Remembrance Sunday Service at St Patrick’s Cathedral
The annual Remembrance Day Service took place in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral this afternoon, Sunday 8 November.
The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, was in attendance. Also present were: the Lord Mayor of Dublin, an Tánaiste, the Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht, the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathoirleach, Justice Bernard Barton representing the judiciary, members of the Diplomatic Corps, representatives of the Defence Forces, and the President of the GAA.
The preacher was the Revd Michael Roemmele, formerly Chaplain to H.M. Forces, currently Rector, Camus–Juxta–Bann, Diocese of Derry. (The text of his sermon is below.) The first lesson was read by H.E. Jean–Pierre Thébault, Ambassador of France, with the second lesson being read by H.E. Dominick Chilcott, Ambassador of the United Kingdom.
Wreaths were laid at the War Memorial in the North Transept of the Cathedral by President Michael D. Higgins and the President of the Royal British Legion, Republic of Ireland Branch, during the service.
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Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Remembrance Sunday – 8 November 2015
Sermon preached by The Revd Michael Roemmele, M.A., formerly Chaplain to H.M. Forces, currently Rector, Camus–Juxta–Bann, Diocese of Derry.
O Lord, uphold me that I may speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The focal point of every Commonwealth cemetery in Europe and far beyond is a sword of sacrifice which points to the ground. Engraved on the plinth below are the words. ‘Their name liveth for evermore.’ And yet in almost every one of those cemeteries amongst the immaculately tended graves, their headstones recording the name and rank of each soldier, are others with no name, and on which the inscription reads, ‘An unknown soldier’, or ‘Known unto God.
The German war cemetery at Langemark in Belgium is different. In it are the earthly remains of 44,000 German soldiers who were killed on the Ypres Salient and buried, 600 in each grave. There are no individual memorials or headstone. Their monument reads, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine,’ – words from the opening verse of Isaiah chapter 43.
Not far away is the city of Ypres in which the magnificent Menin Gate is the Belgian memorial to the missing, Engraved on the walls of the archway are 54,389 names of allied soldiers who also died on the Ypres salient and whose bodies were never found. Every night since 1927 there has been an act of remembrance below it. During these centenary years of commemoration of the 1st World War the ceremony is made more meaningful and poignant. It is introduced with a brief resume of the life of one of the soldiers whose name is recorded on the memorial.
Binyon’s well–known words are then read, and the promise is echoed, ‘We will remember them’. Hearing the name and the story is what makes that individual flesh and blood. The introduction makes the ceremony real and meaningful. Remembering is putting a person to a name. The tragedy of war and military action is the denial of the sanctity life. Human life becomes cheap, military objectives, all important. The enormity of the losses in the First World War is beyond our ability to comprehend. Numbers numb our humanity.
They make us blind and insensitive to the human suffering caused by conflict. The awful loss of thousands of lives daily between 1914 and 1918, like the massacre of 6 million Jews, and the casualties of the blitz in World War 2 did not shock the world into laying down arms, or bring about peace, but rather the contrary.
One lesson from the history of conflict is that violence breeds violence with a self–prepetuating momentum.
It took the Armageddon–like destruction of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 and the instant annihilation of 100,000 innocent citizens, to make the Japanese capitulate and break that cycle of violence in a way that horrified the world. But that was exceptional. Very rarely are wars brought to an end by force of arms or by military might, but rather by negotiation and through political settlement.
Just occasionally however, one individual has woken the world’s conscience to the horrors of warfare in a way that led to change.
I think of the 1976 Time magazine photograph of Kim Phuc a screaming badly burned 8yr old Vietnamese girl who had torn off her blazing clothes and was running naked on the road from her village which had been devastated by a napalm bomb. Her picture showed the brutality of the Vietnam War as never before. It shocked the conscience of the world. More recently the world has turned a blind eye to the conflict in Syria and paid little heed to the plight of the millions forced to flee their homes, or to the hundreds of thousands who this year have made a perilous journey to the borders of Europe. Last week there was just a brief mention on a news bulletin of 20 Syrian refugee children who were drowned on yet another ill–fated Mediterranean boat crossing. It is as if the statistics and numbers mean nothing. However, the sight of the lifeless body of one individual child being carried out of the waves and the grief on his father’s face and the naming of that three year old brought the world to its senses this summer. The death of little Aylan Kurdi moved nations to tears and awakened compassion in a way that statistics and numbers had never done before, or since. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’
The death of that little boy was the catalyst which inspired politicians to sit around a table and start working together to find ways of bringing an end to this senseless loss of the innocent, so often dehumanised by the term ‘Collateral damage.’ They are the real victims of today’s wars and they need to be remembered by name, not by numbers.
