Just over a week ago, I was on the Somme Battlefields in France to remember the 100th Anniversary of my Great-Uncle’s death there in 1916. He is one of the thousands and thousands of missing who have no known grave, and it wasn’t until 1999 when my father died, that I found amongst his papers details of where Great-Uncle Fred was last seen alive and also that his name was inscribed on the great Thiepval Memorial. I went out for a first visit once I discovered this, but I felt that in some way I ought also to mark the Centenary. But why? What could I do? What was the point of remembering this terrible slaughter in which so many people died on both sides in that dreadful war?
For a Catholic priest like me, I knew instantly what I should do. I should go out there and say a Requiem Mass for him and for all of them, and so that is what I did : on the Wednesday, out in the open at the Thiepval Memorial, and on the Thursday – the actual day – at the Church nearest to the place where he was last seen alive. But still some people would ask why. What’s the use of prayer of any kind, and especially for people who have been dead 100 years?
The answer lies in our Readings today, where we are given two very important messages. The first is from our Gospel (Luke 18:1-8) where Jesus tells us to “Pray continually and never lose heart.” There are so many situations where we wonder what good our prayer can do. Think of the desperate situation in Syria at the moment as just one example. Or we may be stuck in some situation where we are unhappy, but helpless to do much about it. As Christians however, there is one thing we can do, we can share our sadness, our grief, or whatever else we are feeling. with God our loving Father. That is what prayer is. We do this not to get an answer, but simply because God is God and he loves us, and so we share our sorrows with Him, as we might have shared them with our mother or father when we were children. Simply doing this comforts us if it does nothing else.
But prayer is actually more powerful than we might imagine and, although we cannot understand how this happens, sometimes answers to our prayers come in ways that we least expected. Linking ourselves in this explicit way to the eternal invisible almighty power underlying the whole Universe is not to be treated lightly. That’s why we pray for the dead, even those who died 100 years ago, because God is not in our time, or any other time, and so praying about something 100 years after it happened is not as silly as it might sound.
The second message is from our 2nd Reading (2 Tim 3:14-4:2) where St Paul tells us to “Proclaim the message, and welcome or unwelcome, insist on it”. This explains why we Catholics, when we want to pray about something in a really powerful way, always do so within a Mass, most especially by asking the priest to offer a Mass especially for the person or thing that needs prayer. All prayer can be powerful, but when we pray within the Mass, we are also making present in a very special way, the action by which God saves the world, and brings life from death. As St Paul says (1 Cor 11:26) “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
I have no idea what kind of faith my Anglican Uncle had, if any; and I know that those who died on the Somme with him had all kinds of faith or none, but in a way it doesn’t matter. All I can do is proclaim the message of God’s love and salvation for them, and then come home and get on with doing my bit to make God’s love happen in the bit of the world I am living in.
For both these Requiem Masses I chose from the Gospel one of the stories of Jesus dying on the cross. In dying like that, Jesus identified himself with all those who die, and especially those who die in the midst of violence as my Great-Uncle did. We believe, do we not, that in Jesus God entered into death to destroy death and bring us to eternal life. War and violence are terrible things which we all wish would never happen, but when they do, then we need to know even more that God is there, that God was there, with them as he is with us, and that we must profess this truth whenever we can.
I could have gone to those places in France, and just prayed quietly; but as Christians we have the privilege, and the duty not just to pray but also proclaim God’s love and his glory. A Mass is the supreme way of doing this and so God’s power is more present there than anywhere else, and so there I was right in the middle of that memorial, doing just that. For, in one way or another that is the calling of every Christian