FrDawson homily - Stonyhurst College

World War One Memorial Mass – 12th Oct 2014
He was born into an educated, comfortably off family, the son of an Anglican
clergyman around the time your great-grandparents were born. He got a good
education, excelled at sports and then went to Trinity College, Oxford. He
represented the University for athletics and lacrosse, graduated with a First Class
honours degree in philosophy and a year later represented Great Britain in the
Olympics in the 400 metres. He then went on to study medicine. Life wasn’t all plain
sailing for this talented, privileged Englishman, and he failed his surgery exams the
first time.
In 1913 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was attached to the King’s
Regiment and when war broke out he went to Northern France with his battalion as
their medical officer. By June 1915 he had been awarded the Military Cross for
A year later in August 1916 his battalion took part in the Battle of the Somme. There
were very heavy casualties but he tended the wounded in the open all day under
heavy fire, frequently in full view of the enemy. When night fell he spent four hours
searching for the wounded in front of enemy lines. The next day he took a stretcher
bearer to rescue a wounded soldier and carried him 500 yards under heavy shell fire
and was wounded in the process. That night he took a party of twenty volunteers
and rescued three wounded men from a shell hole just 25 yards from the enemy
frontline. Altogether he saved the lives of twenty badly wounded men, along with all
the other less serious injuries he treated. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his
bravery that day. His citation for his VC said that ‘his courage and bravery were
beyond praise’.
Less than a year later he was injured early in action against the enemy whilst
carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, but he refused to leave his post,
going out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded and to
help carry them back over the heavy and difficult ground. Without doubt, many men
would otherwise have died without his determination and care. His First Aid post
was hit by a shell on the third day of the battle and he was seriously injured. Before
he died of his wounds he dictated a letter to his fiancée Gladys and said, ‘Duty called
and called me to obey’. ‘Call of Duty’ used not to be a game, but a serious business.
A month later the King awarded Captain Noel Chavasse a bar to his Victoria Cross,
the only man to win two VC’s in the First World War, and one of only three men ever
to do so.
His parents were inundated with letters praising Noel, and one from a senior officer
said this: ‘He was quite the most gallant and modest man I have ever met, and
perhaps the best liked. I do not believe a man of more noble character exists.’
We have just heard Jesus set out the values and vision of the Kingdom of Heaven
and the people who make it – the gentle, the merciful, the pure in heart, the
peacemakers, those who hunger for justice. The horror of the First World War – or
Syria or Iraq today – could not be further from this vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Tolstoy said, you may not be interested in war, but war is very interested in you.
From the Christian perspective, war – even a just war – is always an evil and a
failure; it is not the way the world is meant to be. Yet even in this horror, this gallant,
modest and compassionate man Captain Noel Chavasse, who killed no one, lived
out these beatitudes of gentleness, mercy and goodness.
Stonyhurst is a place where we feel the weight of history and this school has a proud
memory of its seven VC winners, three of whom fought in the First World War – Lieut
Maurice Dease, Captain John Liddell and 2nd Lieut Gabriel Coury. You also have
three canonised saints and twelve blessed from this school and its forebears. Sat
between saints and VC winners, perhaps you don’t feel especially brave or holy or
Like Noel Chavasse, you have been born into families that value education enough
to make the sacrifices to send you here and have the advantages that many can only
dream of; many of you are talented too. But with great privilege comes great
responsibility, and a Jesuit education is never just for one person but for others. To
put it in Jesus’ words, to those who have been given much, much will be expected.
There may not be many future VC winners here; but there are many who will live
good and decent lives that they can present to God on the Day of Judgement, and
some who may even be saints. You may not be very interested in God, but God is
very interested in you.
All of us are called to live the Beatitudes in our lives, and each of us will at some time
hear the call of duty, to go beyond our own self-interest – to be courageous and do
the right thing, to be generous and compassionate, to be merciful. We may not be a
Noel Chavasse and it may not get your name on the wall of Stonyhurst College. It
may not be very dramatic, and you may not even know it; but building the Kingdom
of God, and it will be remembered forever in heaven.