Celebrating Memorial Day Mass at Mount Olivet

Memorial Day Mass participants at Moutn Olivet Cemetery in Kansas City read along with the proclaimed Gospel or listen quietly. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Memorial Day, May 27, a day of sun and clouds, which fittingly suggested both warm memories of loved ones at rest in Mount Olivet Cemetery and sadness at their deaths. Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr., celebrated the Memorial Day Mass at Mount Olivet in Kansas City, assisted by Deacon Justin McMenamy of Nativity of Mary Parish. Between 150 – 200 people attended the Mass, held on the porch of the chapel. People sat in lawn chairs, on blankets on the grass, and in pews which had been brought outside and set up at the foot of the steps leading to the chapel. Music was provided by the Nativity of Mary parish choir, directed by Maria Milazzo.

Small American flags, sold for a small donation by students of St. Michael the Archangel High School and Our Lady of the Presentation School, bordered the cemetery roads and many of the nearby graves, which also were bright with flowers.

The readings for the Mass were chosen to remind and reassure the listeners that their beloved dead are at peace and rest in God. The first reading, the Book of Wisdom 3: 1- 6, and 9, specifically states, “The souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. …”

The Gospel, John 5:24 – 29, goes further: “Jesus answered the Jews and said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. Amen, amen, I say to you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. …’”

Bishop Johnston early in his homily, reminded the assembly, “The central mystery of the Christian Faith is about Death and Resurrection, the death and resurrection of the Lord, and His promise that, for all who belong to Him as members of His body, there will be a share in a like resurrection of the Body. Along with this, we ‘memorialize’ this central mystery of the Christian faith by celebrating it in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist. Christ Himself gave us the command, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ As often as we do, we are united with His living presence, and are united in the body with the resurrected Body of the Lord.

“The celebration of the Eucharist is the way we are united in a living way with the souls of our departed loved ones. ‘The body is one and has many members; and so it is with Christ,’ the Apostle Paul assures us. This means that we are in a holy communion with our deceased and they with us, for we are all in Christ. We realize this living reality in and through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist at every Mass.

“So, if you want to be as close and united as possible with our deceased this side of heaven, then attend Mass. We offer this Mass today for them.”

The bishop mentioned that later that day, he and a group of seminarians were leaving on a pilgrimage to Tennessee and Kentucky, including hiking to visit the Civil War battlefields of Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain. Chattanooga, Tenn., sits in a bowl at the foot of Missionary Ridge, located at the northwest corner of Georgia, the northeast corner of Alabama, and along the Tennessee state line. One peak, Lookout Mountain, overlooks the city and the river. During the war, the small Tennessee River city of Chattanooga was considered a necessity for both the Confederacy and the Union as a supply base. Chattanooga was a hub with roads, the river, and railroads connecting the South. Union General Ulysses S. Grant wanted Chattanooga in Union hands; Confederate General Braxton Bragg wanted it to stay in Confederate hands.

The Confederates defeated the Union soldiers at the Battle of Chickamauga in Sept. 1863 and the Union forces retreated into Chattanooga. The Confederate Army of Tennessee surrounded and besieged the city. Then in late Nov. 1863, the recently defeated Union troops, now with reinforcements from Grant, over three days — Nov. 23 – 25 — attacked the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. On Nov. 24, they fought and defeated the Confederates in the Battle of Lookout Mountain. The next day they routed the Confederates around the ridge and took it. Chattanooga was re-made into a supply and communications base for Union General William T. Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta campaign. There were more than 30,000 casualties from both sides in those battles.

Bishop Johnston said the Civil War and its aftermath provided the beginnings of Memorial Day. “It started with four southern mothers decorating the graves of their sons and other fallen Confederates” on April 25, 1866. “The mothers noticed that the graves of the northern soldiers were bare. Moved by pity and love, the mothers laid flowers on their graves,” he said.

A stanza of a poem by Francis Miles Finch, The Blue and the Gray,* written later in remembrance, describes what is credited by many scholars as the first Decoration Day. The annual holiday gradually changed to “Memorial Day,” which was first used in 1882. “Memorial Day” became more common after World War II, and became official by federal law in 1967. From 1868 – 1970 Decoration/Memorial Day was observed on May 30; since 1971, it has been held on the last Monday of May.

‘… From the silence of sorrowful hours
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers
Alike for the friend and the foe;
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day;
Under the roses, the Blue,
Under the lilies, the Gray.

Bishop Johnston continued, “We also remember, with those around our nation, the men and women who, over the decades, have sacrificed themselves to defend our nation: its people and its freedoms. Service men and women make great sacrifices for others. Even if they do not make the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives, they give up time with their families, they give up years in which they could pursue their own ambitions and plans, they expose themselves to not only physical, but also spiritual, dangers. And so, we remember them too today. We pray for the dead and the living and the families who have been most impacted by their sacrifices. We owe them our gratitude.

“But, more than this, we owe God our gratitude. Gratitude for our creation and our redemption in Christ. That God is the Lord of history, which is marked by sin and death and war, but is also marked by God’s intervention in our history with the coming of His Son, Jesus the Christ. He is the one that changed history forever with His resurrection, and why our gathering here today, and every year on Memorial Day, is a sign of hope as we look forward to our own resurrection. Amen.”

The Prayers of the Faithful asked, among other petitions, “For those who courageously laid down their lives for the cause of freedom. May the example of their sacrifice inspire in us the selfless love of our Lord, Jesus Christ … and … For all those who have died in the hope of rising again; may the Lord welcome them into the light of his presence: we pray to the Lord.”

The closing hymn, “God Bless America,” was enthusiastically sung by all present.

Memorial Day Masses were also celebrated at the three other diocesan cemeteries, Resurrection, Mount St. Mary’s and Mount Olivet-St. Joseph. Father Joseph Sharbel celebrated the Mass at Resurrection Cemetery; Father Justin Hoye at Mount St. Mary’s and Father Christian Malewski at Mount Olivet-St. Joseph.

*The Blue and the Gray was published in the Atlantic Magazine in 1867 and posthumously in 1909 as part of a book of Finch’s poems, published by his friends. Finch died in 1907.

Bishop Johnston distributes Holy Communion to Memorial Day Mass attendees at Mount Olivet Cemetery. The Mass was celebrated outside the chapel with between 150 -200 people attending. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)


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October 20, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph