What is the measure of greatness in the human character?
Our faith tells us it is to pour out ourselves in the service of others, sacrificing our lives for others (if need be), just as Jesus did.
Our Church calls us to serve the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. Not just in our Church, but outside our church in our troubled world. The homeless. The prisoner. The weak and powerless. The sick and dying. The poor.
Saint Teresa got it, too. She poured out her life in the service of others throughout her own powerful ministry on earth.And so did Father William Thomas Cummings.
Ever heard of him?
I’ll bet you recognize this famous saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Sound familiar?
This wartime priest delivered this line while serving Mass for American and Filipino troops in Bataan, in the Philippines.
One of those troops was my Great Uncle Vernon Weldon.This is their Passion story.
Fr. Cummings was running an orphanage in Manila as a Maryknoll missionary when Japanese warplanes attacked the city, destroying his orphanage and killing the children he loved and served there.
Father Cummings survived and went immediately to the nearby U.S. military base where servicemen were preparing their escape from the city.
Fr. Cummings met my uncle there for the first time when he asked if he could join the Army as a Chaplain and serve the men as they fled from the expected Japanese invasion.
The base commander granted his wish.
Their epic retreat to the Bataan peninsula with General Douglas McArthur lasted months as American and Filipino troops valiantly fought the Japanese Imperial Army.
MacArthur was under great pressure by FDR to leave the Philippines. The Army General offered to resign his position and serve as a volunteer to lead his men.
Eventually, MacArthur got a direct order from Roosevelt himself to evacuate now, abandoning his troops, but promising them, “I shall return.”
Sadly, his promise to return would be delayed for years. It would come too late for my uncle and his friend the priest.
Father Cummings became an Army legend due to his service. Before being captured, a nurse at a field hospital undergoing bombardment witnessed Father Cummings in action.
Nurse Hattie Bradley recounted the experience of Good Friday, 1942, “More piercing screams. Scores of dead or dying… She dashed into the orthopedic ward for help. There, panic was on the verge of erupting. Then she saw the chaplain… standing on a desk. Above the roar of airplanes, the explosions and the shrieks of the wounded. His voice could be heard: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’ Calmed by his prayers, the patients quieted.”
Father Cummings did all of this with one arm broken by shrapnel from a bomb.
When MacArthur fled, the troops left behind were captured and marched by the Japanese after the fall of Bataan on a 60-mile trek “straight out of Dante’s inferno.” They were given no food or water. They were subject to random beatings and casual executions especially of the weak and vulnerable.
Thousands of men would die of starvation, malaria and murder on the Bataan Death March and in Japanese concentration camps.
My uncle and Father Cummings would survive the over two-year ordeal and amazingly were among a few thousand men still alive when the Japanese evacuated the Philippines sending the men in the hull of a Japanese warship to Tokyo to be used as slave labor.While in Tokyo harbor, my uncle Vernon died when friendly fire partially destroyed their ship. Father Cummings would give him his Last Rites.
As the horror continued aboard a vessel dubbed “Hell Ship” by the survivors, Father Cummings again tried to calm the men, by saying the “Our Father.”
From the book “Give Us This Day” comes this first-hand account from a dark, fiery cargo hold as Sidney helped prop up Father Cummings:
“Faltering, he began to speak. “Men! Men, can you hear my voice? Slowly he began to pray. ‘Our Father Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name… '
The cries of the men became still. I concentrated on the voice that soothed me and gave me strength and the will to live. Then I felt his body shiver and tremble in my arms. He gasped for air and there was a pain written on his face. He gritted his teeth, sighed and went on. ‘Thy will be done – on earth – as it is – in Heaven.’
I felt him tremble again as if he wanted to cough. His hands fluttered and his eyelids almost closed. Then with superhuman effort he spoke again. ‘Give Us This Day…’
I felt his body go tense all over. He relaxed and his hand fell by his side… I knew he was dead… I cradled his head against my shoulder. I didn’t want to lay him down. I couldn’t bear to face the fact that he was gone.”
Father Cummings gave up his life in the service of others. He followed the will of the Father, climbed the hill to Golgotha, and experienced his Passion.