That‘s a very hard thing to say and sounds ungrateful and I am puzzled by my own reaction. Why should I feel uneasy when it’s about thousands of young men who gave up their lives or were conscripted into a war that historians tell us was pointless? I don’t feel uneasy about them and the personal stories of those who have died are very moving and heart-breaking. There will have been hardly a family in the land that was not affected by the war or lost a family member.
My own family was not affected because during both world wars my father and grandfather were employed in reserved occupations. Nor did the Catholic Church make a lot of remembrance Sunday when I was growing up. On the whole we don’t have war memorials in Catholic Churches in the way that Presbyterian and Anglican Churches have them. I wonder why, because Catholics will have died in those wars. Perhaps it’s because Catholics were on the margins of civic society. It’s not that we didn’t remember because in the Catholic Church November is a month of remembering. It begins with the feast of All Saints and then All Souls when Catholics remember all who have died. There is a tradition in parishes that people are able to write down, perhaps on sheets of paper or in a book of remembrance, the names of all their loved ones who have died and they are all remembered every day at the Eucharist. Among these names there will have been service men and women.
In this centenary year there has been an attempt to make the war personal. People have been encouraged to bring photographs of relatives who fought in the war. At the Albert Hall's Festival of Remembrance the most poignant moment was when the families of those who had lost a family member in military conflict processed on to the central area while everyone in the Hall, which holds 5,000 people, held before them a photograph of someone who had died in the war. So too at the Cenotaph in London, family members holding photographs of their loved ones marched with military personnel. This made all the celebrations/ festivals/ memorials/ truly personal. There’s a sense that with time memories of the war will fade and recede into history. Perhaps this will be the last of such memorials. It’s important, however, that the personal be not lost. Literature, film and poetry can help us appreciate the reality but it’s the personal stories that touch the heart.
This is the case with memorials of the Holocaust. I toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington with the passport of a young woman killed at Auschwitz and have on my wall information of Albert Bulka who perished at Auschwitz aged 4 years old, given out at a Holocaust Service.
Remembering is good. It’s not so much keeping alive the past but it makes ever present a reality that is part of our civic life and history. It’s important to remember. We don’t want to forget the sacrifice of so many nor the horror of war. The refrain is ‘never again’. But it has happened again – over and over again.
So what discomfits me about it? Well one thing – all the services are predominantly Christian though I notice the prayers omit ‘through Jesus Christ Our Lord’. But men and women of all faiths were involved in the war effort. Could we not make the services more multicultural and multifaith?
There’s also a tinge of glorification in it all - a sense of victory, of conquest. There’s an acknowledgment that there was a terrible loss of life on both sides of the conflict and prayers for peace but not a rejection of war itself or a commitment to the ways of peace that recognises the need for community, dialogue, negotiation. The European community brought together enemies of old but now it’s breaking down. What we need is a commitment to the human community that seeks the common rather than the national good. We need to be serious about peace but how can we do that when the production and selling of arms is so central to our economy? It makes a mockery of much of the remembering.