Spirituality for Today – August 2015 – Volume 20, Issue 1

A Quiet Hero

Rev. Raymond K. Petrucci

A photo of Father Ignatius Maternowski

A great flash, a great dying, and a great peace befell the world seventy years ago this month. Two atomic bombs fell on Japan and soon it was over. World War II took the lives of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians. With each anniversary, World War II veterans and civilians dwindle in number. Amidst the graves of Section B in Mater Dolorosa Cemetery in South Hadley, Massachusetts, there is a small granite marker bearing the name of Father Ignatius Maternowski, a Franciscan priest, who was the only Catholic chaplain to give his life on the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. At some point after parachuting into France with the 508th Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, Fr. Maternowski, while returning from a mission behind enemy lines in hopes of finding a German chaplain and intending to establish a field hospital that might serve the wounded of both sides, he was shot by a sniper. As mentioned, Fr. Maternowski was the only Catholic chaplain to be killed on D-Day. He was remembered as a quiet hero.

One of my uncles also fought in France, the Battle of the Bulge, and when he returned home he moved in with my aunt, her husband, and their family. I was not born until 1947, but years later I remember Uncle Charlie as a gentle, affable and, especially, a quiet man. Some years after his death, I would find it fascinating looking at his pictures from the war and handling his memorabilia from that momentous conflict. His German Luger was a particular prize. I never recall my uncle ever talking about the war. Indeed, he was a quiet hero himself.

Since World War II, there has been a succession of wars and smaller military conflicts. In reviewing the events of the past century, I can understand why many consider it the bloodiest of centuries, but it also fashioned so many unsung men and women of faith who contributed to the beauty, decency, and God-centered living that also marked the century. Of course, this current century began with terror and bloodshed which has continued to this day. Maybe the curious make-up of the human personality condemns it to react violently. History teaches us that, generally, the years highlighted by peaceful conditions are limited to a couple of centuries of the thousands of years of recorded human civilization.

Regrettably, warlike humanity cannot give tribute to Fr. Maternowski and all of the members of that greatest of generations by achieving a world of peace, but there still live the quiet heroes of faith and charity who give their lives working for peace and opposing the evil that threatens to drench the world anew in blood. If peace is to be achieved, it may be that those who know what war truly is will be the ones who provide the illusive formula for attaining it.

We merely want to live in peace with all the world, to trade with them, to commune with them, to learn from their culture as they may learn from ours… so that the products of our toil may be used for our schools and our roads and our churches and not for guns and planes and tanks and ships of war.
Dwight D. Eisenhoower

For all fans of sultry summer days, thoughts of August should not include the ravages of war and the inferno of atomic blasts. Yet, seven decades ago, the final bellowing of war shook the world. Then, peace, that occasional visitor, settled in for a brief stay. We are thankful that a war of such magnitude that faced Fr. Maternowski, Uncle Charlie, and General Eisenhower has not come again. Prayer and vigilance are the sentinels that we depend on. Yes, we experience localized bloodshed and are harmed by the machinations of those who peddle terror, but the horrific, encompassing holocaust has been abated for the time being. No one should become complacent or too optimistic. Evil is a sly and cunning resident within the minds and hearts of certain men. We must not forget the memory of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain departing a plane on September 30, 1938, waving a document in the wind, and declaring "peace for our time." From the perspective of hindsight, we find it incredible that anyone would believe Hitler, but it must be remembered that he had a devilish way with lying.

As the moist August air settles on our body and on our mind, we wish nothing of the harsh realities of life to tap our waning energy. Perhaps, something cool would refresh the soul and the buzzing sound of the insects of twilight lull us into drowsy indifference. Although we may wallow in the ecstasy of messaging sockless feet, remember the quiet heroes and what they sacrificed.