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Memorial Day and the Meaning of Sacrifice

Posted on May 24, 2023 in: Reflections

Memorial Day and the Meaning of Sacrifice

“Alright, boys, let’s go on in there and set up these guns for firing … We have a job to do!”

Those were the final words ever spoken by Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone on Feb. 19, 1945, on the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.

In May, we, as a nation, will observe Memorial Day, honoring the solemn sacrifice made by all those in uniform who perished defending our freedom. For Catholics, in particular, Memorial Day renders a unique opportunity to reflect upon the deeper meaning of sacrifice as it applies to both our daily lives and to our faith.

The word “sacrifice” stems from the Latin “sacrificare” (“sacer,” sacred or holy; “facere,” to make), and, by its very definition, it calls us to make the world a holier place, as followers of Christ. This does not necessarily mean that we are called to sacrifice our lives, as Christ did, upon the holy cross at Golgotha.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The only perfect sacrifice is the one that Christ offered on the cross as a total offering to the Father’s love and for our salvation. By uniting ourselves with His sacrifice, we can make our lives a sacrifice to God.” (2100)

We are, however, as the body faithful, invited to turn the “everyday ordinary” of our lives into an active offering — of our time, energy and focus, our every joy and sorrow — to the Lord. “It is right to offer sacrifice to God as a sign of adoration and gratitude.” (CCC 2099)

The question, then, becomes, how? What does “sacrifice” look like for us? As Catholics, we may not be entrenched in warfare of a physical kind, but we do face battles. While discerning what shape sacrifice can take in our own lives, we can look to examples of ordinary men who possessed extraordinary courage, like Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, for inspiration.

John Basilone was the sixth of 10 children born into an Italian-Catholic family who called Raritan, New Jersey, home. Though close to his family, he felt called to serve his country and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1940. In August of 1942, he took part in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

It was in those jungles where John first demonstrated his propensity toward self-sacrifice. For three days, without food or rest, John manned his machine gun, single-handedly preventing the enemy from advancing, while also saving the lives of his Marine brothers. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor … and a ticket home.

In 1943, John returned to the United States a war hero. Having reached celebrity status, he was sent on a highly publicized war bond tour, earning him ticker tape parades, newsreel coverage and magazine covers. Though he appreciated the admiration, John was a man of stark humility. His place was on the front lines, with his fellow Marines. After several denials, John’s request to re-enlist was approved. In 1944, he returned to duty.

On Feb. 19, 1945, at Iwo Jima, John freed two bogged-down Sherman tanks out of the sand — by hand — before losing his life to a mortar round. He was 28 years old. Sgt. Basilone’s selfless actions just before his death would posthumously earn him a Navy Cross and Purple Heart. He was the only Marine who was awarded these three major citations (Navy Cross, Purple Heart and Medal of Honor) during World War II.

The battles we face as Catholics living in a world very much opposed to Catholic teaching are different for each of us, requiring different sacrifices. For some, sacrifice may look like putting aside our own needs in place of those of another. Or, it can be rejecting the ways of the world, which places more value upon self-gratification and glorification, than self-control or humility.

This Memorial Day, as we remember our nation’s heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice, let us ask ourselves what proverbial hills are we willing to die upon? May we renew our resolve to be bold in faith, eager to sacrifice and proud to proclaim that this rock — the holy Catholic Church — is the ground we will forever stand upon. Most importantly, though, may we remember to unite our sufferings to the One who made the perfect sacrifice.

By Andrea DePaola


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