Pays tribute in Sunday homily to priest, rabbi and ministers who gave up their life jackets in 1943 German torpedo sinking of U.S. Army transport ship
KEARNY, N.J.—His Excellency, the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services (AMS), said Sunday the sacrifice of four United States military chaplains from different faiths and religious backgrounds who gave up their life jackets to save others on a sinking World War II U.S. Army transport ship stands as testimony to the nation’s founding values. “Their sacrifice repeats the firm belief that each person has a unique value, not conferred by man or the State, but by God Himself,” the Archbishop said in a homily commemorating the 70th anniversary of a German submarine torpedo attack on the U.S.A.T. Dorchester in the North Atlantic.
On February 3, 1943, the four chaplains—Father Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; Rabbi Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Rev. Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister; and Rev. Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister—were all aboard the Dorchester, carrying one-thousand tons of cargo and 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers as part of a convoy on its way to a U.S. military base in Greenland when the torpedo struck its starboard side, killing or wounding many of the passengers. As the Dorchester began to take on water, panic spread upon realization that life jackets and lifeboats were in short supply. The four chaplains gave up their life jackets and went down with the ship, leaving 230 survivors.
Archbishop Broglio delivered his homily in a noon Mass at Saint Stephen Parish in Kearny, New Jersey, where Father Washington served as a priest before joining the Army. At the conclusion of Mass, the Archbishop took part in the unveiling and dedication of a new statue to the four chaplains outside the church.
Here follows the text of Archbishop Broglio’s homily:
This past year I used the Four Chaplains as an example in my homily at confirmation. Their sacrifice was a response in concrete circumstances, but it did not occur in a vacuum. Father John P. Washington and his companions did not wake up on February 3, 1943 and decide that they were going to be heroes. They were men for others with the courage of their convictions long before that day dawned.
It is fortunate that we hear these three passages from the Sacred Scriptures this afternoon. They speak to us about vocation, charity, and the prophetic dimension of the Christian life. They describe well the attitudes and convictions of these men of God whose sacrifice we remember and celebrate today.
Both Jeremiah and Jesus tell us about vocation and its implications. They remind us that each person has been called by Almighty God and gifted with unique talents to build up human society and to make manifest the Body of Christ. No one here today is without a vocation. They are different ones, but each one is necessary for the good of all.
The Prophet Jeremiah’s vocation came at an extremely difficult moment of the history of Israel. He had to be a sign of contradiction and accuse the people of religious and moral decadence. His role put him in opposition with the powerful of his time. He had to be courageous, but God supported him with the certainty necessary to resist the lying and the trials of those who surrounded him. Jeremiah would make the ultimate sacrifice in service to the truth, because those who cannot stand the truth killed him.
In giving a vocation, God requires absolute obedience from the prophet, a willingness to serve, and confidence in His presence. Indeed Jeremiah is destined for his role from the moment of his conception. That is how intimate his role is with his very identity. He will enjoy a constant and progressive intimacy with God. That implies tragic moments of abandonment and persecution.
A meditation on 1st Reading and Gospel points to the prophetic role of Christ and ours. Like the prophets, Jesus brings the word of God, but He is that word. Through His words and actions, the living and holy God makes Himself known and presents the mystery of salvation to humanity. He makes Himself known as love without limits as described by Paul in the passage just heard.
The Church in Corinth presented many challenges and concerns to Paul, but he was always the witness of the love of Christ. His famous and beautiful hymn to charity leads us to the heart of Christian message: commandment of love for God and others. Substantial and essential: above every other gift. It is the only route to a love without borders. This hymn is strategically placed in his letter where he treats of the unity of the Church to remind us that unity is based on love. We see it so clearly in the decision of the four chaplains to strip themselves of life jackets in order to save the lives of four more passengers on the Dorchester. I have just been reminded of that love on the island of Moloka’i where the memory of the commitment of Saints Damian and Marianne Cope is still so tangible.
The term “love” is so abused in our times. It describes so many things that it is not. We are not talking about a possessive love= eros, but charity: love which gives and does not seek to own. Love as God loves: gift of self, comprehension, and mercy. That is the kind of love exhibited in the decision of the four chaplains. It is the kind of love we seek.
Indeed, why do we remember their gesture? Can we add anything to their lives? Can we give them anything? Are they expecting another reward from us? Of course not. We remember, because we want to cultivate the same virtue. We want to learn how to decide as they did to be men for others. We, too, want to make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters in the human family.
One way that we decide to make that difference is the prophetic dimension of our Christian vocation. We note it in the inaugural discourse of Jesus in which He announces the fulfillment of divine plan and definitive liberation of humanity. His mission is clearly not only among Chosen People. The reaction is not enthusiasm, but skepticism and opposition. Those of His home town are convinced of their knowledge and are unwilling to look beyond what they think they know.
We can make the same mistake if we prefer to remain anchored in our securities. This Year of Faith given to us by the Holy Father reminds us of the importance of the leap of faith. We trust in the Lord and take our steps forward with confidence in his care for us. That is what allowed the chaplains to take that plunge into the unknown for others.
The whole people of God participates in the prophetic mission of the Church. The Vatican II reminded us of that role in the Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (12 and 33). It is not an easy role: word is sharper than a double-edged sword. It can be bothersome to those who do not want to accept it. You noticed that Jesus does not change His message in the face of opposition, does not back down when threatened. Truth is not negotiable, agreed upon, or consensual. The Lord makes it clear: you are for Me or against Me.
It is that conviction that He does the Father’s will that allows the Lord to walk through the crowd that opposes Him. His will is sovereign and He obeys the Father alone. That was not easy then and it is not today.
Prophecy and witness today mean proclaiming the truth even when not politically correct. It implies surrendering the life vest of conformity, popularity, and mediocrity for the plunge into absolute fidelity to the teaching of God revealed in His Church. It means offering a critical voice against inconsistencies of our times. The prophetic mission of the Catholic is accomplished like Christ: with works and deeds. Those works culminate in love.
The mission has been brought home in the recent challenges to religious liberty, that precious God-given right, which is recognized in the US Constitution. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King talked about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as the “great wells of democracy” that express “the most sacred values in our Judeao-Christian heritage.” You cannot deny those foundational elements of this Nation.
It is significant that a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, and two Protestant ministers served together to meet the religious needs of those soldiers transported by the Dorchester. They testify seventy years later to the very foundation of our Nation on values inspired by a Judeao-Christian heritage. Their sacrifice repeats the firm belief that each person has a unique value, not conferred by man or the State, but by God Himself. When we profess that human dignity from the moment of conception to natural death we find ourselves in a continuum of faith and practice. We continue the commitment affirmed by the chaplains in the gift of their lives.
Witness, word, and wisdom are the three manifestations of the prophetic quality of the Church. Prophecy is not foretelling the future, but a profound reading of the present where the prophet speaks to identify the divine will. He or she tries to inspire and convince by word and deed. It is a coming alive of the word in the witness of concrete actions.
In retelling the story of the Four Chaplains my hope was to inspire the confirmandi to do great things with the fullness of the gift of the Holy Spirit that they would receive in confirmation. It is a challenge to use gifts and talents to do great things. In our materialistic and secularized age the example of Father Washington, Rabbi Goode, and Chaplains Poling and Fox is more important than ever.
In that same spirit I salute the Veterans here present. Your commitment to our Country is part of a long, inspiring history of self-giving, service, and the risk of the ultimate sacrifice for the principles upon which our nation is founded. We give thanks for your commitment and service. We desire to be inspired to do great things, as you did, in the everyday activities of life. That indeed is the best tribute to the Four Chaplains and the Veterans of all times!