By Father Bill Kneemiller
Once in a while, things just click into place. It was mid-April, and a Catholic army chaplain retreat was scheduled in Rome for a week. Each year, the chief of chaplains offers a retreat for the Catholic chaplains so they can take a short break and try to avoid burnout.
Only 14 other priests/chaplains from around the world were able to make this one because of the Iceland volcano. I was so excited about the conference that I got permission to leave a couple of days early. As it turned out, I was on the last flight out of Southwest Asia before the airports closed.
From Heaven to Eden
I landed in Frankfurt, Germany, on the first leg of the journey and stayed overnight. It is hard to describe the difference between hot and dusty Kandahar (in Afghanistan) and springtime in Frankfurt. It reminded me of Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” going from black and white to the brilliant color of the Land of Oz. It was so amazing to enjoy clean, fresh air and see the greens of the grass and foliage, and bursts of colors from flowers. The biggest surprise was the lack of dust.
If Germany is like heaven, then Rome is like the Garden of Eden. I found the retreat facility run by the Passionists at the top of the Caelian hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome. This location overlooks the Coliseum and is the site of the temple of Claudius around the time of Christ. That temple, except for the foundation, was destroyed.
On the site is the house church of fourth-century martyrs John and Paul. Our Passionist guide told us John and Paul weren’t John and Paul from the New Testament, but Christian leaders who were beheaded in their house-church by order of Julian the Apostate.
Our guide said these martyrs’ names are mentioned in the first Eucharistic prayer. A light bulb went off for me. That prayer says: “We pray for the whole Church … we honor … the Apostles and Martyrs Peter, Paul, Andrew,” then down in the list of saints and martyrs, “John, Paul, Cosmas and Damian …”
These are early martyrs I had been praying about for years, and now I was standing by their tombs! I realized how much more personal these prayers to the martyrs would be for me, having heard a little of their story and their sacrifice for the faith.
We Need the Saints
Recently on my visits to say Mass at operating bases around Kandahar, I’ve been bringing some of my DVD collection. I’ve been inspired by the new movies available from Catholic Vision Video and Ignatius Press. There’s a company in Italy that comes out with full-length saints’ movies every year — “St. Anthony,” “Francis and Clare,” and “Padre Pio,” which are works of beauty of faith.
I give my little sales pitch for the saints’ movies: “If you watch a movie about a gangsta (funny way to say gangster), then you feel like becoming a … gangsta! But if you watch a movie about becoming a saint, you want to become a …” Then one of the infantry guys says “better person.” Perhaps he thought that the leap from infantry to sainthood was a bit steep!
I recall reading that the saints have helped sustain the church throughout the millennia. We need the saints now, in our lives, more than ever. We need to reflect about their lives of total and complete dedication to God.
But, most of all, we need to experience for ourselves their absolute love for the Lord, and this divine love that guides and sustains us in our walk with our Lord.
(Fr. Kneemiller, a priest of the Diocese of Davenport, is serving as a chaplain in the Army Reserves in Afghanistan.)