There is a section in the Gospel of Matthew that all Catholics should recognize. In fact, it is such a testament to the power of faith, that it is recited by each and every one of us at Mass in the Liturgy of the Eucharist:
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. [emphasis added] For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour [his] servant was healed.
Today is Veterans Day in the United States and so it is fitting to examine this passage from the viewpoint of the centurion, a man of war. He demonstrates an understanding of who Christ is and where His authority comes from that is seldom seen in the Gospels. This centurion is not the only soldier in Scripture to witness to Christ, but he is an excellent starting point. What are some traits that are evident in this centurion in the face of Christ?
Boot camp is an enculturation into a system that operates on authority. It is hierarchical and requires obedience for one main reason: People die if orders are not followed. As a soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman on the ground, they do not have a complete picture of what is happening. They rely on information from a higher authority who has been given the complete picture. If they do not listen, or go it their own, there is a good chance that people will died. This is especially true in real-time combat missions. The centurion understands that there is a complete picture in Christ that he does not fully grasp. He recognizes something of authority and power outside of the natural order. He is able to rely on this higher authority when he asks Jesus to heal his servant. His obedience is not misplaced and because of what he cannot fully comprehend, Jesus heals his servant.
The centurion is aware that he is in the presence of a power outside of his understanding. He knows that he cannot heal his servant and that he must rely on Christ to do the healing for him. It is easy to see that humility and obedience go together. In recognizing Jesus’ authority, the centurion is able to grasp his own limitations. He sees his own smallness in the face of the Power of God. He cannot heal his servant himself. Even though he commands soldiers and armies and maintains a certain amount of earthly power, he recognizes his own weakness. It is truly remarkable for a Roman centurion to go to Jesus, a Jew, and seek healing for his servant. It is completely outside of his understanding as a Roman, given that Caesar was supposed to be a god. Even this pagan soldier was able to see the true authority of the One God and submit to Him in humility.
When people think of the military, courage is one of the words that often comes to mind. This is for good reason because going into combat requires a tremendous amount of courage. There is a deep sense of courage and honor in all people who volunteer for military service and who desire to defend freedom for others. In this passage from Matthew a different kind of courage is at play. The centurion demonstrates great courage in going to Christ to seek His help. How many of us struggle to ask God for help when we are in truly dire straits? The centurion ignores any doubts he may have, or even reasoned arguments, to seek the help of Christ. He chose faith, which requires courage. It takes courage to step out of the boat, tug at the hem, or to see the Resurrection after the Crucifixion in moments of intense suffering and grief. The Christian life requires a lot of courage daily. This centurion shares with us a trait that is common in service members and reminds us to be courageous in our discipleship.
Given that it was a servant who was ill, it would have been very easy for the centurion to leave him to death and find another one. Instead he sought out Jesus and asked Him to heal his servant. He chose charity for someone who would have been seen as beneath him and expendable. When looking at service members there are times people forget that they are not just war machines. They are human beings looking to bring about good. That is the reason for the mission. There is a good in mind. That is what the Church teaches is a requirement of Catholic service members and militaries:
The requirements of legitimate defense justify the existence in States of armed forces, the activity of which should be at the service of peace. Those who defend the security and freedom of a country, in such a spirit, make an authentic contribution to peace. Everyone who serves in the armed forces is concretely called to defend good, truth and justice in the world. Many are those who, in such circumstances, have sacrificed their lives for these values and in defense of innocent lives. Very significant in this regard is the increasing number of military personnel serving in multinational forces on humanitarian or peace-keeping missions promoted by the United Nations.
Individuals serving in the U.S. military fight for freedom which is a good. Yes, this freedom can be disordered, but the majority of our Veterans truly desire to liberate those who are oppressed. The centurion saw that his servant was afflicted and oppressed by illness and so he found healing for him in Jesus.
The centurion’s actions in the Gospel of Matthew are reminiscent of how our own service members view their mission and task. Our Catholic service members desire to follow and seek out Christ in order to do good for others and for the person standing next to them. To be a member of our military is to sacrifice for others constantly. It is to work long hours, time zones away from family, in the hope of liberating others from the oppression of evil. What can we do for our Veterans and active duty members? Pray and offer sacrifices for them.
In the days that followed 9-11, while I was in the Navy and a relief worker at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center, my dad sent me the prayer of St. Michael the Archangel. I didn’t grow up reciting it. In fact, I hadn’t even seen it before that point, but it resonated with me. It reminded me of the mission, of the spiritual combat raging around us, and that there are vast legions of Angels defending and interceding on our behalf. I recommend today, and every day, saying this prayer for our military.
St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
image: Father (Major) Edward J. Waters, Catholic Chaplain from Oswego, New York, conducts Divine Services on a pier for members of the first assault troops thrown against Hitler’s forces on the continent. Weymouth, England. June 6, 1944.