I’ve been on the road for a couple weeks with family and friends, visiting Normandy, France and various D-Day sites. I have been there before; but this time was particularly special for me.
At the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer (above Omaha Beach) I visited the grave of my grandmother’s nephew. I am the first person in my family to ever be here and stand at his grave. He was a farm boy from the Midwest, with a grade school education. He was drafted, three days before Christmas, in 1942.
Marion, my distant cousin, was one of the first American soldiers to wade ashore at daybreak on Tuesday, June 6th 1944. Omaha Beach. He was one of the first to die there, as well: Private First Class, U.S. Army. Twenty-two years old. Now, almost seventy years later, we gathered around the white cross at his grave. “He must have been a brave young man,” our cemetery guide told us as he conducted a brief memorial service, “because he had been given a Silver Star as well as a Purple Heart.” No dry eyes that day, as we stood there at cousin Marion’s grave, with nine thousand other graves around us. “They gave us our freedom,” our young guide said. I kept thinking, as we walked back to our car: fearful and brave soldiers…. and so very, very young.
The evening after my visit to Colleville, I got an email from a friend in Michigan, giving me the latest Catholic news from the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Archbishop John J. Myers, the spiritual leader of 1.3 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Newark, has issued a pastoral letter saying that the legalization of gay marriage threatens religious freedom and that Catholics, who don’t accept the hierarchy’s teachings on the subject should refrain from receiving Communion.
More thoughts about freedom. Whose freedom? And who’s being threatened here? What is freedom. John Myers sees gay marriage as a threat to freedom….. Or does gay freedom threaten him? Thoughts….
With a bit of a chuckle I remempbered a comment from my old fellow-professor friend (and a rather conservative Catholic) a couple years ago. We were talking about people being gay and about gay unions. He was a sexologist and I the theologian; and I had asked him what he thought about “gayness.” Our local archbishop had just issued a statement that gay people are innately disordered and all gay sexual activity was a grave sin. “Well,” he said, “some people are very other-sex oriented. Some people are very same-sex oriented; and most of us are somewhere in the middle.” “So?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “if that’s the way God made people I guess God won’t mind at all if people are true to themselves….”
I re-read Archbishop Myer’s statement and I thought about the twenty-two years old fellow in my introduction to theology class last summer. In his university parish he is Eucharistic minister, a member of the parish council; and he is helping with the organization of shelter for battered women. And he is gay. And he would like to “marry” his companion. Does he have freedom? Should he have freedom? Can one be free to be oneself and is that a sin? And I thought about his parents, whom I met at a reception. They asked me about church teaching and their son’s lifestyle….they couldn’t believe their son was living in mortal sin, as their local parish priest had said.
Another email from my Michigan friend, with Seton Hall University student reactions to Archbishop Myers’ letter. (Seton Hall is New Jersey’s largest Catholic College.) One student captured the sentiments of many of her classmates, when learning about the Archbishop’s statement: “I think it’s outrageous….Our generation is more accepting. I think it’s going to make people quit….They might not want to go back to church, because they won’t feel accepted.”
Being an old researcher, I turned to the Pew Research Center to examine the most recent data about American Catholic views on same sex-marriage. Archbishop Myers would not be happy with what I found. A majority of lay Catholics — 53 percent — now support gay marriage; and the number of gay-marriage supporters rises to 72 percent among Catholics between the ages of 18 and 34.
Yes…..what is freedom? Whose freedom should we enable? What does it mean to be free? How do we as church promote and honor freedom?
But now I close……and my meandering thoughts return to my young cousin and the 425,000 other Allied and German soldiers who were killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle of Normandy.
As I load photos into my computer, I look at one of my friends standing on the spot where President Reagan stood in 1984, on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, and I recall his words then: “We stand today at a place of battle, one that 40 years ago saw and felt the worst of war. Men bled and died here for a few feet of – or inches of – sand, as bullets and shellfire cut through their ranks. About them, General Omar Bradley later said, ‘Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero.’”