Editor's note: On June 6, 1944, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., reflected on the significance of this day in the June 17, 1944 issue of America, which went to press just a few days later. This article has been republished as part of America’s special 110th anniversary issue.
When President Roosevelt led the nation in prayer on D-Day's night, an event unique in modern history took place. Other leaders in centuries past have led their people in prayer, but never until radio could a head of state speak to all his people at once. Since radio, many a leader has urged his people to pray, but never has a head of state, to our knowledge, actually taken the lead in saying the prayer that millions of his people were simultaneously whispering in their homes.
These two elements in combination, the President’s personal leadership and its nation-wide application, climaxed a day that was really something to make us proud—proud not only of the invasion itself, but even more important, proud of the spirit of the American people. We are told so often that we are a materialistic, far from spiritually-minded people, and perhaps we are in normal times. But here, at least, in this stupendous crisis, the Christian roots that still, thank God, lie semi-dormant in the depths of our national life wakened to a bloom that was lovely and fragrant this June 6.
For not only did the President officially and publicly put prayer in the first place among our reactions to the invasion; almost every city in the land had its meetings to beg God’s guidance; the great radio chains broadcast throughout the day prayers by clergymen of the various denominations; small parish churches and cathedrals were thronged throughout the day with streams of praying Americans.
Kindred to this spirit and to a great extent inspired by it, was the renewed spirit of work and sacrifice to which the American people dedicated itself on receipt of the invasion news. Workers in the factories and arsenals paused for prayer, and then went back to their tasks determined to set new production records; Labor renewed its no-strike pledge; the sale of war bonds rocketed; in New York alone bookings of blood donors rose 300 per cent. Not since Pearl Harbor has the nation been so united in will and deed, and the spark that set it all off was prayer.
It is not too much to say that there was a wave of prayer that swept the land on D-Day. Nor dare we yield to the cynical thought that this was all a staged and synthetic bit of propaganda. That remark will doubtless be heard in some quarters; it is for us, above all, as Catholics, to damn it utterly by word and action; first because we must give and do give all men of good will, whether they belong to our Faith or not, credit for sincerity; second, because all the programs, all the meetings were quite obviously motivated by a humility and a seriousness that hall-marked them unmistakably not as emotional rallies, not as jingoistic flag-waving, but as real, sincere, trustful prayer.
It is not too much to say that there was a wave of prayer that swept the land on D-Day.
Yes, our all too-subconscious Christian traditions paid dividends on D-Day. The only fear we may entertain, the only proviso we can suggest is that D-Day’s prayers must not have been a bloom that fades over night. Every day, till the final victory, must continue to be a day of prayer—the same confident, humble prayer even through the dark days that may, in God’s Providence, still come.
And beyond the day of victory, too, must that prayer extend. The temptation will be strong on the day the armistice is flashed around the world to give way first to cheering and carousing, and to pause to thank God only later at some less triumph-flushed day. But if we determine now that V-Day will be first and foremost a day of prayer, of sincere and sober thanks, we may hope that God’s blessings that will crown our arms may be with us as we embark on the supreme campaign of planning a just and enduring peace.
There was, of course, a somber glamor about invasion day that caught the popular imagination. It was easy to picture the flaming beach-heads and to feel so small and ineffectual against that mighty back-drop of ships and tanks and barges and planes that the very immensity of the scene bore down on us and made us know that our help must come from some One stronger than ourselves.
The very immensity of the scene bore down on us and made us know that our help must come from some One stronger than ourselves.
The peace table will not be glamorous; it will not be so immediately personalized for us; the war then, we may feel, will have moved out of the sphere where we can do anything about it or should even continue to have a vivid interest in it.
But this peace will be our peace, if it is to be a peace at all. The United Nations’ commissions that land on the shores of Europe or America to guide the future of the world will be braving a beach that bristles with booby-traps of distrust and suspicion and self-interest. Their invasion of the shores of nationalistic prejudice will be doomed to failure, unless we sweep them to triumph on wave after wave of prayer.
This Review offers the suggestion that on Armistice Day, on the day the American delegation sails for the peace table, on all the days that the negotiations are carried on, there be national prayer, so proclaimed by the Chief Executive, and observed as widely and sincerely as was our glorious tidal wave of prayer that made D-Day notable, not only in our military, but in our spiritual annals. We offer this suggestion in the humble confidence that we may ask it in the concluding words of the President's prayer: “Thy will be done, Almighty God.”