An Army of Youth

March 19, 2003

An army of youth flying the standards of Truth,
We’re fighting for Christ, the Lord.
Heads lifted high, Catholic Action our cry,
And the Cross our only sword.
On Earth’s battlefield never a vantage we’ll yield
As dauntlessly on we swing.
Comrades true, dare and do ‘neath the Queen’s white and blue,
For our flag, for our faith, for Christ the King!
               — Daniel Lord, S.J., 1888-1955
                   American priest and writer
                   from his rallying song for the youth division of the Catholic Action Movement, USA, c. 1940s

I first learned the song quoted above as a fourteen-year-old eighth grader at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The year was 1961, and I was living in the greatest country in the world that, by the grace of God, was being led by its first Catholic president. I stood with my classmates at graduation and sang with all my heart. 

In the fall I entered ninth grade and commenced four years as a Bishop McDevitt Crusader, an experience whose memories remain among the fondest of my life. At graduation in May of 1965 the speaker, a priest who had been our principal for three years before leaving educational administration for the pastoral ministry, charged us to go out into the world and live the tenets of our faith despite the challenges we would face. He reminded us that it was hard to be a Christian in this world, harder still to be a Catholic Christian. He painted a stirring picture of the rewards we would reap if we remained steadfast and true. He told us to envision a horse and rider mounting a high hill, fresh from battle, bloody perhaps but unbowed, the sun shining on his shield. “The shield belongs to a Crusader,” Father said, “and the sun belongs to God.” Almost forty years later I still shiver when I remember it.

During Lent the Lutheran congregation I now practice with has a midweek service with an hour-long Bible study before. The theme this year is the history of the Christian church’s relationship with the Jews. Last week we looked at a timeline of Jewish persecution, beginning in 313 with Constantine’s Edict of Milan which established Christianity as the legal religion of the Roman Empire and making it a crime to become a Jew by conversion and ending in 1933 with Hitler’s accession to power and then the Shoah (the Holocaust). Under 1096 I read this: “Crusades begin. Crusaders are sent with the promise that to kill a Turk is to get to heaven. Crusaders figure that Jews, who are sympathizing with the Moslem Turks, must fall into the same category. Rule of thumb: When crusaders crusade, Jews are slaughtered.”

I was devastated. 

It’s not that I didn’t know what the Crusades were. I knew that they were bloody battles undertaken to reclaim the Holy Land from “the infidels,” the descendants of those Muslims who four hundred years before had reclaimed (by their own bloody battles) territory they believed had been wrongly wrested from them in the name of Christianity. I knew that the blood in “bloody battles” was spilled from innocent victims, Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.

In truth, religious fervor was only one reason for the Crusades. The first one was a great victory, to be sure, but those that ensued over the next several hundred years tended to be catastrophes or barely successful at maintaining the status quo. In fact, the peasants who undertook the People’s Crusades were either slaughtered or disbanded themselves before ever reaching the Holy Land. But they went for the reasons many desperate people join such causes. They lived in a world that offered them few opportunities to escape poverty and disease. Succeeding as a Crusader was a way to improve one’s temporal status. Failing that, giving one’s life in the service of the Lord assured eternal glory.

Yet it is the romance of the Crusades, perpetuated in such idealistic literature as the Song of Roland and the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, that most people are familiar with. I certainly bought into it. To be a Crusader, I thought, was to be a knight errant, a roving do-gooder who righted wrongs and rescued those in danger. In fourth grade I’d read a children’s biography of Joan of Arc, a fearless young woman who gave her life for les miserables, the wretched of the earth. (That she did it on horseback only added to the glory.) I transformed those images into dreamy notions of nurturing and protection of the helpless, particularly children. I reacted not to the reality of the Crusaders, but to the reflection.

I’m all grown up now, and I’ve lost a lot of my naiveté about the world. Things are seldom as simple as they appear, or as they are made out to be. The nuns who taught us to sing like soldiers were sincere but misguided. Even so, growing up on militaristic images and models of bloodthirsty warriors didn’t hinder my development as a pacifist. Most people would say that I am nurturing, and that when it comes to the wretched of my immediate world — the lonely, the outcast, the throwaway children who have sat in my classroom hungry and hurting from abuse and neglect — I can be a crusader who sometimes brings about positive change.

The unease I feel tonight is a terrible sadness at having to confront the last great lie of my childhood. Yes, the Crusaders were brave, and loyal, and convinced of the rightness of their actions. But in light of my country’s present situation, tonight I have to give up forever the romantic picture I have always carried of them. War is hell, no matter what you’re fighting for.

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