of all time. Most of the victims of those wars were not soldiers but civilians, innocent women and children, and refugees as never seen before.
‘It yields a rich harvest’: a harvest in the search for peace, and a certain will to make it a reality. During this first world war, Pope Benedict XV, who described the war as ‘the suicide of Europe’, proposed a peace plan that was largely ignored at the time, yet was later incorporated into the principles of the League of Nations. The Pope, however, was very critical of the harsh punitive clauses that continued to poison Europe in the years following, with such tragic results in the 1930s.
The 20th century was also the century of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Pope John XXIII’s ambition to write an encyclical on peace was fulfilled in Pacem in Terris. It was the century of the universal declaration of human rights, Justice Truth and Reconciliation commissions, and pioneering work in restorative justice. In some ways, the century was ‘the worst of times’ but may also have been ‘the best of times’.
The seed that fell into the ground began to bear fruit. Those who loved life, loved it to the full, were willing to lay it down for others. There have been heroic examples of those who have risked their lives for others, who chose to stay with their people, such as Father Francis Vernon Douglas in the Philippines, or the 333 martyrs of Papua New Guinea. No doubt, many of them would have prayed with Jesus whose soul was deeply troubled at the future he could see for himself: “save me from this hour” yet were able to commit their life into God’s hands.
Most of us here today have our ANZAC connections – through family members who either fought in these wars, or who survived, but carried the scars – physical or psychological for the rest of their lives. We pray, with the author of the book of Wisdom that ‘their souls are in the hands of God and that … they are in peace … for grace and mercy await those God has chosen’. This peace, grace and mercy are with us too, as we play our part in peace-making in our day.
Another striking scene from All Quiet on the Western Front is the enthusiasm, excitement and sense of adventure that marked most of the volunteers (but not all) as they set out to war. Many presumed ‘it would be over by Christmas’. They had no idea the war would drag on – on and off – over five years.
None of us would share that enthusiasm today. The technology of war and the massive destruction of life it causes means that a decision to go to war, or to support military action in the face uncompromising evil, is never taken lightly.
In these past few days, New Zealand troops have slipped quietly out of our country to work with Australian troops in another ANZAC exercise, this time in the training of Iraqi military.
There was no fanfare, no triumphalism, no sense of adventure, but rather the conviction that ‘we can no longer stand on the sideline’ and watch yet another genocide take place.
Today we also pray for them, and for all who serve in the armed forces that they may be men and women of integrity, who act with a deep sense of the responsibility they carry for this action “of the last resort”. It is not a decision that is taken lightly. Nor a responsibility that is borne lightly. They will be ‘tested like gold in a furnace’: we pray that that will be found worthy of the trust that has been placed in them.
War is not exciting, it is not an adventure. Living the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an adventure and it is exciting. Listening into his words and trying to live them day by day are both of those…exciting and adventurous.
‘Unless the grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.’
We take up the challenge and let the Word bear fruit – the seeds of peace have been sown for us, we pray for the courage to die to ourselves and grow daily to be people of love and forgiveness, of peace and reconciliation, people who make a difference in our world…
And that is exciting!