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A sobering experience, a dose of reality
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Here in Washington, D.C., for the Fourth of July, I’ve been challenged once again to remember the price so many millions paid for our freedoms, and the great cost to our nation of defending our borders, our unity, and what we call the American way of life.  Having been fetched by my sister and her husband late Thursday night, I spent all of Friday on the National Mall.

Arriving too early for the American Indian exhibition, I went to the nearby Civil War Memorial.  Two dramatic statuaries, each facing the other, and representing the opposing armies as they struggled in the face of death to face off for battle, these heart-wrenching monuments to a wound that has never fully healed stand close to the Capital, that we might never forget.

That evening, I would end my walk at the far end of the Mall, beyond the Lincoln Memorial, at Arlington Cemetery.  There, countless identical white tombstones dedicated to fallen soldiers extend in straight unwavering lines in every direction.  It’s both frightening and sobering to stand there, living and free, among the simple markers of those whose lives were sacrificed.

I spent twenty minutes, silent, at the grave of JFK, Jackie, and their two children who died still infants.  Memories flooded back, with tears as well.

Reaching the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just in time for the changing of the guard, I stood at attention as we saluted all those whose names and identities are known to God alone.  The Honor Guard’s rigid discipline, though almost robotic, demanded from us a greater sense of reverence.

Promising general turns into invincible enemy
But what moved me most was what I discovered at the Cemetery’s highest point.  There, in the former mansion of Robert E. Lee, I read the sad story of a patriotic American whose loyalty to the State of Virginia led him to join the Confederacy.   In fact, President Lincoln had asked Lee to preside over the Union’s army, but Lee felt impelled by a greater duty to Virginia.

“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen,” he wrote his sister in 1861, “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.  I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and serve in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword.”

Thus, by a twist of political fate, the North’s most promising general soon became its most invincible enemy.  And though the Lee family remained intact, the four sons also serving the Confederacy and surviving the war, this was not the case with everyone.  Hundreds of families would be split in two, with cousins fighting cousins, even brothers killing their own kin.

My mind returned to Medjugorje.  I had visited this town of Bosnia-Herzogovina June 24-28 for the 29th anniversary of the alleged apparitions and a time of deeper prayer.  There, as throughout the republics of former Yugoslavia, the seething centuries-old wounds of warfare and the oppression of one people by another are still just beginning to heal.  What the movie ‘Invictus’ portrayed regarding Mandela’s determination to leave behind the hatreds, the prejudices, and the demands for retribution or even revenge, in order to forge a new nation recognizing the dignity of every human being, is still a constant challenge in the Balkans, as it is elsewhere.

The gruesome war that followed Croatia’s declaration of independence (on the night of the tenth anniversary of the apparitions) divided communities, pitted neighbors against neighbors, and set the timeline far behind on efforts to forge some degree of unity between the distinct national and religious groups.  The artificial national identity imposed by Tito had succeeded, to some extent, in forcing diverse peoples to coexist harmoniously.  This was the pride of Yugoslavia, but it unraveled, brutally, when the long war began.

On Sunday afternoon, June 27th, I arranged to meet a priest from Liverpool to discuss some similar issues we face in our ministries.  “You’ll find me at the Irish Pub at three o’clock,” he said.  “I’ll be there for lunch, but at four, I won’t be much good any more for conversation.”  He meant to say, in other words, that his British group was going to stake out the best table available ahead of time to watch the critical match between England and Germany.   (The Irish Pub is a major gathering place with HD televisions.)

Following three days of intensive prayer and at the presence of over 25,000 pilgrims from around the world, it seemed fitting to celebrate on a Sunday afternoon and to gather as one around the monitor to witness the big game.

Soccer and war
We had a great conversation, but, yes, when the soccer began, my soccer-playing fellow-priest ensconced himself among his pilgrims and anxiously gripped a mug of Irish beer.  It so happened that two groups from Ireland were also on hand.  When I asked them if they’d be rooting for England, a strong, tall fellow with shaved head and an earring lifted his pint and said, “Father, we’re for Germany.”  He explained that, following the defeat of the Nazis, the first international match Germany was allowed to play again was against Ireland.  Apparently, economic factors and the sad history of conflicts with the English, influenced these Irish pilgrims in their position.

In fact, they were from “Derry”, of Northern Ireland.  That should explain it all, as the British still insist on calling this tragic city “Londonderry.”  It had long been the focal point for Irish resistance and of British retaliation.

