Monday, August 19, 2013

The Requiem Mass for Ken Hiltz: Man Down

Man down!

I am not certain that Ken Hiltz was baptized at old St. Agnes, Washington, D.C. . But I do know that St. Agnes is where his father played the organ, where he and Anne met, where he learned to serve at the altar and where he learned to be a Confession-frequenting, rosary -praying, Blessed Sacrament-loving Catholic Christian, long before he came to St. Francis. Wherever he was baptized, Ken was signed with the sign of the cross, as the priest said

We receive this Child into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. Amen.

If ever there was a soldier unto his life’s end, it was Ken Hiltz. Ken flew P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts in WW II. He flew in Korea and was shot down by a surface to air missile over the ocean near Hanoi during the Vietnam War and sustained a permanent back injury because he was unable to properly detach from his ejection seat.  Later as a civilian Ken did some undercover work for various law enforcement agencies.  He would not talk about that even if it was declassified, because those were his orders.

It has been my experience, both as a priest and as the son of a priest, that members of Armed Forces are, without exception, the very best parishioners, committed, faithful and dependable. When I was in seminary, there was a scandal involving adultery in the senior class and only one senior declined to graduate from an institution which looked the other way at such behavior. What had he done before seminary, you guessed it: helicopter pilot in Vietnam.  No wonder that the old rite of Holy Baptism uses military images. No wonder the new rite does not.

It is some sort of commentary on our times that, while it is almost unimaginable that a soldier or military figure would be canonized, the tradition of the Church is much more robust: Saint George, Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Martin of Tours, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, not to mention St. James the Great, Santiago Matamoros, “the Moor slayer”, who appeared on the battlefield, sword in hand, to lead the Spanish Christians to victory. 

Yet like so many real heroes, although he was never for a moment ashamed of his military record, he also felt the pain of conscience that he was required to do what men must in service to their country. And that was because before he was soldier and servant of his country he was Christ’s faithful soldier and servant. Contrary to what many think these days combat experience does not deaden a man’s conscience but sharpens it.

What most of us experienced in Ken was not so much his military valor but his baptismal courage: the courage to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil.

I do not know that Ken’s life after his military service was harder than any other man’s. Anne’s death, the death of his son, Steve, the trials and tribulations of his family and friends and the endless round of illness and surgeries which particularly marked the last phase of his life. Still Ken always knew that he was marked with the sign of the cross. He had his orders, the orders given at his baptism: to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil.

However, we are not here to canonize Ken but to pray for him, even if we might be tempted to think that such a man and such a life hardly needs our prayers. Ken himself would set us straight on that. Neither Fr. Rogers, nor I, had to teach Ken about Purgatory.

Like all of us Ken had to manfully fight under Christ’s  banner, against sin, the world, and the devil. As his confessor I can tell you that he had to do that, and that is about all I can tell you. But for all us poor banished children of Eve there is always that battle.

Against sin or the flesh: that is, the battle against ourselves, our relentless determination to win and to be successful, to be in control, to avoid defeat or anything which lessens our standing in the world. This is the first battle and often the last.  Good Lord, deliver us.

Against the world: that is, the endless worry about what others are thinking or saying about us: about our reputation, about the way things look rather than how they really are, the desire to be something other than what we are. Good Lord, deliver us.

Against the devil: that is, against all lies about ourselves and others and the world and even about God himself, which we are tempted to believe. Good Lord, deliver us.

These are our enemies and these are the rules of engagement: manfully to fight. Like all of us, Ken sometimes won and sometimes lost in this intensely personal, private and often hidden struggle. But make no mistake he fought manfully. That is all that God asks of us.   We have our orders, as General Lee told his troops: "Do your duty. You cannot do more. Never wish to do less."

So we pray and offer sacrifice for Ken not only because the Church demands it but because he, ever a son of the Church, asks us of our charity to do so.

Man down!

May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

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