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Father Richard Kunst: Memorial Day is the most Catholic secular holiday

Back in the fall of 1987, when I was a senior in high school, my paternal grandmother had died. To this day, it is one of the more traumatic deaths I have experienced.

Though her death was expected due to cancer, she was a massive influence in my young life, especially when it comes to the faith. I was very close to my grandmother, and I give her much credit on the human level for inspiring me towards the priesthood.

Father Richard Kunst
Father Richard Kunst

That following week at school, I ran into one of my teachers in the hallway between classes. Though I am not sure how this teacher found out about it, she said a few words to me about my grandmother’s death. Her comments even back then struck me as very odd. She said, “Richard, I am sorry to hear about your grandma dying. I will keep her in my thoughts.”

Now on the face of it, that was a very nice thing to say, and in no way do I question the motives as anything other than being charitable and thoughtful. But the question I was asking myself even back as a 12th-grader was, “What’s the point of keeping someone in your thoughts?” There would be no benefit for my grandmother to have a stranger think about her.

On the last Monday of May, our nation celebrates what I believe to be one of the more important civic holidays — Memorial Day. Originally called “Decorating Day,” it was a day set aside for decorating graves of soldiers of the American Civil War. As time went on it evolved into a day to remember veterans of all wars, and hence the name change to Memorial Day.

One of the modern-day tragedies in our country is that Memorial Day weekend has come to be nothing more than a three-day weekend for people. It is the one day of the year that is meant to honor those who served our country and sacrificed for her.

So why is Memorial Day so Catholic? And what does it have to do with my grandmother?

I understand the importance of remembering people who sacrificed for our country. Remembering them is one way to keep their spirit alive. But the fact is, simply remembering them really is no benefit to the ones we are remembering!

It’s like my teacher in 12th grade telling me she would keep my grandmother in her thoughts. While it is a nice thought, there really is nothing beneficial about it.

Almost every year on Memorial Day our bishop or some other diocesan representative says a Mass at our diocesan cemetery, Calvary Cemetery in Duluth. This practice, and Masses like it throughout the whole country, are what make this federal holiday a very Catholic holiday.

As I mentioned above, remembering someone is nice, but it is limited in its value. Remembering people from the Catholic perspective is of greater value when the memory is accompanied by our praying for them. If my 12th grade teacher would have told me that she was keeping my grandmother in her thoughts and prayers, that would have meant so much more! When we remember the soldiers who sacrificed for us and keep them in our prayers at the same time, then the holiday becomes much more meaningful.

I suppose the other “Christian” secular holiday would be Thanksgiving. Who are we thanking for all of our blessings? Our bosses at work? No, we are thanking God. He is the source of all of our blessings.

But Memorial Day is particularly Catholic, because we profess the truth that even after death God cleanses us from our sins and the effect our sins have on our souls. Praying for the dead is not common to all Christian religions, but to us it is sacred.

So this coming Memorial Day weekend, when you go to the cemetery, don’t just decorate the graves with flowers. Pray for your deceased loved while you visit where they are laid to rest. And even if they don’t need your prayers, God in his divine wisdom never allows any prayer to go to waste.

Editor’s note: Bishop Paul Sirba will be celebrating Mass on Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, at 10 a.m. at Calvary Cemetery, 4820 Howard Gnesen Road in Duluth. All are welcome to attend.

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Duluth and St. Joseph in Gnesen. Reach him at [email protected]