No Greater Love

“Is your father wearing his uniform?” the girl asked.

“He’s on deployment,” the boy responded. “He’s on a ship.”

Before Mass (photo: the Missive)

The two children, along with many others, were waiting in line outside St. Benedict’s Parish, the FSSP’s apostolate in Chesapeake, Virginia, the afternoon of Sunday, November 10th, 2019. They had just attended the parish’s annual Veterans Day Mass and were waiting to partake of the refreshments available afterwards in the parish hall. The question and the answer – and the apparent absence of the boy’s father – encapsulated in a few words the sacrifices made by those who serve, and the families who sacrifice alongside them. Many daddies were there that day in their uniforms, but at least one was not, and his son was just one of many sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers who daily wait and pray for the safe return of their loved ones.

St. Benedict’s began the Veterans Day Mass several years ago as a way to honor the veterans and servicemembers who are found in such large numbers in that area of Virginia and at St. Benedict’s in particular. The concentration is due to the proximity of many military bases, including the largest Naval base in the world, Naval Station Norfolk, and Joint Base Langley-Eustis, an Air Force and Army base a little further north. All in all, every military branch as well as NASA is represented in the area.

This is the 9th time the Chesapeake parish has observed this tradition, but the roots of it go back to Benedictine Preparatory School, an all-boys military high school in Richmond and the alma mater of pastor Fr. Neal Nichols, himself the son of a veteran. He and his fellow cadets, he recalls, would participate in a military Mass each First Friday, and he decided to bring the tradition to St. Benedict’s, inviting the current cadets from his former school to participate.

Fr. Nichols says Mass on a Humvee (photo: FSSP)

“It was just a big hit immediately, right away with the parishioners,” explained Fr. Nichols. The Richmond native performed his own piece of military service in 2003, when he served on a contractual basis for the 181st Support Battalion of the Washington State Army National Guard during their two-week summer training exercise. In the simulated battlefield environment he said Mass in camouflage tents or on the tailgate of a Humvee, with camouflage vestments, and offered confessions and support to the many soldiers comprising the multiple units involved in the exercise.

The cadets present the colors

Back in Chesapeake, servicemembers are invited to attend the Veterans Day Mass in uniform, with the frontmost pews being reserved for the grey-clad Benedictine cadets, who are responsible for adding the military ceremonies to the Mass. They presented the colors before the processional, with one cadet bearing the flag of the United States and another the flag of the Vatican, each flanked by another carrying a ceremonial rifle. They placed the Stars and Stripes near the statue of Our Lady on the left (see the picture of 2018’s Mass in your 2020 Fraternity calendar) and the Vatican flag near the altar of St. Joseph on the right. Soon after, Mass began.

The ministers process in

The celebrant was assistant pastor and Army veteran Fr. Anthony Forte, with Deacon Paul Minner and Fr. Nichols assisting as deacon and subdeacon. As they processed in, they first passed under a stately row of flags affixed to the front of the choir loft: a trio of colors representing the United States, the state of Virginia and St. Benedict’s Parish took the center spot, with the flags of each branch of the armed forces and the POW memorial flag accompanying them on either side. Proceeding down the aisle, the ministers and altar servers were greeted by a majestic saber arch provided by the cadets, who stood in two rows on either side, holding their swords aloft. After Mass, the arch was repeated as the ministers exited and several verses of America the Beautiful were sung by choir and congregation.

Ministers, military and cadets gather for a photo op

Servicemembers of various stripes then gathered before the church. One could spot the dark blue uniforms and bright white covers of several Navy officers, the classic star-edged flap collar of a sailor, the royal blue of an Air Force Master Sergeant, and even the khaki attire of a number of French NATO officers (the parish welcomes a consistent stream of French families that attend St. Benedict while they are stationed at the NATO installation in Norfolk). The sacred ministers stood in the midst, cadets to their right, military to their left. All smiled in the warm, coastal sun as the cameras captured another year of this beautiful tradition.

The USS Gravely in its natural element (photo: US Navy)

The parish deliberately joins the Mass to one of their regularly-scheduled Family Fun Days in order to give the cadets a chance to refuel before they depart for Richmond. As a bit of an extra thank-you to the young men who give up their Sunday to come and serve at the Mass, the parish always secures for them a tour of one of the commissioned military vessels at harbor in Norfolk. This year it was the USS Gravely, a guided-missile destroyer. The hoped-for object of the tour was an aircraft carrier, but since there wasn’t one available for tours that day, the destroyer had to do. It’s unlikely that anyone was disappointed; the cadets would probably tell you that a tour of an active military ship of any sort is certainly fair recompense for their trouble.

An airman prays before Mass

Offering fair recompense to a military member for his or her life of service, on the other hand, always seems like a more complicated proposition. You might say “thank you,” and a common response – especially among those who have shown uncommon valor – might be, “I’m just doing my job.” But they didn’t have to choose such a job, one that entails long separations from their families, holidays away from home and the possibility of danger or even death, and those of us who benefit from their sacrifice may find that “thank you,” or anything we could give them in return, just doesn’t seem enough. After all, what can you give a man in exchange for his life?

But we’ve been here before, it seems. Nothing we can give could ever constitute a fair recompense for the greatest Sacrifice, the one that the most valorous of men made for all of us upon the Cross. He knew that we could never adequately thank Him or the Father Who sent Him, so He gave us a way to do it. He gave us the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, at the center of which is the Eucharist, a word which means thanksgiving. And so offering the greatest Sacrifice, the greatest act of thanksgiving, on behalf of our military personnel is by far the best and most fitting thing we can do.

Preparing the Chalice

The Veterans Day Mass at St. Benedict’s furthermore proffers the idea that the sacrifices for which we thank our servicemembers are a reflection of, and a participation in, this one Sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is that thing that makes us uniquely Christ-like, Who said on the eve of His Passion that laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the highest proof of love (John 15:13). He said it, moreover, on the same night He instituted the Holy Eucharist, and directly after His True Vine discourse, wherein He speaks of the unity of Himself and His members and instructs us to abide in His love. It is, in essence, Christ Himself we are aspiring to and uniting ourselves to when we give selflessly, when we love as He did. “…having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1).

Fr. Forte raises the Chalice as the cadets salute

The mysterious union between Sacrifice and sacrifice became evident during the Consecration, when, as the Sacred Host was elevated, the cadets held a sword salute and the mournful notes of Taps drifted softly through the church. The universally-known melody, heard at every military funeral, calls us whenever we hear it to pause and reflect on the sacrifice of those who have given everything that a human can give. That day the solemn music commemorated the One Who gave every last drop of Blood, the perfect Sacrifice that our King and Captain offered once for us all and which was at that moment being offered again on the altar. It’s a Sacrifice that reverberates in the actions of everyone who, by means of his own blood or simply by the daily sacrifices that accompany military service, lays down his life for his friends. +

We thank Marine veteran Shalone Cason for his service and for all photos used in this article, except those otherwise credited.

November 25, 2019