The National Catholic Review
David J. O'Brien
A Catholic community mourns a fallen soldier.
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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.”

David O'Brien is emeritus professor of history and Loyola Professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Comments

MARY RYAN-HOTCHKISS | 6/23/2009 - 5:53pm

I was shocked by the letter from Edison Woods in the June 8-15 issue, and following the Article A Death in the family 5/18,  in which he quoted Pope John Paul II saying,”War is always a defeat for humanity.” Mr. Edison added, “And yet established tyranny, it would seem, can only be removed by war.”

We too quickly forget or disregard those nonviolent actions that have been the most effective and long lasting, when we rush to a war for regime change. Non violent movements such as by Gandhi in India, and others in South Africa, Poland, and the Soviet Union have resulted in real change without resorting to war. Indeed Christians, and Catholics especially, need to observe Christ's and the Church's teachings on violence, before we ask our young people to sacrifice as have Private Roberge, and over 5000 Americans in Afganistan and Iraq.

RICH BRODERICK | 5/26/2009 - 8:34am
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” is a line from the Roman lyrcal poet Horace’s Odes translated in English as: "It is a sweet and glorious thing to die for ones country.” However, Classical scholars tell us that when it was read in the Roman Senate, it was read with a sense of sadness not bravado, since it could be another anthem for doomed youth. While I regret deep loss that the family, friends and community of Jonathan Roberge feel by the sacrifice of his life. I take strong exception to Professor David O’Brien’s article; A Death in the Family. A Catholic community mourns a fallen soldier ( America 05 /18). The article contained misconceptions, and myths. Professor O’Brien wrote; “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.” Is he implying that war is God’s work? War and the Beatitudes are totally incompatible. He also claims that Iraq was never "Bush's war” but our war. Untrue! The war in Iraq and Afghanistan were condemned as immoral by every major religion. Pope John Paul II warned that it would “open the gates of hell.” The United Nations and the International community, condemned it as illegal, a breach of international law. The majority of Americans opposed the war before it began. It was totally President Bush’s and his Administration’s war. The Professor claims Iraq and the war in Afghanistan “remains our shared responsibility, that we pay for it.” This too is a bit of an overreach. There are thousands of War Tax Resisters, who like myself, do not contribute taxes for these wars. Before the war began the largest peace demonstration in history took place world wide. It was only after the war was launched that the slogan, “Support the troops” prevailed. The homilist Msgr. James Moroney mentioned that; “The funeral was an American moment to the full but also a Catholic moment, a "real presence” of that unity, taught to Christians in doctrines......and taught to Americans as e pluribus unum, one nation under God. Many worshipping christians carry notions that God favors the United States over other nations and peoples. We have been told that America is a force for good in a “holy war” against “evil doers;” that we are a “light on a hill” for the rest of the world; that our legacy of “manifest destiny” is to bring our form of democracy to the rest of the world. Yet, no where in the bible can a reference be found supporting the myth that God blesses America. This I feel, contributes to the myth of Nationalism. References were made about “Jonathan Roberge and his fallen comrades, 4,225 in Iraq and another 840 in Afghanistan gave their lives so we could live in a secure peace.” This is incorrect. The U.S. intelligent community admits that the war has made the U.S. more unsafe and that the use of torture by the U.S. has been an effective recruiting poster for more radical extremists. Left out were the 92,126 to 100.508 Iraqi citizens killed. Are they not real human beings? Do they not count in the eyes of our God? The ratio of civilians to soldiers killed In this war is 9 to 1. Civilians who suffer the horrors of war receive no honor, their are no parades or memorials in their memory, Their suffering and deaths are seldom included in our church prayers as we pray weekly for our troops in harms way. We should remember that this “collateral damage” of war is done by marching armies. Monsignor Moroney mentioned in his homily that the sacrifice of lives in war is a sign of "Faithful citizenship. He further stated; “We must ask; Did we do enough to find alternatives to war”? I say no! What about faithful discipleship? If Bishops, dioceses and parishes took the teachings of Jesus more seriously, we would actively encourage our young men and women to consider conscientious objection and humanitarian service as an alternative to war. We can make war and those who fight in wars out to be honorable and heroic by our unthinking and unconditional support for “The Troops.” I read this article with great sadness and I wondered what contribution this heroic your man might have made to his country, community, and family if he was encouraged to make another choice for peace. “We must ask; Did we do enough to find alternatives to war for Jonathan Roberge and the 4296 other American service persons killed in Iraq, for the 685 killed in Afghanistan? I feel that this article by Professor O’Brien and, the posting of it in America could be another unintended anthem for sending our youth to a disastrous fate. Fr. Rich Broderick
Edison Woods | 5/23/2009 - 10:39am
John Paul II is right war is a tragedy a defeat for the whole human race. And yet established tyranny it would seem can only be removed by war. Therefore, we Christians must learn to recognize the seeds of tyranny when and where ever they may appear and uproot them before they can bear bitter fruit. Then and only then will such sacrifices as that made by Jonathan Roberge be unnecessary. In the meantime we Christians should be grateful for his sacrifice and continue our efforts to establish and maintain peace throughout the world.
Michael Cremin | 5/17/2009 - 8:32am
This was a beautiful and moving article. I am a veteran myself, and I am one of 18 family members-past and present-who have served in the United States military going all the way back to WWI. My great-grandfather earned his citizenship through his military service after emigrating from Ireland, and since then, every generation has served. I have come to hate war, even as I accept that it is, at times, necessary. God bless our soliders and their families, and may God help mankind to end the evil of war. Peace and all good.
Mary Kennedy | 5/9/2009 - 4:40pm
For those who might wish to learn a little more about Pfc. Roberge and the three other soldiers who who died in the same incident, there is a lovely tribute online at I Got the News Today.
Sharon D | 5/9/2009 - 10:38am
Thank you for Dave O'Brien's balanced, compassionate, thoughtful article mourning and respecting the service and sacrifice of Jonathan Roberge and his colleagues while calling us to invest more of ourselves in the policy debates over the most just, prudent and effective use of our military.
Shirley Cyr | 5/8/2009 - 9:50pm
David, this is so beautifully and poignantly written. When I hear the news report of a soldier losing his/her life I will now think more about the personal loss, sadness and grief that their family, friends and the rest of us suffer in a more profound way.....not just as one more number to add the growing list of casualties. We, as a country and faith community, must commit to working toward a better way of bringing peace to the world.
david | 5/8/2009 - 3:36pm
canadians, and americans surely, must watch and feel every combat death. my son returned from afghanistan recently and as parents we feel every news story about another death, canadian, american or allied equally. the families stand together, even if in our hearts we are all questioning the premise that allows our sons, daughters, fathers and now sometimes mothers die in our place. as a former military member whom stood in europe for years i have serious questions about the value of what i did in my life and now seemingly for naught as our children continue to pay the ultimate price. whatever our politics, honour them as soldiers, whom answered the call when others chose to ignore it, and whom deserve to be remembered for what they did in their lives, not how they died. so many of us sacrificed family, and time with growing children so that this event and all the others like them would never take place. we must trust to god, that there is purpose not only in the events, but in the sacrifice of valued and promising life. bless him, and bless all the others. this comforts me.. "Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them", author Laurence Binyon.