On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the guns of the “War to End All Wars” were silenced. This Veterans Day (Armistice Day), we should all recall the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. After countless millions sacrificed their lives in muddy trenches of battles now forgotten, by heroes no longer remembered, their history taught less and less in our nation’s schools – the sacrifice of a generation of Americans, Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman, Canadians, Australians, Frenchman, Hungarians, Germans, Ottomans, Armenians, Austrians, and Russians, and countless others has faded away. Sacrifice that great should never be forgotten.
The memory of millions, too, who simply got in the way of advancing armies and perished, either by bullets or bombs, or famine or disease, or starvation, all for the vanity of princes and the German ideal of total war and conquest has also faded away, because we are a stubborn people who do not now, nor have we ever, recognized the fact that history repeats itself.
But, there are always a few souls it seems who are born for the times in which they live and make a difference during their travels on this earth. Who totally understand history, instinctively know we are bound to repeat it, and, by the grace of God, are at the ready when the hour of trial comes upon us.
Two such souls were Father Francis Patrick Duffy, the priest, and Joyce Kilmer, the poet.
You may remember Father Duffy from the Warner Brothers production of The Fighting 69th, starring Pat O’Brien, James Cagney, Alan Hale, George Brent, and Dennis Morgan, who, unfortunately, never sings in the movie, and the always lovable Frank McHugh.
You must also remember Joyce Kilmer. It you ever attended Catholic school in the hay day of the American-Catholic glory years, if you were schooled let’s say up to the late 1970’s, then you certainly read, perhaps were committed to recite, Kilmer’s poem Trees. If you’ve forgotten it, let me remind you of its simple, poignant, brilliant, and supple lines:
I think that I shall never see
a poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
a tree that looks at God all day,
and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
a tree that may in summer wear
a nest of robins in her hair;
upon whose bosom snow has lain;
who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
but only God can make a tree.
Kilmer and his poems, romantic as they truly are, have been ridiculed by academia for years now because his words are too simple, his thoughts trite, his meaning too obvious. He was labeled “the Catholic Poet.” He died in combat in World War I. Sacrificing his life for our beloved country and in the service of his beloved regiment: The Fighting 69th.
You may also think Kilmer’s words are too simple; that they don’t carry enough weight to handle the heavy burdens of today’s world since we must be so different from the people who peopled our nation one hundred years ago. Guess what, we’re not.
Compared to, what, two or three generations ago, we have it pretty easy. But, stay tuned. Because every generation is called to a new challenge; to a new test of faith – we are no different from our parents and grandparents and our test will come if it already hasn’t. Yet, like Kilmer’s words, simple though they may be, we must recognize the significance, the majesty, the strength of the tree. Or we are all fools.
Pastor of Hell’s Kitchen
Kilmer’s friend, Father Francis Patrick Duffy, survived the war. His heroism is beyond dispute. At one point during the war, General MacArthur (Yep, the “I shall return” guy), actually considered appointing Father Duffy regimental commander. He was regarded and respected so much that he could have commanded the regiment. He had that much soldier in him. During the war, he would go out into “no man’s land”: the space between hell and earth where death was your only companion.
There he would help the wounded and the dying with the only weapon he had: a purple stole. He would hear their dying confessions and administer the sacrament of Last Rites. He would also assist the ambulance corps in getting the wounded to safety. He did this time and again. This earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the Légion d’Honneur of France, and the Croix de Guerre. The man was everywhere on the battlefield. He had no fear, for Christ was with him and the Holy Spirit within him.
Father Francis Patrick Duffy was the quintessential military chaplain. If you go to Times Square this New Year’s Eve, walk down a bit to Duffy’s Square. There’s a statue of him there. It’s a little tug in the heart of the Big Apple reminding us all of the quality of human compassion that is still possible in our world. Father Duffy ended up being a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army. To the men he served, however, he was more like a saint.
If you see a picture of him, you’ll notice a rock-hard, ruddy-Irish complexion. But, it defies the gentle heart of the man. When he was pastor at Holy Cross Parish, in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City (how appropriate is that?), he opened a day care center for the parish moms who needed to work to help put food on the table. He also liked poetry. Hence his affinity for Joyce Kilmer and their mutual friendship forged and tested in battle. When people share an experience as traumatizing and frightful as the First World War certainly was, they become blood brothers for life.
What always strikes me is the uncanny physical resemblance Father Duffy had to a young Karol Józef Wojyta. Both were tough birds who went through hell to get to heaven. Both admired and enjoyed poetry. In fact, their lives were one sweet poem weren’t they?
Both were strong, virile men who understood how to use the strength God bestowed upon them for good and holy purposes. I’d like to think that all three: Duffy, Kilmer, and JPII, are smiling down on us this blessed Veterans Day.
The poetry written by the men and women who have served in our armed forces is still being written today. Salute them. Take a moment to thank them for what they have done. It’s because of their sacrifice that we can freely enjoy the poetry of our own lives and those of our children.
Veterans, priests, and poets don’t easily forget history. Thank God. We shouldn’t either.