Jonathan Roberge, age 22, died in Mosul, Iraq, on Feb. 9. Along with three other soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter, he died when an explosive device blew up the truck he was driving. Roberge had been in Iraq less than two months and in the Army a little over a year. In that year, his family reported, he learned Army skills, toughened up his body, rejoiced in the comradeship of his unit and took pride in serving his country. He is remembered as a funny young person with a huge smile, who loved his family and friends and wanted in some way to serve people. He had thought about becoming a policeman. To everyone's surprise, he decided instead to join the Army, and there he found his place.
The Army provided the dominant theme as Roberge's family and community mourned his loss. He loved the Army, his dad told me, and he died doing what he most loved. And as far as his family and friends are concerned, the Army loved Jonathan Roberge. Not for one minute after his death was he alone: military personnel were with his body always, from Iraq to Leominster, Mass. There were so many bidding for a place in the honor guard, we were told, that shifts were down to 15 minutes. For three days in Leominster veterans and active-duty soldiers stood by in silent witness. Everyone who cared, and that meant everybody who heard about his death, took comfort in knowing that this soldier loved the Army and the Army loved him back.
A Known Ritual
Americans know something about ritual. The people of Leominster gathered for a candlelight vigil one night the next day the Roberge family joined military leaders on the tarmac of a nearby airbase. Residents gathered in silence on city streets as his body came home. The next day lines stretched for hours around city blocks as people waited patiently in a snowfall to pass by the coffin and greet the family. For hour after hour, Roberge's parents embraced friends and strangers, reassuring them, even as everyone held back tears, imagining the pain of their loss. Our own wonderful daughter-in-law is Jonathan Roberge's cousin her grief-stricken family warmly greeted us in our awkward effort to express sympathy. The room in the old city hall where he lay was filled with (can we say it?) love. It seemed like church.
Religion, a friend once said, is about "what matters.” The next morning the community gathered for another remarkable ritual, a very American Catholic funeral. St. Cecilia's tower defines Leominster. You can see it for miles before you enter the old mill town. Empty mills, abandoned storefronts, a closed Catholic school and a convent that houses offices for Catholic Charities also define the town. On this day the church was full, the sun streaming through two tiers of stained glass windows, the bottom tier with scenes from the life of Christ, the larger upper tier with saints from Leo the Great and Joan of Arc to Elizabeth Seton. Over 1,000 people knelt quietly inside. Others stood outside, flags everywhere: veterans and Gold Star moms, uniformed military people with buzz cuts and berets and that unique blend of defiant pride and profound sorrow that marks military funerals.
A Catholic funeral for this Catholic, mostly French Canadian community followed. Everyone could take heart from the comforting realization that Jonathan Roberge's baptism in that church promised mercy, forgiveness and eternal life. Those who loved him would see him again, because his love for life and for each of them marked the way to salvation. The excellent homilist, Msgr. James Moroney, was personal and pastoral his words fit the place and moment like a glove. He spoke of services across America and in Iraq for Roberge's fallen comrades, who had joined with him in protecting us from the "bad guys” and now joined him in the ultimate sacrifice. The funeral was an American moment to the full but here, in this place, also a Catholic moment, carefully noted as such. As Bishop Robert McManus said at the end of the service, Catholic Christians have that special gift of faith that eases our pain and secures our hope even now, awaiting a day when all will be reunited with one another and with our loving God. As the Mass drew to a close, military officers came forward to make presentations to the parents with a mournful singing of the national anthem. Then an honor guard of pallbearers carried the casket to a caisson for a slow procession to the cemetery.
What personal and community reflections do we carry away from such powerful experiences of what we too easily call "faithful citizenship”? One is surely solidarity. In our encounter with Jonathan Roberge and his family, we in central Massachusetts are reminded that we are one people and that the bonds of family and community and nation are real sacramental experiences of a unity God intends for all people everywhere. They are sacramental because they bring forth for a moment a "real presence” of that unity, taught to Christians in doctrines of common creation, redemption and destiny, taught to Americans as e pluribus unum, one nation under God. If a few words in moments of prayer and in the homily reassured Catholics that eternity awaited them, any hint of denominational exclusiveness was swallowed up in the congregation's experience of being at one with each other, with this young man and with all those he loved.
A more political reflection is that when men and women like him come forward to serve in the military, to follow the "warrior” creed posted at one of the shrines at city hall, they do so on our behalf. They risk death and they learn to kill, not for President Bush or President Obama but for you and me. Iraq was never "Bush's war” but our war, and with the war in Afghanistan it remains our shared responsibility. We debate about these wars, but we decide together to make war unless we refuse to serve or pay, we remain responsible as our sons and daughters fight for us. In that same Army creed our soldiers pledge to pursue their mission in all circumstances, so we had best be sure that their mission is reasonable. This is an altogether religious responsibility, because, as we learn while standing in silence before such sacrifice, America really matters.
A Defeat for Humanity
A third message is harder, best stated by Pope John Paul II: "War is always a defeat for humanity.” We Americans are prepared when necessary to use force, and we Christians are obliged in some circumstances to share responsibility for war. But from the unending slaughter in the trenches of World War I and the saturation bombing of World War II to the unending cycles of violence in the Middle East and much of Africa and Asia, to a roadside explosive device or a suicide bomber on a narrow road in Mosul where Jonathan died, war is a contradiction of the truth of solidarity. We are one people and one earth, and our bitter, often blood-drenched divisions are sins against our common humanity.
Even when we are in the right, Monsignor Moroney said in his homily, we must ask why. Did we do enough to find alternatives to war? Did we provide our troops with the leadership and resources they deserve? Do we ask questions about what we expect to achieve and whether war is the best way to achieve those objectives? Do we wonder about the "bad guys” and seek partners in the common work of building security? In our churches, our powerful symbols of faith lend legitimacy to just wars. But do we allow them to push us to translate those powerful Gospel commands about peacemaking and our own promise, "peace be with you,” into personal and political practice?
Jonathan Roberge and his fallen comrades, 4,225 in Iraq and another 840 in Afghanistan at the end of January, gave their lives so we could live in a secure peace. We would do well to honor their sacrifice by getting smarter and tougher about what security and peace require. This is a matter of religion because America matters, and so do we. As John F. Kennedy told us years ago, "high standards of strength and sacrifice” are expected of all "citizens of America” and "citizens of the world.” Jonathan Roberge met those standards. And while we pray that his sacrifice will serve the cause of a just peace, we must know with J.F.K. that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”