The Requiem Mass for the War dead prays for men and women who, like all of us, stand in need of merciful forgiveness. We plead the sacrifice of Christ, offering His Body and Blood, for them, not as heroes but as sinners. The customary rituals of Cenotaph observance have - surely, even now - a nationalism built into them, while the Mass subverts all nationalisms. It was, after all offered on both sides in the European wars. The great Fr Bernard Walke, who made St Hilary in Cornwall into a Catholic village, instituted the service of Benediction during WW1 "as an act of reparation to the Sacred Heart for the wrongs of war, and as a means of uniting ourselves with our enemies in that Sacrament which knows no frontiers". Walke, a papalist, wholeheartedly supported the attitude of Benedict XV to the War and was beaten up in street for refusing to accept the rhetoric of war-time hysteria. I wonder if it was a conscious echo of his words about reparation to the Sacred Heart which led the congregation here at S Thomas's to put up a (German-carved) statue of the Sacred Heart as our War Memorial, beside the tablets with the names of the departed inscribed upon them.
As far as WW2 is concerned, I often think about the contrast between two great fictional products of that war, both written by combatants; both overtly semi-autobiographical. Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea is written without ideological baggage; a memorial to the men who fought the war of the Atlantic convoys. I find it full of venom; venom against adulterous wives back home; against tall blond German submarine captains; against the Irishwho denied Cork Harbour and Bantry Bay to the Royal Navy. Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy is quite different. At its beginning, Waugh saw the conflict as a chivalrous crusade on behalf of Christian civilisation against Nazi barbarism and its atheist allies in Moskow. When the war was ending, with Uncle Jo a genial ally and sitting on half of Europe, Waugh had come to perceive it as a sweaty tug of war between two teams of scarcely distinguishable louts. Waugh discerns the ironies and hypocrisies as embodied in the Sword of Stalingrad - a gift from the Christian King of England; a symbol of chivalry to congratulate Marshal Stalin; a triumph of craftsmanship ... and with the symols on its scabbard upside down. Waugh's hero sees, as Waugh himself had seen, the savaging of Christian Europe in Tito's Jugoslavia.
The Mass is just as subversive of our modern tyrannies as it was of the horrible nationalisms of the twentieth century. It subverts now- fashionable assumptions of roles and genders. As a communal and hierarchical act with a formal and inherited structure, it subverts the cultures of choice, of spontaneity, of individual autonomy, of each man constructing her own identity. As a ritual which looks beyond itself it subverts the assumptions of human self-sufficiency. And it speaks of Judgement; of a Court of Appeal beyond any Court of Human Rights. Indeed, the rights the Mass enthrones are the rights of a Creator and the vested interests of a Redeemer.