On November 11th, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours is celebrated. Sulpicius Severus, who wrote the biography of the fourth-century monk, notes the time young Martin was returning from military exercises, wearing armor, simple cloak and sword. A beggar asked for Martin's help in the freezing cold; Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar.
In November, 1917, in the 11th hour of the 11th day, guns stopped, soldiers stood down, and leaders inked a peace treaty. Soon President Wilson declared November 11th as holiday, Armistice Day, a time to honor World War I veterans. Later this name was changed to Veterans Day, to honor soldiers from all wars.
During World War I, a Canadian doctor wrote a poem in honor of the men--many who were young, even in their teens, who died in the battles in France. In these graveyards, something peculiar occurred--many flowers bloomed. Was it the interaction of the soil with the decomposing remains of the soldiers? These red poppies represented both transubstantiation and resurrection:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
There were Jesuit chaplains who died in the Flanders Fields. Thirty-one members of the Irish Province served in World War I; four died in combat. French Jesuits perished in these same fields. On November 11, 1914, a Jesuit chaplain offered the sacrament of penance:
Father Humbert, who knew his regiment was to attack the next day, spoke to his penitent of reliance on Providence and submission to the will of God. "Never," he added, "did I understand as I do now these words of the Gloria: 'tu solus omnipotens.'" On the morning of the 11th, he gave his battalion a general absolution, and a little later was shot through the head.
An antiphon from the Feast of St. Martin of Tours recalls this saint and all Veteran saints of November 11th: "What a splendid man, whom neither toil nor death could conquer! Martin did not fear to die, nor did he refuse to live."
William Van Ornum