Photo: Mass Atop Suribachi. Heads bowed in prayer, Marines attend Holy Mass on the summit of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, as one of their number receives communion from the Navy Chaplain who celebrated the mass. The two Marines at the right are spreading their ponchos, (rain capes), to shield the improvised altar from the high winds that rake the volcano peak. (quoted from the original 1945 vintage photo caption). Photographed by Technical Corporal Louis R. Burmeister. Official U.S. Marine Corps Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.
By Father Dennis A. Suglia
Father Suglia, associate pastor, at St. John the Evangelist, Center Moriches, served as an active duty Marine from 1987 to 1991, as an Infantry Officer, 7th Marine Regiment. This reflection appears in the May issue of The Long Island Catholic Magazine. For more from the magazine, click here.
I am not often drawn to an image as I once was while studying in the Seminary for the priesthood. It was a simple picture of a Catholic U.S. Navy Chaplain’s Field Mass with servicemen during combat operations at the Battle of Iwo Jima. The men are marines and sailors in the midst of the sad reality of combat.
It hung along the wall in one of the hallways at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception. I remember that when I saw it I was immediately drawn into the scene.
Here is what I saw in the visual captured by the photographer: There is a priest standing on a heavily sloped hill wearing simple vestments draped over his military fatigues. He is seen administering the Eucharist to a marine who was kneeling on a rocky and combat torn hill. Behind the priest was a hasty altar and canopy. Around this battle sanctuary were a dozen or so marines and sailors. They appear captivated by the simple reception of Holy Communion seen at the center of the frame. Apparently they had little regard for the enemy that lay hidden somewhere nearby. The photograph is equally strange, mysterious and mystical.
It is strange because of the setting of a battleground that is still being hotly contested. The photo is mysterious because it communicates the singular focus on the Eucharist by the battle-weary men. They have come to pray with a poignant air of grace about them despite the anxiety of the scene.
Mystical because in the Eucharist Jesus is truly present in his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. He is the mercy of God expressed in the saving action of the crucifix now transformed into the sweetest of all the Sacraments, the Eucharist.
He humbles himself (Phil 2:6) by coming to these servicemen who possess both desire and need of God. Jesus seeks these combatants in the real and terrible contradiction of conflict and violence and his Love (1 John 4:16). He is the gentle master who comes seeking them to console their hearts. He is the One who can give them rest (Mt. 8:18).
God’s transcendent essence can calm all storms. For us in “civilian” life God wants to help us with the hurdles, hills and valleys that are part of our everyday ordinary lives. It begins with prayer and the hope that God’s superfluous grace will guide our hearts to truth and goodness.
This Memorial Day let us celebrate and remember those who served and have gone before us. War is always dreadful regardless of the outcome and the loss of any human life is always tragic. However, sacrifice can justly be made for some greater goodness. For 2,000 years since the first Easter we Christians have believed that the tragedy of the Crucifixion is surmounted by the triumph of the resurrection. From suffering comes redemption.
Let us fill our hearts with hope that our faith will lead us to knowing him truly as he is. Jesus Christ is The Suffering Servant that consoles us by calling us into a deeper relationship with him and his Passion, Death and Resurrection. His eternal hope for us is to be reunited together forever with him in the kingdom to come. May our veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice and the souls of the faithful departed, through the Mercy of God rest in peace.