This month we commemorate the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, when more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. We remember the heroic actions of so many - the selfless love of soldiers who sacrificed their all to protect our freedom. The writer G.K Chesterton wrote some interesting words about the soldier. He said “The true soldier fights - not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” A soldier’s story is a story of selfless love.
I would like to share with you the story of Father Francis L. Sampson, a Catholic Priest and Chaplain, known today as the “Parachute Padre.” Father Francis was a member of the 101st Airborne Division during WW2. He was among the many men who dropped out of planes into the dark sky of Normandy on D-Day, part of the largest air armada ever assembled. At 1:15am, June 6, 1944, when most people in German occupied Normandy were sleeping, this young Catholic chaplain made his first combat jump. Landing in a deep stream, he cut away his 120 pound pack and was dragged by the current into shallower water before he could unbuckle his chute. He then went back to the deep water, repeatedly diving to retrieve his weapons: a MASS KIT and HOLY OILS. He then joined up with other surviving paratroopers – finding their way to a French farmhouse that was being used for soldiers severely wounded. Here Fr. Francis tended to the wounded, offered prayers, and gave last rites to the paratroopers who would soon go home to God. On the second day there, German SS troops overran the house – they dragged Fr. Francis outside - and raised their rifles to shoot him. At that moment, a German non commissioned officer stopped them. He saluted Fr. Francis, and then showed him a religious medal hidden inside his jacket. Father Francis always said that the “universality” of the Church saved his life that day. The Germans allowed Father to go back and tend to his wounded, which included German wounded. After the farmhouse was retaken by the allies, Sampson heard of an American soldier whose three brothers had all been reported killed on the beaches of Normandy. He instigated the search for the fourth brother, Fritz Niland. Father Francis found him and brought him back to Utah Beach, where he was evacuated back to the States. Does that story sound familiar? It should, because it served as the plot for the movie, Saving Private Ryan, where the part of Father Sampson was played by an entire squad of rangers. After his experiences in Normandy, he took part in an airborne assault on Holland. It was there that he was seized again by the Germans, becoming a POW at Stalag 11-A, a POW camp about 50 miles south-west of Berlin. Father was the only Catholic priest among the 950 Americans in a camp that held some 26,000 prisoners of various nationalities, only 21 of whom were officers. Father was allowed to remain in the enlisted men’s prison, rather than the officer’s prison, at his own request. He had the men build a chapel in his barracks, where he held daily Mass and a non-denominational prayer service twice a week. On Good Friday, Father Francis led the men in the Stations of the Cross, and gave an hour’s meditation on the life of Christ. On Easter Day, he joined with French, Dutch and Polish Catholic priests, who were imprisoned, to celebrate together a Solemn High Mass for several thousand prisoners. It was on this day that Father Francis recited, what he would call, his best homily. He finished with these words, “Each of us has that sacred image stamped upon his soul. Like this chapel, we are Temples of God. Now at the foot of this cross - let us renew our baptismal vows. Let us promise to shield forever His image in our hearts."
I share this story with you because it has correlation with today’s solemnity, the “TRINITY”.
This is a story of selfless love – of one giving all for the other. Why do we give our all for the other? Because we are made in the “image of God.” To understand this, we have to ask ourselves the question, who is God? Is God some vague supreme being? No. Christians rest their faith on the Doctrine of the Trinity. God is Trinity. Three divine persons in ONE God. This is the great mystery that is so difficult – even impossible to fully grasp. Yet, let’s think of the Trinity as an ocean. We could never wrap our arms around an ocean, but we can enter into it.” God – The Trinity – is a communion of love. A play of lover, beloved and love. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, in the manner of love. Pope Benedict explains “God is not solitude, but perfect communion. This “communion” is a loving relationship – so God IS LOVE. “For this reason the human person, made in the image of God, realizes himself or herself in love, which is a sincere gift of self.” You and I are made in the image of a “Supreme relationship”, made in the image of the “highest family and community”, made in the image of Love itself. We share in God’s divine power, with an intellect patterned after the intellect of God; of loving others - similar to the eternal love of God, who is the divine community of the Holy Trinity. We were made to love.
When young Father Francis climbed into that plane in England, he did not know the future – if he would live, or if he would die in France. He would go on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. At the end of his life, he had inscribed on his tombstone “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
Fathers, today is OUR special day - we were made to love. To protect our families, to serve them, and teach them the Word of God as the spiritual leader of our homes - to bless our children and teach them to love God with all of their hearts, all of their minds, and all of their strength. Like Father Francis Sampson, who 70 years ago was called by God to risk all, we are made in the image of God – the God that "so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life."
Homily - Deacon Brian J. Murphy
* Holy Trinity, Central Panel from the High Altar of the Trinity Church, Mosóc