First off, I forthrightly admit that St. Thomas did not directly address Memorial Day in any of his works. Still, I propose that this U.S. holiday can be better observed in light of what he says about the virtues. A virtue, of course, is a conscious habit that helps us to perform good acts consistently, and the general virtue that I propose to relate to Memorial Day is the virtue of justice. The virtue of justice governs our relationships with others and causes us to give the other person what is due to him. Because it encompasses the whole of our relations with one another, its scope is wide and its importance great.
Within this broad range, the part of justice that is especially fitting for Memorial Day is found among what St. Thomas calls the “potential parts” of justice: they are called potential because they refer to relationships in which we cannot actually pay back what is due. They are part of the virtue of justice because, although equality cannot be fully actualized, it is still a matter of justice that we equalize the relationship as much as possible.
The first and most important potential part of justice has to do with the One with whom we have the most unequal relationship, i.e., God. Though there is no way to repay God fully for the good he has done for us, we still owe him our praise and thanksgiving. Whenever we give to God something of what is due to him, we exercise the virtue of religion.
While Memorial Day is certainly related to religion, this first potential part of justice, it is more directly related to justice’s second potential part. This is the virtue called piety. Patriotism is akin to it, because it has to do with the principles of our being and our government, which are our parents and our country, respectively.
On Memorial Day, we generally commemorate all the Americans who have gone before us and, more specifically, we remember and honor those Americans who have died in war. We do this because the sacrifices they made have contributed to the freedom and stability of this country. While God has created us, our parents and country also have a certain preeminence in our lives. This is because what they give us makes us who we are. For that, we can never fully repay them.
Just as every Sunday gives us the chance to exercise the virtue of religion by stepping back from the daily grind to recall the God who is the supreme foundation of our lives, so too Memorial Day gives us the chance to exercise the virtue of piety by stepping back from the daily grind to recall those who have contributed to the country that is the earthly foundation of our lives.
This Memorial Day, how can we give what is due to those who have died in war or have otherwise gone before us? How can we make sure that we are not treating Memorial Day merely as the third day of a three-day weekend? I offer two thoughts.
First, we can exercise the virtues of religion and piety when we offer our lives with Christ’s in the sacrificial memorial that is the Mass. We can offer thanksgiving for those who have gone before us, especially for those who have united their lives to Christ by laying them down for their country. We can offer thanksgiving for the blessings we have received through these sacrifices, which are participations in Christ’s sacrifice. We can also pray for the repose of their souls, that they may receive the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice. We can do this both at Mass and also at the national moment of remembrance: 3 p.m. local time.
Second, we can exercise the virtue of piety by attending commemorative ceremonies and parades, or by reading about and reflecting on the history of our country and those who have given up their lives for her sake. We can give them what is due by allowing ourselves to be inspired by their heroic virtue, and by their willingness to suffer for a greater good.
This can lead us both to reflect on the good things that God is inspiring us to do for our country and to more firmly resolve to do them. It is precisely for the sake of doing good that God has given us free will, and our country aims to respect that freedom by being “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We are free not merely so that we can pursue whatever pleases us, but rather so that we may have the bravery to do what is good for our fellow countrymen, for our parents, and, ultimately, for God. So let us honor God and country by stepping back from the busyness of our lives and by making sure that the things we spend our time doing are for the love of God and the love of our neighbor in God. This Memorial Day, may God bless each of us in our exercise of the virtues of religion and piety, and may God bless America.