Eighteenth Sunday of the Year 2014
Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, 3rd August 2014
Father Francis Gleeson was a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, born in Templemore in County Tipperary in 1884 and ordained here in this Pro-Cathedral in 1910. After ministering in Dublin for a number of years, in November 1914 at the age of 30, he became Chaplain to the Second Royal Munster Fusiliers as they set out to take part in the First World War.
Father Gleeson left behind him a fascinating diary which is conserved in the Dublin Diocesan Archives. The diary is a remarkable chronicle of World War One. It is not the chronicle of the Great War looked at from 10 Downing Street or from the Chancelleries of the other major European Capitals or that of the military strategists. Father Gleeson’s is a diary from the front line, the diary of someone who was with and was respected by the troops of every religious denomination. It is a diary which records the letters he wrote to the families of those who had fallen bravely. It is a diary which captures in a unique way the bravery of the soldiers he ministered to and what their faith meant to them. It is also a diary which captures the horrors of war.
We gather to recall the centenary of the opening of World War One. We remember the millions of young lives lost over those four long years of conflict right across Europe. We remember the idealism and the valour and the courage of those who served in that war. We remember in a particular way the thousands of young Irish men who fought and we remember especially those who fell in the pursuit of an ideal.
Father Gleeson knew the horrors of war. The young soldiers caught up in war were men and women of courage and valour and idealism. The ideals they defended were noble ideas, but war itself is always horrible and leaves all those who become caught up in war marked for life by the inhuman experiences they endured.
There is a Peace Park at Messines, in Western Flanders, designed to commemorate the joint action of the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) Divisions in June 1917. Various quotations are inscribed on the stones that line the entrance walk. One is an extract from Fr Gleeson’s diary written in May 1915.
“Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs. … Hundreds lying out in cold air all night at Windy Corner. No ambulances coming. They come at last – at daylight.”
In the very same month, on Ascension Thursday, 13 May 1915, he recalls:
The roll-call of the Munsters on Monday was the saddest thing imaginable. In the field beside “St. Mary’s” (the little tent-chapel the artillery chaps erected for us) the four Companies all sat round on the dry grass. One Company. was called at a time. Everybody was worn, sad, depressed, after the loss of so many loved comrades. Some had lost brothers, others cousins, but all had lost good and faithful companions. The Sergeant Major called out name after name. “Killed”, “Wounded”, “Missing” was answered according to the fate of each.
Like many families in Ireland I had relatives who were involved very much in 1914 in the nationalist struggle in Ireland and I had relatives fighting in the British Army at the front. I remember one uncle, a bright and very sensitive man, who for various reasons had gone away from home a mere teenager and joined the army in London. He served in World War One and lost the sight in one eye. He rarely if ever spoke about the war. The horror he witnessed was obviously something which deeply affected him as a person for the rest of his life.
I am not a historian and it is not up to me to analyse the factors which contributed to the start of the First World War and those factors which led to a conflict which became more protracted than anyone could have imagined. On Christmas Day 1914, Father Gleeson hears talk of the war lasting a further six months. And he notes: “What can we know? What does anyone know?
Was the First World War necessary? Was it preventable? Did such a conflict have to happen which would last for so many years and cover practically every corner of a Europe which had been showing signs of economic progress and a degree of closeness and friendship about peoples? What went wrong?
Pope Benedict XV in 1917 made a dramatic appeal, in words which became famous, to end the war which he described as “un inutile strage”, “a useless carnage”. That was a phrase which was as far as one could possibly imagine in those days from being “politically correct language”. Many Catholics on all sides were scandalised. Senior Catholic intellectuals responded to the Pope saying: “we do not want your peace”.
War is a journey down a one-way street, and once you start the journey you almost inevitably establish a further momentum which is self perpetuating. The opening of the First World War led to a new industrialization of weaponry in constant need of replenishment. The First World War even generated a sort of fascination and glorification of war, with underage young men coming forward to something which seemed challenging, but which turned out to be horrendous trauma and carnage.
And war does not end with a ceasefire. After a war wounds remain, in the bodies and in the hearts of soldiers and in the relations between peoples and States. The political solutions and Treaties which were presented after World War One were the Treaties of victors which in their own way prepared the terrain of World War Two. War among States renders the hope of reconciliation among peoples always more remote.
Our remembering the First World War and those who gave their lives in it, must challenge all of us to do all in our power to work for peace. The horror of war, gave rise to momentary idealism at the end of World War One with the idea of a League of Nations which would reduce the possibility of recourse to war. Such a hope was revived at the end of the Second World War with the establishment of the United Nations and the publication of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The horror of prolonged war recalls human hearts to the need to prevent war and eliminate its causes.
Every Christian is called to bring peace, to build lasting peace and to restore peace in a wounded world. The opening prayer at our Mass recalls what we should aspire to as we ask God “to restore what you have created and keep safe what you have restored”. War damages the harmony among people and with nature which God originally designed.
War has not gone away. Military intervention does not inevitably lead to peace. Today we are witnessing a spiral of violence all over the Middle East and further afield. The past month of July will be remembered as one of the most striking months of blood in recent years. We see the carnage caused by rockets especially among civilians. But we also have to remember that each of these rockets, on whatever side and in whichever conflict, was designed and built, was sold for a profit and bought, was supplied to respond often to interests of people far away from where the carnage occurs. The industrialisation and commercialisation of war continues.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is concerned about those who have come to hear his word. He recognises their need for both nourishment and meaning. These are the perennial needs of humankind and of all our communities. Alongside wealth and nourishment we need to have a deep sense of what life is about and where our life finds meaning. When we – as individuals and as a world community – loose our focus on these questions then our lives and our societies become empty and begin to drift. We have seen examples in the recent history of our country and its economy, in international society and indeed in our Church.
When the disciples tell Jesus that the people should be sent away so that they can get some food, Jesus tells the disciples first of all give them something to eat themselves. When we yearn for peace, we can react like the disciples and feel that what we have is so little as to be worthless. But we can see from Jesus’ reaction that once we make our first inadequate gesture then he will respond and radically transform what we attempt.
We need to restore our hope in the fact that Jesus in his generosity will transform our action in a manner which goes way beyond our expectations. The twelve baskets which remain after all have eaten are a sign that Jesus never miserly measures out his help to us, but gives in a way which goes way beyond what we expect or need and indeed way beyond what we deserve.
Father Gleeson’s diaries show how the faith of his soldiers not just kept them going in the face of the horrors of war, but gave them the hope that they would contribute to the building of a different society where nations and peoples would learn to speak the language of peace and of hope. We owe it to their memory to keep that ideal of peace alive in a troubled world.