Last year on Remembrance Sunday I called into Joanmount Methodist Church in North Belfast a short time before the service was to start. The church was filling up with most of the congregation wearing poppies. After a brief conversation with the minister, I then drove less than a mile to the nearest Catholic Church which is in Sacred Heart Parish where I am the parish priest. The contrast on that particular day could not have been more startling. The congregation was about its usual size, but I did not see anyone wearing a poppy or any other symbol to acknowledge it was Remembrance Sunday. The closest in words we came to it was a reference to praying for those killed in warfare during the Prayer of the Faithful; that said the Catholic Church values highly the religious concept of “remembrance”, particularly in a Eucharistic context (“Do this in memory of me”), in which the past becomes present and in each celebration of the Eucharist, our dead are remembered. My point in describing the contrast between the two churches is to consider if this is as good as it gets or if it is possible to find ways for a more inclusive approach to Remembrance Sunday.
Personally speaking as a Catholic growing up in Northern Ireland, remembering soldiers killed in the world wars was not part of my church tradition and I imagine that this would have been the same for most of those who were brought up here as Catholics. I purposely mention growing up here in the North to contrast this experience with Catholics in England where in most Catholic churches, Remembrance Sunday would have been observed with large numbers of Catholics wearing a red poppy symbol.
The issue is not a theological one, there is no Catholic Church rule to say we should not wear poppies or remember the military dead. For Catholics living here I would suggest it is different for historical reasons and because of all the “political baggage” that we attach to wearing a poppy. I would also suggest there is a moral conundrum for many Catholics wherein many will point to the fact that it is only British soldiers who are remembered and not everyone who was killed in war. As a consequence, for the most part, Remembrance Sunday for many Catholics here is therefore either forgotten or ignored.
To remember or not to remember?
I would point to signs to suggest some Catholics want to remember those killed in wars. It is clear, for example, as we move through the decade of centenaries some Catholics living here have been keen to find out about family members who enlisted as soldiers during the First World War. I keep meeting Catholics who are very interested in the historical facts of the war. I think for example of the ground breaking work being done to find out about the soldiers from here who enlisted with the 6th Connaught Rangers. This work which has a strong cross community dimension is about establishing the facts and does not glorify war or make any political points.
In addition, various events organised by a First World War Commemoration committee have been held to recall some of the key moments from one hundred years ago. I have attended a few of these and have found they have been sensitively organised ensuring an inclusive way of remembering and without glorifying war. As I look ahead to further significant commemorations to mark the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, I recognise that such events could be extremely divisive if not handled carefully. If, however they are handled with sensitivity these commemorations have the possibility to dispel myths and to help us appreciate more fully how the world in which we live today has been shaped by events 100 years ago. The work of Dr Eamon Phoenix and Dr Johnston McMaster in learning about the past and how we commemorate today deserves a particular mention.
Turning again to Remembrance Sunday and the challenges and opportunities it presents, I would suggest we might evaluate how we have observed or not observed this day in the past. We need to go beyond the mentality of “this is how we have always done it”.
So for those of us who have who have not observed Remembrance Sunday I would like to suggest a few things for consideration:
- taking time during the day to reflect on the loss of all human lives in warfare or conflict.
- attending either a religious or civil event.
- finding out about the origins of the red poppy symbol, which unlike the Republican Easter Lily, was never intended to be a political symbol. As an aside, there has been some very good work done in assisting such an understanding by the likes of Philip Orr and Joe Austin whose joint presentations on the “Poppy and the Lily” are well worth attending.
- wearing a white poppy which is a recognised symbol for peace. (There is also the question of respect for those who choose to wear the red poppy. It would be my hope that we build a society where those who wear it would be free to wear it where they like including in Catholic churches here).
For those who observe Remembrance Sunday every year I would like to put forward for consideration:
- a greater emphasis on developing a culture of peace. (One of the criticisms of those who object to attending annual Remembrance events has been what they perceive to be the very strong military dimension).
- ensuring an emphasis during the ceremonies on acknowledging the horrors of war, the mentality of “never again” and a recognition of all the suffering caused by war.
- welcoming those who wear a white poppy, a symbol which goes back to the 1930s. Whilst few people here wear it, we accord them respect if they choose to do so. Some of the hostile comments in social media indicate we have some way to go in this regard.
- Finding out about the white poppy at http://www.ppu.org.uk/.
Recently on Twitter, David McCann, Deputy Editor of this website, tweeted that he expected there would probably be the same old arguments about the poppy by the same people. I would hope in writing this article as a new voice on this issue that at least something here might shift the discussion even in a small way.
Fr. Martin Magill is the Parish Priest at St Johns Parish, Belfast.