In our annual services of remembrance we rightly remember the members of the armed forces who died in war. Their stories need to be told and their names recalled. They do deserve to be remembered by their nations, and before God.
However, to our shame, as we honour the fallen. We often seem to sanitise war by speaking of glorious deeds, acts of courage and of loyalty, or of the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ made by so many of those service men. It masks the real truth, that war is brutal and inhuman and that most of the soldiers, naval personnel and the airmen who died, did not willingly sacrifice themselves for a cause. It is more true to say that their lives were sacrificed by politicians who failed to negotiate political settlements to contentious issues and who then sent them to fight. If the dead are to be honoured, we must not merely remember them, but respond by living through words and actions, in ways which honour their memory.
‘Greater love hath no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ There is truth in those words of Jesus, but not the whole truth. To lay down one’s life for one’s enemy is potentially a much greater act of love. Jesus Christ did not only give his life for his friends but also for people who ignored him, rejected his teaching and even his enemies. His was the Supreme Sacrifice. In the Eucharist we remember him by name, his life and his teaching. We remember his sacrifice of his body and blood in bread and wine. Every time we receive the sacraments our prayer is to be sent out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to his glory. Only by doing so, can he dwell in us and we in him. That is how we honour his name, his sacrifice and his memory.
Not far from Ypres in field of maize, close to the tiny village of Locre and tended by the villagers, is the solitary grave of an Irishman. William Redmond volunteered for military service with the 16th Division and joined the Royal Irish Regiment. He had been a Member of Parliament at Westminster, representing Wexford, North Fermanagh and East Clare for 34 years.
A convinced Irish Nationalist, he was a campaigner for Home Rule in Ireland, but his political views were not shared by many of Ireland’s population. Nonetheless, Redmond was highly respected. He had a warm and engaging personality and was regarded as a man of great integrity, even by his political opponents. On 17th June 1917 the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division advanced side by side into the fierce battle for Messines Ridge as brothers–in– arms. Promoted to the rank of Major, Redmond, aged 56 led his men out of their trenches into no–man’s land. Almost at their objective he was seriously wounded by enemy fire. Some distance away, Private John Meeke a young medical orderly, a staunch Ulster loyalist, serving with the Inniskilling Fusiliers, saw Redmond fall. Meeke braved the machine gun fire and artillery shells and reached the wounded officer. Kneeling beside him, he began to bandage Redmond’s wounds, only to be wounded himself.
Redmond ordered the injured medic to leave him, return to his own lines and out of the line of fire. Meeke disobeyed and continued bandaging. He was shot again, and again Redmond ordered him to leave him. Once again, Meeke refused.
Bleeding profusely, he carried the Major out of the battlefield to a First Aid post, before going back to look for more casualties. He was shot a third time before being taken for medical attention. He recovered quickly and was soon back in action, only to be wounded again. This time he was repatriated. For his gallantry, he was awarded the Military Medal. He died soon afterwards as a local hero at his home near Ballymoney. Major Redmond, the man whose politics he vehemently opposed, but for whose life he had risked his own, was cared for by nuns in a nearby convent until he also died of his injuries. Irish and British soldiers stood side by side to honour him at his graveside when his body was buried. But he was not honoured at home. Until very recently his name was barely mentioned in the Irish Republic. Like many others who fought alongside the British in the First World War, he was regarded as a traitor to the nationalist cause.
It is a story which is particularly poignant to me, for I learned recently that one of my parishioners is the niece of Private John Meeke.
There is not village, or town in any county in Ireland that did not suffer losses in that war. From County Donegal alone there were almost 600 who died. On my desk is a book which gives all their names and many of their stories. Jesus said, ‘He who loves his life loses it and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if anyone serves me, the father will honour him’.
A sad element of our island’s history is that different mythologies of the 1st World War have contributed to the deep divisions that have festered within Ireland ever since.
If we are to truly honour our Lord and his supreme sacrifice, our fellow countrymen and all whose lives were sacrificed in the Great War, or indeed in any war, what better thing could we do than stand side by side next year as we commemorate the Battle of the Somme and the events which happened here in Ireland 100 years ago? .