Six years ago on this day, at my retirement from the Marine Corps, I had the great honor to lay my uniform down upon the hallowed ground of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France. Here, nearly 2,300 U.S. war dead have their resting place where once a horrible battle raged during World War I.
The memory of their terrible suffering now has seemingly been transformed by the beautiful landscaped grounds and memorial honoring their sacrifice. As I contemplated their sacrifice and those of friends lost during my career, my mind turned to another sacrifice—the only sacrifice to have ever truly transformed suffering—that of Christ’s on Calvary, perpetuated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
In a prayer book written for those serving during World War II, the Servant of God, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) reflected on the spiritual meaning of sacrifice. In no way romanticizing war, he recalled the words of the French Dominican, Father Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire (1802 –1861), who believed “The vocation of a soldier is next in dignity to the priesthood, not only because it commissioned him to defend justice on the field of battle and order on the field of peace, but also because it called him to the spirit and intention of sacrifice” (Wartime Prayer Book [Sophia Institute Press, 2003], 15).
Understood properly, these words remind us that our call to holiness is a call to sacrificial love, no matter our vocation in life. Dying to our self for love of others must be a daily expression of what Christ taught—“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Suffering and sacrifices often frighten us and we can be tempted to flee them at any cost. But if St. Paul could say, “I rejoice in my sufferings…” (Colossians 1:24), it was only because he had discovered their meaning in Christ’s own sufferings for love of us. Here I am reminded of a wonderful quote from a Second Vatican Council document whose Latin title—Gaudium et Spes— means “Joy and Hope.”
“Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us.” Our sufferings, when joined with those of Christ, become meaningful and transformed—they become instruments of redemption. But too many today do not understand this and the loss of this meaning represents, as Blessed John Paul II observed, a source of further suffering and loss of hope.
So often we resemble the figure of Simon of Cyrene, who is described as being “seized” and “compelled” to carry the Cross of Christ (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26). Our sufferings also can “seize” us, and the suffering of others forced upon us so that we feel “compelled” to carry what we do not believe should be ours to bear.
But there are two ways to respond to our cross, represented by the two thieves crucified with Christ. And just as Christ did not offer Himself alone on Calvary but took the offering of the Good Thief and united to His own (Luke 23:42-43), so we are invited to make an offertory of our sufferings with Christ’s in every Mass. Here is where suffering is transformed by sacrificial love.
Offertory prayers of Mass are an opportunity to offer more than a material gift in the collection basket—it is a time to offer the very gift of our self to God with all of our sufferings and sacrifices. In the offertory, Christ unites our desires and prayers to His own offering of Himself to the Father. As our intentions are joined to the Passion of Christ, they assume the value of the Passion in the eyes of God…. The daily life of a Christian should be a series of offertories; the events of our day become the host we offer, and God uses them to help us celebrate our own Mass (The Roman Catholic Daily Missal [Angelus Press, 2004], 859, 867).
Archbishop Sheen encourages us at the moment of consecration, when we hear Christ’s words pronounced over the gifts on the altar—“This is my body! This is my blood!”—to repeat these words with our sacrifice saying, “This is my body! Take it. This is my blood! Take it. They are yours. I care not if the accidents or species of my life remain, with my daily work, my routine duties. But all that I am substantially, take, consecrate, ennoble, spiritualize; turn my cross into a crucifix, so that I am no longer mine, but Thine, O Love Divine!” (Seven Words of Jesus and Mary [Liguori/Triumph, 2001], 59).
Every Sunday then is Memorial Day when we join our sufferings to Christ’s in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where they are transformed and become salvific. n
Mr. Simoneau is the diocesan Vice Chancellor for Administration and he directs the Office of Justice and Peace.