It didn’t help at all that there was a drunk, mentally deranged Croatian in that bar.  The locals know him and apparently put up with his madness.  He lifted his fist and cried, “Germany, Germany!”  Meanwhile, an Irish girl of six showed me two ivory-faced dolls, boasting, “they’re from Germany!”

England’s first goal was met by thundering applause and cries of national pride by my priest buddy and his clan.  But Germany’s prompted the same from other factions, and an escalation of behavior from the drunken Croat.

Other locals tried to shut him up.  Those relatively few Nazi sympathizers from the 1930s and ‘40s had been cured of their delusions decades ago, and commitment to the healing and restoration process here in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been bearing fruit, since the devastating war of 1991-5, which resulted in the effective partitioning of former Yugoslavia into ethnic sectors.  Medjugorje, since 1981, has been an oasis of peace.

So, after having celebrated a beautiful mass together at noon, the last thing you’d have expected to find in Medjugorje was division and ethnic tension.

When the referee disallowed a legitimate goal made by England, in which the ball bounced downward inside the goal from the bar above, but due to a back-spin bounced back out again, the tension was as thick as Guinness Stout, that tar-flavored dark beer so beloved throughout the British Isles.

Feeling partially responsible for having conducted video interviews with the opposing parties before the game began, I now did my best to calm the troubled waters.  My legitimacy for this mission lay not only in being an American priest, but also because my ancestry is English, German, and Scottish Protestants who were settled long, long ago into Northern Ireland.

I’d walked with the Bethlehem Peace Pilgrimage from the extreme South into Northern Ireland during times of great stress, crossing the border on Good Friday, 1983.  Our group had been marching from Seattle to the birthplace of Jesus on behalf of peace and reconciliation.  Northern Ireland was then Europe’s most tragic point in which ethnic tensions converged.

Returned twice to Northern Ireland
I’d returned twice to Northern Ireland afterwards, with delegations and to share presentations about my journeys in the Soviet Union.  Having met a few of the key players in Belfast and in Derry, I’d become familiar with the causes and the provocations that had been keeping the wounds wide open.

Ironically, later in 1983, we were shocked to find Serbian tanks occupying significant portions of Kosovo, whose Albanian population were restless.

But my twenty-seven years of visits to what used to be Yugoslavia had not prepared me for what was happening in the Irish Pub, so near to the church.

Going back and forth between the tables, I apologized for having created more conflict by joking about their rivalries.  “It’s O.K.,” said Liverpool’s priest, “It’s just a game.”  But his posture and expression said otherwise.

“You need to shut up!” I said to the drunken local who was escalating his German eulogies and standing to make gestures.  “In my country, you’d be out on the street in no time at all,” I told him.  He got in my face.  “In fact, if you keep this up, don’t complain if someone puts a bullet in your head.”

After all I have seen and learned, I really wanted to beat the you-know-what out of this guy, so much did my blood boil at his neo-Nazi posturing.

Other people were watching.  I was dressed as a priest.  He was probably pretty strong.  We were in Medjugorje.  I have a foreign passport.  Things quieted down, and for the rest of the game, everyone’s better instincts and their faith in the same Lord and Savior prevailed.  It wasn’t my presence that helped the situation, but that of the Queen of Peace.  However, I will lay claim to some credit for silencing the one who most needs redemption.

July 3rd, in the Space and Aviation exhibit, my blood began boiling once again when I studied the huge V2 missile which, during the last years of the War, Germany developed and launched against thousands of targets in England, France, and Belgium.  Carrying a warhead of 1,000 pounds, able to be guided silently in their last gliding phase before reaching the civilian centers they targeted, these demons from hell killed 7,000 innocent people and wounded many thousands more.  Against England alone, 2,700 were launched, causing over 9,200 casualties.  And there the monster stood, as if proud to have served the Third Reich and later to have provided the prototype for similar Allied missiles, as if its mere presence were not an offense to the countless visitors who yearly stop to read about its purpose.

And there, a black-and-white photograph, depicting the devastation in Belgium caused by one such missile.  Bodies lie, torn apart, with black oil and blood and debris in the street, and a priest soberly blessing the remains.

I wanted to peg that crazy Croat in the nose. But what good would another act of violence do in a world already torn to pieces?  God had allowed him to test us all, to prove whether or not our message of peace has substance