Sunday, 2 November 2014

Padres In No Man's Land

Padres in No Man's Land: Canadian Chaplains and the Great War

By Duff Crerar
Published by McGill - Queen's University Press (2014)
Price:  $32.95 (Paper)

Reviewed By Mike Jones

One of the books I ran across when researching my upcoming book on funerals was the second edition of Duff Crerar's Padres In No Man's Land: Canadian Chaplains and the Great War.  My reasons for picking it up were two-fold:  First, I wanted to know more about how clergy have functioned under combat conditions.  To be more specific I wanted to know how they did things like bury the dead while under fire.  Second, I've always been curious about the place of Christian clergy in combat.  How do people committed to and serving within a religion focused on peace and non-violence wear a uniform and support those who are doing the fighting? 

Crerar addresses this question and so much more in Padres in No Man's Land.  He does so by introducing us to the clergy who joined up and made their way to Europe to be with the troops.  He describes their work and the many places in which they lived and served.  He tells us about their visits in hospitals and the trenches.  Through his words we get a sense of what it was like praying over the wounded and dying.  We're offered a glimpse of what it was like to fall into the mud and water of a shell hole or enemy trench.  Crerar also surveys the organization and leadership of the people leading the chaplains as they muddled through the slaughter and wreckage.   

The timing of this edition is appropriate given the centennial observance of the beginning of the First World War (Or the so-called "Great War").   It's also timely given some of the struggles facing our churches in the present day.  Perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions within the church these days is "How can we minister to people in the 21st Century?"  For me, the key to answering this question lies in the trenches and dressing stations of France.  Most of the young men fighting that war wanted little, if anything to do with religion.  They certainly didn't want anything to do with the chaplains.  But given these walls of resistance the effective chaplains found a way through so that they could share their message and do their jobs.  For one thing, they quickly found out how important it was to provide a comforting word or cup of coffee at the opportune moment.  They also discovered the value of communication and listening.  Even with the most hardened veteran there were still moments when the chaplain could have his say and make a point.  There may still be those moments in our present church lives. 

This is why I am recommending Padres in No Man's Land to scholars, church leaders and everyone interested in both this part in Canadian history and the place that clergy had in the war effort.  It's an excellent survey of the hard work done by so many Christian clergy.  It's also an excellent example of how we can break through the walls of our own day and minister to the spiritual and nonreligious people around us.  There's something in it for many of us so I commend it to each and every one.   

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