Given at Mass on the Centenary of the Battle of Jutland on the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin May, 31 May 2016, at Westminster Cathedral.
This evening we offer the Mass for the repose of the souls of those sailors and members of the naval forces who died during the Battle of Jutland off the Danish coast on 31 May to 1 June 1916. Jutland was the Navy’s greatest battle engagement and it remains controversial in terms of military evaluation. It did however ensure that the German fleet never again threatened the North Sea and so gave the dominance of military power to the British navy.
We mourn the death of over 6500 naval personnel and over 2500 Germans. Over 250 ships took part in the battle: 151 British ships 14 being lost, and 99 German with 11 being lost. We remember that many who survived the battle endured terrible injuries and continued to live with these injuries, burns and the effects of heavy bombardment by shells. As we recognise the bravery and generosity of so many men for the sake of justice and freedom, we continue to pray for those serving in the Armed Forces and to pray for peace.
In particular this evening, it is important to recognise the part that naval chaplains played in this terrible conflict. There were a total of 51 chaplains taking part, of which six were Catholic: Fr Thomas Bradley CSSR (HMS Tiger), Fr William Driscoll (HMS Natal), Fr Patrick Gibbons (HMAS Australia), Fr William Meagher (HMS Bellerophon), Fr Stewart Joseph Phelan OMI (HMS Black Prince) and Fr Anthony Cecil Hungerford-Pollen, Cong Orat (HMS Warspite). Fr. Phelan, originally from Kerry moved to Kilburn with his family where he enlisted. He was lost at sea along with 855 crew members from the HMS Black Prince. Fr Hungerford-Pollen received the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery when he plunged himself into a huge cordite fire in order to rescue two junior seamen. Both survived but he was badly injured. Such acts of sacrificial love are inspired by the example of Christ who gave himself on the cross.
From across the centuries the words of St Augustine of Hippo of the fourth century, remind me that whilst it is at times necessary to wage war to restore justice and protect peoples, war is always to be lamented because of the misery which it brings to so many people in the cause of peace. He writes, ‘Surely, if [a man] remembers that he is a human being, he will rather lament the fact that he is faced with the necessity of waging just wars;… For it is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the duty of waging wars; and this injustice is assuredly to be deplored by a human being,… And so everyone who reflects with sorrow on such grievous evils, in all their horror and cruelty, must acknowledge the misery of them. And yet a man who experiences such evils, or even thinks about them, without heartfelt grief, is assuredly in a far more pitiable condition, if he thinks himself happy simply because he has lost all human feeling.’ We lament war, even when just, and continue to pray for peace.
As we remember and commemorate the fallen in this great and tragic sea battle, the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady offers hope. First, it offers the hope that Mary desires to share the good news that she has conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit and will give birth to a Saviour. Second it is the hope that comes from a visit of charity.
I am sure that many men in the Navy carried their rosary beads with them to battle. They would have been consoled by praying the mysteries of the Rosary and pondering on the wonders of the Lord. Many would have carried prayer books and some the Bible. The rhythm of prayer of the Rosary is possible even in the most difficult of circumstances and meditative recitation of the Our Father, Hail Marys and Glory be, becomes second nature as we reflect on the mysteries of the Lord’s birth, Passion and Glory. Sometimes it is easier to come to the Lord through Mary, through a Mother, than to pray directly. The Church has been given Mary as Mother who is tender and knows the needs of her children and so is the most perfect person to ask for favours.
Mary’s prayer of the Magnificat is the most perfect song of praise and thanksgiving for the Incarnation and so can become our prayer for the freedom which we enjoy and the freedom from sin which is given to us through the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ.
Mary as the perfect disciple gives us an example of how to love when she visits her cousin Elizabeth and comes to help her during her pregnancy and in her need. She is a model for generous acts of charity that emulate the charity of this feast that is concerned with welcome, hospitality and care. In the midst of the Battle of Jutland, it is such acts that displayed heroism and valour and led to the most generous self-sacrifice. May we too be generous and model our lives of the tenderness and care of Mary towards her cousin Elizabeth.
May the fallen rest in peace: Eternal rest give unto them O Lord.
Bishop John Sherrington