A reminder: Freedom is not free
Recently I spent a few days in Washington, D.C.
In a way it was a sad visit because of the significantly increased security since my last visit. Concrete barriers and security checks at public sites are now routine.
Yet there remains a sense of awe to our nation's capital. While one can no longer drive in front of the Lincoln Memorial and pause for a moment of reflection, the simple and majestic rendering of President Lincoln remains powerful, as does the cause he represents.
The memorials to those who have fought and died in wars are humbling. The World War II Memorial was completed just this year.
There are two massive pavilions dedicated to the Atlantic and Pacific theatres of combat, with the major battles identified in the stone. Fifty-six pillars are inscribed with the names of the states, territories, and District of Columbia who sacrificed their sons and daughters. Wisconsin was easy to find since it abuts the entrance to the Atlantic Pavilion.
A Freedom Wall containing 4,000 gold stars commemorates the more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives. It was moving to see grandparents talking to the grandchildren about those days of sacrifice, loss, and ultimate victory.
Nearby is the United States Holocaust Museum. It graphically displays why that war was fought. Some of the documents seemed eerily familiar to our own day as the discoveries of science were translated into genetic engineering based on who was worthy of life and who could be discarded as a burden. It reinforced the struggle for a culture of life.
Commemorating what some have called the 'forgotten war,' the Korean War Veterans Memorial contains an etching of the words Freedom is not free. Powerful to behold are 19 stainless steel statues of a squad of troops on patrol which seem both life-like and ghost-like.
Images taken from photographs are etched into the stone. They remind us that wars are more than numbers of troops, they are fought by people whose families miss them.
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is especially impactive for me. Etched in granite are over 58,000 names of those who died in that long war. There are four Swains included. None are known relatives, but all are my brothers.
When people ask me as a Vietnam Vet what I think about the political controversy currently in the news, my reaction is to suggest that everyone involved should spend an hour in meditation at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It has a way of bringing perspective.
The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is an interesting contrast. Dedicated to a great man and pope who has fought for true freedom all his life, it includes exhibits from his pontificate and personal items used by the Holy Father.
After visiting so many memorials recalling the price of war, it was uplifting to find in the Cultural Center the Hands for Peace exhibit. The hands of Catholics from around the world are cast in bronze, including the pope's, and hung at a level to be touched. It is a graphic
reminder of the universal church, of our inter-relatedness, and of how each of us must work and pray for peace and respect for all persons.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is overwhelming no matter how many times it is visited. It is the largest Catholic church in the United States and contains over 70 uplifting and distinctive chapels and areas for prayer, all dedicated to Our Lady. Another prayerful and beautiful spot is the Cathedral of St. Matthew with its glowing mosaics.
A last stop was at the Corcoran Museum, which in conjunction with the dedication of the World War II Memorial contained an exhibit of the famous paintings by Norman Rockwell of the Four Freedoms. They speak to all ages: Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want, and the one that assures the possibility of the others, Freedom of Worship.
All of these memorials, secular and religious, are places of contemplation and prayer, both in memory of those they honor, but also in recognition of our need for God's love and mercy. As I celebrated Mass while in Washington, I prayed for those who are memorialized so beautifully, and for those brave men and women who are in danger today.
I also reflected on what a privilege it is to be a Catholic priest despite the challenges of our day. Christ taught us on the cross that freedom isn't free in this world, but that we can be people of hope because he was willing to lay down his life for us.