On Remembrance Sunday, Bishop Paul Mason, the Catholic Bishop of the Forces, offers this reflection, highlighting two stories of heroism – one a sergeant, another a priest.
November is the time in our national calendar when we solemnly remember those who lost their lives in battle defending our freedoms. For Catholics, November is also the month in which we pray especially for the Holy Souls in purgatory. We remember and we pray. It’s important to do both. Not to remember our war dead would be to break trust with those who died for us, while not to pray for them would betray the solidarity and communion we share with them in Christ. Remembering becomes more concrete and present to us when we remember a person, a name.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission helped us tremendously with that. Names in stone we can see in touch, even gravestones where the name is known only unto God. Behind every name or anonymous headstone is a person, a story, a family, always a tragedy. For the 40th anniversary of the Falklands conflict I went to Buenos Aires earlier this year with a dozen veterans. While there they shared their stories.
They remembered together names, places, events, fears, and they prayed together. Hearing the witness of so many of our veterans first-hand made me mindful of the stories we never hear, but also of the stories that may fade in the mists of the collective memory. With that in mind, I identified two individuals through whom I could find a connection to incarnate my act of remembrance, if you like. The first is Sergeant Ian John McKay. The connection is that he is buried in Older Shoot Military Cemetery just around the corner from the Catholic Military Cathedral.
This compelled me to find out more. Sergeant McKay died on the night of 11 June 1982 on Mount Longdon in the Falkland Islands. I will read part of his citation for the Victoria Cross he received. My intention is not to glorify any aspect of war, but to hear the detail of his last moments of his bravery as they are important in helping focus our remembrance. During the night of the 11 to 12 June 1982, 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment mounted a silent night attack on an enemy position on Mount Longdon.
Sergeant McKay was Platoon Sergeant, a four platoon B Company, and was ordered to clear the northern side of the long east-west ridge. The enemy resisted fiercely with heavy and accurate fire. When the platoon commander was shot in the leg, command devolved upon Sergeant McKay. It was clear that instant action was needed if the advance was not to falter and increasing casualties to ensue. Taking three men with him, they broke cover and charged the enemy position.
The assault met a hail of fire. The corporal was seriously wounded. A private killed, another wounded. Despite these losses Sergeant McKay, with complete disregard for his own safety, continued to charge the position alone. On reaching it he dispatched it with grenades, thereby relieving the position of beleaguered four and five platoons. Sergeant McKay, however, was killed at the moment of victory, his body falling into the bunker.
The second connection is not with a soldier, but a priest. Father Willie Doyle SJ – the cause for his canonisation will be officially opened next Sunday in the cathedral of Christ the King in Malibu Island. Not only was he a priest, but also a military chaplain in the Great War. With the outbreak of World War I, Father Willie volunteered as a military chaplain for the 8th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, of the 16th Irish Division of the British Army.
He served from late 1915 through to his death on 16 August 1917, at the Battle of Passchendale. He died at the age of 44 while rescuing two soldiers. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at the Battle of the Somme and a Divisional Merit Award for bravery during a poison gas attack. He was also nominated for both the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross.
During this period of remembrance, find a war memorial in your town or village. Read the names, touch the names, utter the names out loud and make them real. And having done that, pray for that person. Give thanks to and for that person and pray that their soul will rest in peace with God.
Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace.