Heroic Columban Recalled at D-Day Commemoration

Jun 7, 2024

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland has spoken of the Christian witness of Columban missionary and martyr Fr John (Jack) O’Brien at a special 80th anniversary D-Day Commemorative Service in France.

Archbishop Eamon Martin was joined by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop John McDowell at the Royal Irish Regiment Service of Remembrance at Ranville Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, near Sword beach in Normandy on Friday afternoon.

Ranville was the first village in France to be liberated on D-Day.

In his address, Archbishop Martin said he had brought with him to the service at Ranville a photograph of Fr O’Brien, “a treasured possession of his relatives back in Ireland”.

This is what he said about Fr O’Brien:

“Fr John was born in Donamon, County Roscommon at the end of 1918, just a few weeks after the guns of the so-called ‘Great War’ fell silent. At the age of 17, Jack – as he was known to family and friends – left Saint Nathy’s College in Bellaghadereen with a strong sense that God was calling him to be a missionary priest in the Far East.”

“He was ordained in 1942 for the Society of Saint Columban, but because of the wartime travel restrictions he was unable to receive a missionary placement.  Instead, the young Father Jack decided to train as an army chaplain.  He was assigned to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and to accompany the D-Day invasion, landing here with the Allies on Sword Beach, eighty years ago.”

“I have no doubt that Jack O’Brien would have been inspired as a young person by stories about the saintly Father Willie Doyle, a chaplain in the First World War who was killed by a German shell while running out to rescue two wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land in 1917.  Many stories were told of Father Doyle’s bravery and deep faith, and how everybody in his battalion held him in great respect – Catholics and Protestants alike.”

D-Day Landings. Image: Shutterstock

“For the newly ordained Father Jack O’Brien, the battlefields of Normandy and beyond were to become his first parish; his mission: “to give, and not to count the cost”; to serve God by keeping hope and human dignity alive amidst the horror and brutality of war.”

“As a Catholic chaplain he offered the consolation of prayer and the sacraments to everyone who asked – especially Confession, the Eucharist and the Last Rites – and he never forgot a word of compassion and encouragement for the wounded, the worried and the war weary.”

“The troops called him ‘the fighting padre’ because Jack had been a boxer in his student days, and several anecdotes are recorded of his positive attitude and good humour.  They say he sometimes ‘visited the men in their dugouts for a few hands of poker, often with rum scrounged from the quartermaster,’ and once, when a newly arrived officer fainted and almost fell into an open grave during a burial, Father Jack grabbed him saying, ‘Now, there’s no need to be in a hurry. All in good time.’”

“As war and violence once more threaten to destabilise our continent and our world, Archbishop John and I stand here together at Ranville, witnessing to peace and reconciliation, to fraternity and common humanity.  Speaking last month to a group of Nobel Peace Laureates in Rome, Pope Francis reminded them of the Nobel lecture given by Martin Luther King, Jr, in 1964 when he said: ‘We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers’.”

Omaha Beach after D-Day. Image Shutterstock

“Fraternity and common humanity: that is what our brave and generous chaplains stood for in 1944 as they cared for the spiritual and emotional needs of so many in life and in death.  Like all caught up in the nightmare of war, the chaplains experienced the horrors and trauma of the battlefield, but the chaplains carried no arms – save the power of prayer and the Word of God.  Their faith gave them all the strength they needed to tend to the wounded, to comfort the dying, to ensure Christian burials for the fallen, to help identify the dead and to break sad news with relatives at home.”

“Father Jack O’Brien and the other chaplains ministered to soldiers of all denominations from every county on the island of Ireland.  The tensions, sectarianism and suspicions of home are of little significance when shells are falling on brothers and sisters in arms who are being struck down, wounded, dying and grieving together.”

“It has been largely forgotten – perhaps conveniently at times – that tens of thousands of men and women from all over the island of Ireland served side by side during the Second World War.  Unlike many others, they were volunteers, rather than conscripts – personally motivated to serve the cause of peace and freedom and justice.”

“Within six to ten months of D-Day, the RUR Battalion had helped to liberate village after village across northern France, Belgium and Holland, at last reaching Bremen in Germany. At that stage Fr Jack wrote home saying that sadly not many of his original flock were left, but according to his commanding officer: ‘(Jack’s) perennial cheerfulness was the salvation of many a drooping spirit in the difficult days which confronted us’.”

Fr Jack O’Brien on the day of his ordination on 21st December 1942 giving his blessing to the ordaining prelate, Bishop John D’Alton who was, at the time, coadjutor Bishop of Meath.

“After the German surrender, Father O’Brien’s kindly and cheerful presence continued to be a source of great comfort to the displaced and traumatised people they met along the way.  Ever the missionary, he travelled on to Egypt, where the Battalion was helping to guard the Suez Canal, and by 1946 he was with them in Palestine – a long way from the beaches here where he had first landed.”

“But Father Jack’s superiors in the missionary society of Saint Columban had not forgotten about him.  It was time for him to be recalled from his responsibilities as an army chaplain. In 1948 he was assigned as a missionary priest in Mokpo, on the southern coast of South Korea.”

“When I think of his life, I am reminded of that passage in Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians when he wrote, ‘I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, unlike runners and athletes who train to compete in the games for a perishable wreath, we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Cor 9:25-27).”

“Father Jack O’Brien’s story of courage and self-denial continued well beyond D-Day. In 1950, when the communist forces began to invade South Korea and were approaching his parish, he refused an offer from American troops to be evacuated to safety, preferring instead to remain with his people and serve them to the end. He was captured and imprisoned, and after a long march at gunpoint towards North Korea, he was executed in the massacre at Taejon, a month before his 32nd birthday. His body was never found or identified – he was martyred for his faith and belief that ‘neither death nor life can ever separate us from the love of God.’”

“Coincidentally the soldiers of the Royal Ulster Rifles 1st Division were also called to Korea in 1950, suffering many losses in the Battle of Happy Valley.  In 2013 a memorial stone was erected in Seoul to record and honour their contribution. Fittingly it includes the name of their former chaplain, one Father John Patrick (Jack) O’Brien who had served and prayed with them on these roads and fields of Normandy, 80 years ago today.”

An article by Columban historian Fr Neil Collins on Fr Jack O’Brien will be published in the July/August 2024 issue of the Far East magazine.

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