Sunday, November 10, 2013

Saint Martin and Father Washington

Saint Martin of Tours

For a good deal of his life, Saint Martin of Tours was a soldier. We know that from his contemporary biographer in the fourth century and from modern scholarship. But more than anything in his biography one story has been most frequently depicted in paintings and literature: the story of Saint Martin and his cloak.

One day, the story goes, Martin the soldier was drawing close to the gates of Amiens, looking forward to relief from a strong driving wind and blowing snow. There, by the side of the road, was a poor and shivering beggar, protected only in a long shirt of light white cloth.

Seeing the shivering man, Martin jumped from his horse, pulled the military cloak from his broad shoulders, and drew his sword from its scabbard. I can only imagine the reaction of the poor beggar at the sight of the long gleaming blade in the hand of this imposing soldier. But the beggar had nothing to fear from Martin, who sliced his cloak in half, wrapping the poor beggar in the larger of the two remaining pieces.

That night Martin saw the beggar in his dreams, still wrapped in half a cloak. But when the Saint looked more closely he recognized the beggar as Jesus, who, looking up at a choir of angels circling above, declared: "Here is Martin, the soldier who clothed me, and is yet to be baptized.” (Sulpicius, ch 2)  Soon thereafter, Martin was baptized into the death and the resurrection of the Lord whom he had looked upon and loved.

How fitting it is that we celebrate the memorial of Saint Martin of Tours on Veterans’ day, as we remember those who have given their blood, their sweat, and often their lives in service to our country. They are the ones who have laid down their lives to preserve and protect the freedoms which we enjoy as a nation and as a people.

I was in Washington D.C. yesterday, and late in the morning I walked down to the World War II Memorial. There, among the lists of those veterans who had died for their country, was the name of a Catholic Priest, Father John P. Washington. Father Washington was born one of seven kids in Newark, New Jersey and was ordained for that Archdiocese from the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall. After serving in several parishes, he became a military chaplain when Pearl Harbor was bombed and eventually joined three other chaplains, a Methodist, a Rabbi, and a Dutch Reformed minister on board the U.S. Transport ship Dorchester, as it prepared to deliver supplies to the troops in Europe. The four of them became good friends by all accounts and would come to be forever remembered as “the four chaplains.”

Carrying close to a thousand men, the Dorchester was struck by a torpedo in the icy waters off Greenland in February of 1943. It sank in 27 minutes. In the chaotic minutes that followed the attack, six hundred and seventy two men lost their lives. The survivors would later recount how the four chaplains tended immediately to the wounded and consoled the frightened soldiers. As they passed out life jackets to those climbing into rafts, it soon became apparent that there were far from enough, so each chaplain removed his own life jacket and gave it to one of the younger soldiers.

As the ship went down, the four chaplains were seen leading the remaining sailors in prayer with their arms linked as a sign of their faith.

May we learn from Father Washington and his companions and from Saint Martin of Tours, that when we encounter Christ, as the beggar by the road or the sailor about to die or anyone in need, we are called to take off our coat and to give it away.