The Church was full. I was sitting in the back seat, waiting for the Mass to begin. You may well ask what on Earth I was doing there – after all those years since I abandoned the priesthood and later the faith, and naturally stopped going to Mass. It was one of those occasions when for reasons that have nothing to do with faith, you had to be there. As a matter of fact, in this regard, I was far from alone. You see, it was a Memorial Mass for the victims of the Battle of Pozières, in the Somme, where in July-August 1916, the Australian army suffered, in the six-week battle, 23,000 casualities, including 7000 dead. The Mass, and the civil ceremonies that followed, marked the centenary of our most costly victory in the most ferocious and absurd war in human history.
Parishioners were in the minority, but the choir was in full voice. The priest was a senior citizen, still able to sing on key. People paid polite attention to what he was saying and singing, but it seemed to leave even the believers cold. This was especially true of the sermon he preached. Even politicians and government officials would find it difficult to say anything terribly original on such an occasion. But this was a sermon, so the priest could not be content with a call to remember the sacrifice of fallen heroes; he had to say something about God and use the occasion to foster faith. So he spoke about prayer. As he clearly was not a reader of this Blog, he trotted out all the predictable nonsense about praying for the Faithful Departed. Then, in an attempt to break new ground, he started insisting on “persevering in prayer”. I may not have been, and hope I was not, the only one who wondered why one would have to repeat requests for God’s mercy. “Ask and you shall receive.” Period ! Surely once would be enough for a loving Father, who could not possibly have a reason to refuse such a prayer. When I said “no” to my kids for something they wanted, I sometimes (too often !) gave in when they insisted. But surely God does not need to have us pester Him to be merciful to the young men who lost their lives in the Somme mud. (“Somme Mud” is the title of a remarkable book by Australian historian Will Davies, which I highly recommend. Will is the patriot behind the “Pozières Project” : a state-of-the-art French-Australian school which will replace the antiquated, inadequate public school on the ground floor of the Town Hall, built in 1925, as a living monument of the saddest chapter in the history of Australia and of the unbreakable bonds between Australia and France.)
After the sermon the Mass continued with the celebration of the Eucharist, a rite incomprehensible for most of the motley congregation. I am not sure that even the non-atheists present really believed that the white wafer held up by the priest really had become the Body of Christ. But the point of the Mass was to have us end up feeling we had all done our duty by commemorating the sacrifice of young Aussie soldiers, and nobody really thought of the supposed sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, reenacted by the symbolic separation of His body and blood, the bread and the wine. I was perhaps the only one who made the connection, and marvelled at the credulity I once had when I believed it was true.