I will never forget my one and only visit to an Italian town called Nettuno. I had gone there to visit the shrine of a young Italian saint (St Maria Goretti) who it so happened had died violently. After my visit to the shrine, I had some time on my hands and ended up in a war cemetery. It turned out to be the Sicily-Rome American cemetery all 77 acres of it. I was totally unprepared for what I saw and the memory has stayed with me ever since. I remember it clearly even though it was over 30 years ago.
The visit stunned me. I recall the sheer beauty of the place with its immaculately kept grounds and eerie silence. I saw the perfect symmetry of row upon row of white marble crosses interspersed every now and again with a white marble Star of David headstone. Apart from the different names, different companies, ranks and place of origin and the occasional Star of David, the headstones were identical. I understand now why I was stunned – these were the 7,861 headstones of American military war dead most of them dying in 1943, many of them in their early 20s. There were 23 sets of brothers. I had been to cemeteries many times before but had not encountered such a scale of death within such a short time.
Elsewhere in the cemetery on marble walls was engraved the names of 3,095 American personnel whose bodies were never found. Although I found it difficult to take in the enormity of it, the horrors of warfare robbing these people of life, there was an incredible sense of peace. I believe something stirred in my soul that afternoon which until very recently I could not put words on. It was only when I read the words on a memorial which the family of the last soldier shot in Northern Ireland had used that I found the words: “Restorick (Stephen) (Lance Bombardier 3RHA) ‘May his death be a catalyst for peace’. Somehow on that Sunday afternoon as I gazed upon the rows of headstones, that visit was a “catalyst for peace” for me helping me understand why I am committed to reconciliation and healing in this part of the world.
This article published on Armistice Day (armistice literally means arms stopping) recalling how
on 11th November 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month) this marked the official end of the First World War and the cessation of hostilities. The guns were to fall silent. The enormous human cost of the war would be realised. The “great war” was to have been the war to end all wars. Each year on 11th November, as people stop for silence we recall the scale of human suffering in war and sadly the fact that war continues. Despite the great hopes that some people had at the end of the Great War, that war on such a scale would never happen again, these hopes have not come to pass. Every day in our media we hear about wars in various different parts of our world and the destruction of human life and the untold human suffering of the families left behind. During the 20th century over 200 million people were killed in war or conflict throughout our world.
The guns clearly have not fallen silent. Billions and billions of pounds are being spent every year in the war industry. There is a narrative that says that war whilst regrettable is inevitable and even natural. My confidence in humanity is such to believe it does not need to be this way. Human beings at our best have the skills, qualities and ability to find ways other than war and violence to resolve differences. I believe Armistice Day provides an ideal opportunity not only to remember but to look at how we eradicate war in the same way as we want to eradicate cancer or malaria or whatever disease. Armistice Day I would hope could be a catalyst for peace.
On Remembrance Sunday I listened to an interview with the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis on Radio 4 in which he was asked about “remembrance”. He explained in very clear terms how the word has particularly rich significance for Jews (and for some of us Christians) and then he added: “if we only remember for remembrance’s sake, then it becomes a mere historical technical exercise but when we utilise our memories in order to shape and influence a better world those memories become extremely relevant”. As I stood looking at the row upon row of headstones of American war dead, I would like to think that I could utilise that memory to shape and influence a better world.
Many people throughout our world prayed often for peace in Northern Ireland. During some of our very dark days, I sometimes wondered would we ever see it. The world looked on as we teetered on the brink, the talk of civil (how ironic) war was even mentioned. It can be easy to forget that our peace process here, even with all its faults, has come a long way. As we observe the daily destruction of human life in various places in our world, I believe we need to acknowledge what our politicians have achieved. Even this week our political leaders have the potential to be a source of hope for people throughout the world signalling politics and dialogue do work.
During November Catholics have a particular focus on the dead and are encouraged to visit a cemetery. I was interested to discover that Loyalist members of our community visit a cemetery on Armistice Day to pay their respects and remember their dead. (I have already acknowledged the complex nature of remembering all our dead). Yesterday when I visited the cemetery in Aldergrove where members of my family are buried, I stopped at the grave of a neighbour (aged 22), “inhumanly taken” as the headstone described his death during our conflict. I had forgotten his mother died just over a year after his murder. As I stood at their grave a few metres from where I will be buried, I reflected that whatever time I have left on this earth, I want to work for a world where human beings do not die by war or conflict.
On this Armistice Day I would like to suggest that today or during November we consider visiting a cemetery to remember those who died in war or conflict. As we stand in silence at the graves of people whose lives ended violently we would reflect on the words of the Restorick family “may his death be a catalyst for peace”.
Fr. Martin Magill is the Parish Priest at St Johns Parish, Belfast.