Uncle Ray was born in 1922 and raised in a devout Catholic home. When World War II broke out, he took a commission as a Second Lieutenant and became a bombardier on the B-17 Flying Fortress. On 18 April 1944, his plane was shot down over Germany. I don’t know if any of his crewmembers were killed or injured in that incident, but Ray survived and was captured and held as an enemy prisoner of war until after the conclusion of World War II.
Eventually he was returned to the U.S. sick and frail. As a young man of twenty-three, he would regain his strength but he was forever changed. How could he not be? “Battle Fatigue” was the term they used at the time to describe what today we call, PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Only 10%, or fewer, of combat veterans are given that diagnosis. For the other 90+ percent, some lesser form of combat stress reaction (“CSR”) is treated in various ways, or usually not at all, and if it is treated, it’s mostly done alone, by the survivor him- or herself. Like so many of his fellow veterans, Ray tried to put the war behind him and get on with his life. He would go on to graduate from law school, marry, raise a family, and run a successful business.
But what did the war and the experience of being a POW really do to him? I don’t know for sure, but I got an eye-witness inkling, only once, back in the late 1970’s. At a family reunion, after he sipped on an extra glass or two of wine, he talked about that which he tried so hard to forget. He became increasingly angry, tearful, and defiant; “They tried to break me, but I wouldn’t let them,” he eventually sobbed. It was heart-breaking to see my sweet Uncle Ray so crushed. It was also around that time that his marriage was collapsing and he stopped going to church altogether.
Thankfully, Ray was not a belligerent anti-churchman, nor an evangelical atheist. His difficulties with God, like his experiences in the war, were largely a private matter. He even came to my ordination twenty years ago. He was proud of his nephew, the priest, but estranged from the God who allowed him to drop bombs on German cities, and to languish near death in a POW camp.
Fast-forward to 2008: Uncle Ray had done a lot of work to come to terms with his past. One day my father (Ray’s baby brother) and I stopped by to have lunch with him at his country club. By then he was a single-leg amputee confined to a wheelchair, and on “release” from his assisted living facility. When we talked about my experience in the Air Force, he got a little weepy, for obvious reasons. But then later in the conversation, at just the right moment, he off-handedly mentioned, “I received communion today.” Wanting to afford him the same courtesy he showed me all those years, by being just as un-zealous and un-evangelical, I chose to say nothing, but inside I cried: “Uncle Ray has come home.”
As a priest, I get a winsome feeling when I see a youngster in his parent’s arms as they come up for communion. After giving the parent the host, I will often hear the child say, “I want one too!” “Indeed,” I think to myself. As a military chaplain, I have seen the anguish in a soldier’s eyes when, after I have stepped off the helicopter in a war zone, he says to me, “You’re the first priest we’ve seen in three months.” I always translate that in my head as, “We haven’t had the Eucharist in three months.” So many times have I heard at a funeral home, the family receiving solace when one of the members announces to the others, “Mom was able to take communion the day before she died.”
Quite simply, for us Catholics the Eucharist is in fact “the source and summit” of all that we do. It marks every significant occasion, both the happy ones, and the sad ones, and it sustains us in the “ordinary times.” Its absence in our lives, be it intentional, or unintentional on our part, signifies a desert experience; a period of longing, or searching. Flannery O’Connor is famously quoted as saying about the Eucharist, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
Shortly before he died in 2009, Uncle Ray received communion and anointing of the sick. When the priest presented the host to him he said, “The body of Christ.” In other words, what the priest said was, “Raymond, this IS the body of Christ, soul and divinity,” to which Uncle Ray responded, “Amen.” In other words, what he said back to the priest was, “Father, I believe!” Amen, Uncle Ray. Amen.
Father James A. Hamel is a Catholic priest who is a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently an instructor at the Air Force Chaplain Corps College at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.