By Lydia O’Kane
This Monday events are taking place across the UK, as well as in other allied nations including France and the United States, to commemorate the day when the battlefields fell silent and World War I came to an end.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, the Reverend Squadron Leader David Skillen, Principal Catholic Chaplain to Britain’s Royal Air Force, recalls the first Armistice Day which was held at Buckingham Palace on the 11th November 1919, and where King George V held a two minute silence as a mark of respect for those who died in the Great War. It was an act that would ensure that the fallen and their sacrifice would not be forgotten.
Learning lessons and hope for the future
For Deacon Skillen, remembrance “is about past, present and future.” He says, “it’s about the past because… we remember the real lives of those who died, you know their stories; these are real people, individuals. And it’s about the present because we’re living in the present and we give ourselves in their memory… to honour freedom and to build freedom in our world today; to foster the values they died for. And it’s about the future because we have the hard lessons of the past of our war dead, the values that were under attack then, still under attack in many ways today. These are the lessons that should inspire us in hope towards a future where peace prevails.”
The military chaplain
Reverend Skillen is one of two deacons who provide pastoral care to service personnel in the RAF. He describes his role as a unique one. It is, he explains, “a role of accompaniment and companionship for our servicemen and women and their families.” He adds that the job falls into two categories; one is being out on deployment or at war where chaplains deploy with the troops. Then there is the aspect of the job which involves being back at the home units where the chaplains live amongst service personnel and provide pastoral care.
Deacon Skillen, who is himself married with three children of his own, says he can empathize in a particular way with those who have to go off on deployment and leave loved ones behind. “I’ve been deployed a couple of times myself over the past five and a half years. I’ve left my own family behind for months on end to go to various parts of the world.”
The RAF chaplain also notes that, due to the nature of the job, service personnel can find themselves in situations in which they lose friends and colleagues and this in turn can make them aware of their own mortality. This, he says, is when the chaplaincy comes into its own in a big way: when people need to ask important questions about life and death.
Asked if military Chaplains are unsung heroes, Deacon Skillen modestly replies that he doesn’t think so. “The Chaplain doesn’t need recognition in any worldly sense. We are content to serve the people, knowing that it is God we bring to the people; it’s the peace of Jesus that we bring to our people and if we have a sense we have achieved something of that, then that’s glory enough for us.”