Dedication and Blessing of The Chapel
21 March 2012
Officers and members of the 28th Infantry Battalion,
fellow priests and friends,
It is a privilege for me to be with you this morning on this happy occasion to dedicate and bless your beautifully renovated chapel. It adds to the significance of the occasion for me that this chapel and Finner Camp are situated in my native parish. I can recall people like Dixie Bowe who used prepare a place for Mass on occasions when, as a young priest, I deputised for Canon Peter Finnegan or Fr. Frank Little in saying Mass here.
After my ordination to the priesthood in 1969, I was appointed to a teaching position in St. Macartan’s College in Monaghan. During the Summer holidays, for a few years in the early seventies, I spent part of my holiday time in Paris and in other parts of France learning the language. At that time the troubles in the North of Ireland, as they were called, were keeping personnel here in Finner Camp on their toes. Watching newsreels of happenings in Northern Irelandwhich used to precede the main film in French cinemas, I remember thinking that you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching events in Vietnam which was also on fire at the time.
I can recall talking to many older French people who had experience of and involvement in the Second World War. They asked me a lot of questions aboutNorthern Irelandin an effort to understand the reasons for what was happening there. It surprised me that they were so reluctant to speak of their own experiences of war and, invariably, no matter what explanation I offered for things as they were inNorthern Ireland, they just shook their head in disapproval and insisted that war was not the way to solve problems. They left me in no doubt about their feelings in relation to war.
Not so long ago I had the opportunity to visitVietnam, a country of almost 90 million people. I was there on what might loosely be described as a mercy mission. During my time there I had an opportunity to visit the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels. This network of tunnels facilitated the communist Viet Cong in controlling a large rural area of the country nearSaigon. The tunnels stretched for 250 kilometres fromSaigonto the Cambodian border and included innumerable trapdoors, constructed living areas, storage facilities, weapons factories, field hospitals, command centres and kitchens. Because it was so successful and on account of the large number of American casualties it became the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare. The tunnels are now a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese children and a huge attraction to tourists.
They represent an ingenious improvised response by a poorly equipped peasant army to an invading power’s high tech ordnance, helicopters, artillery, bombers and chemical weapons. When theU.S.army eventually sent men down the tunnels, these ‘tunnel rats,’ as they were called, sustained appallingly high casualties. When the Americans began using German shepherd dogs to locate guerrillas, the Viet Cong began washing with American soap to confuse the dogs. Thousands of civilians were killed. The traps set for the American troops led to horrific deaths; the end result of all the variants used was to leave the bodies of American soldiers impaled on spikes and often facing a slow painful death. The purpose of the war was to keep or makeVietnama non-Communist country. Most people would agree that Communism has effectively died or been transformed since by forces other than war and that the war was futile and unnecessary.
Songs often paint living pictures for us of a place or event. I don’t know if you have ever heard of an American songwriter called John Prine. He has written a song the Ballad of Sam Stone. Let me read you a few verses:
Sam Stone came home, to his wife and family,
after serving in the conflict overseas,
and the time that he served had shattered all his nerves
and left a little shrapnel in his knee
But the morphine eased the pain and the grass grew
around his brain.
It gave him all the confidence he lacked
with a purple heart and a monkey on his back.
There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose,
Little pictures have big ears don’t stop to count the tears
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.
Sam Stone’s welcome home didn’t last too long
He went to work when he’d spent his last dime
And soon he took to stealing when he got that empty feeling
for a hundred dollar habit without overtime
And the gold rolled through his veins like a thousand railway trains,
and eased his mind in the hours that he chose,
while the kids ran around wearing other people’s clothes.
Sam Stone was alone when he popped his
climbing walls while sitting in a chair
He played his last request while the room
smelt just like death
with an overdose hovering in the air.
But life had lost its fun, there was nothing
to be done
But trade his house that he bought on G.I. bills
for a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.
The picture that I have been describing to you is not a pretty one, not inspiring. It is a picture of conflict and inhumanity between fellow human beings. You could be forgiven for thinking it was an anti-war rant, that it was an attempt to discredit or disarm armies everywhere. That would be a mistaken interpretation of thoughts I wish to share with you. In our God-inspired Book of Life which we call the Bible conflict and violence have been with us since the beginning. Cain and Abel’s dispute ended in fatal violence between these brothers and the pages of the Old Testament drip with the blood of nations and armies at war with one another. The Roman army soldiers are part of the backdrop to the life of Christ and play a prominent role in the events surrounding his death.
Christ brought a message of salvation, a different way of living. It does not wipe out violence and conflict. We are free to choose how we live. It gives an answer to violence, a different way of coping with conflict. It offers a way to peace through using our talents and resources in service of one another, showing a will to live in an acceptance of diversity and a capacity to forgive even serious wrongs. His Way opens the gate to dialogue and to a spiritual kingdom based on love of God and neighbour.
As a nation we have a history of neutrality. We are, happily, not a colonising power. We have more than enough to do to protect the integrity of the land we call our own. We are happy and proud to have the Irish Army to defend our country. But, in our time, this has not been the dominant work of our soldiers. Rather our army, including many of you here present, has played a distinguished role in peacekeeping in many parts of the world. This has spared us many of the horrors of war that other people have experienced. The work of our army in this task has in contrast ennobled and enriched the lives of individual soldiers and earned respect and admiration throughout the world.
The role of peacekeeper is very much in line with our tradition and with the spirit of the Christian faith which is by far the dominant value system of our people. What you have done in providing a place of worship and nourishment of spirit for your members will, I am confident, enhance and confirm your role as peacemakers in a brittle world, as well as enriching your personal and family lives. I commend the army officers, the professionals, the Chaplaincy, the members and officers of Donegal County Council, the army privates and the foreman and civilian workers of the Board of Works employed in the camp. I compliment all of you, as well as the artist of course, on the significant achievement of transforming an ordinary space into a pretty and peaceful garden of prayer and worship. Well done to all of you.
Having this enhanced chapel in your camp leaves more space and a home for the presence of God in your midst. He will not chase you like a pirate but he will be there for you when you need him. As the Scripture Readings of our Mass today remind us, he will not leave you toiling in vain and exhausted for nothing. He will make you a light to other nations if you allow him. He will enlighten your minds and bring healing and health to a broken world. Members of the 28th Infantry Battalion, I salute you. In taking on the noble responsibility of offering your lives to the service of your people, and devoting your energies to bring peace and harmony to our divided world, you are continuing and adding to a proud tradition.
May God be with you to bless you and support you every step of the way.
+Liam S. MacDaid