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The extraordinary prayer that launched D-Day

US troops land at Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944

It was a stroke of ceremonial genius. At the D-Day 75th anniversary commemorations at Portsmouth, how to ensure that the assembled heads of government – and perhaps one in particular – would not sound a sour note? The Queen would do her part splendidly, of course, as she had done at D-Day 60 and D-Day 50. But how to keep the others on script?

With a script. So President Donald Trump appeared not to deliver his own remarks, but to read from the D-Day address of President Franklin Roosevelt.

FDR’s address is one of the most remarkable in the history of presidential speech-making, for it was not a speech at all, but a prayer, addressed to God. The president was praying, and invited the American people to join their prayers to his.

It was said of Churchill during World War II that he marshalled the English language and sent it into battle. But on the day in which the greatest battle was actually joined, and men beyond number were sent across the waves to Normandy, it was not martial language that ruled the day but prayer.

“Almighty God,” began FDR. “Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavour, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilisation, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need Thy blessings … For the enemy is strong.

“They fight not for the lust of conquest,” FDR said of the Allied forces. “They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

Forty years later, when President Ronald Reagan elevated all subsequent D-Day commemorations with one of the great speeches of his life, he would return to that theme of FDR.

“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next,” Reagan said.

“It was the deep knowledge – and pray God we have not lost it – that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.”

Before the immensity of the undertaking, and the enormity of the evil being faced, the great military and political leaders sensed that military strategy and political rhetoric were insufficient, and needed to cede their place to the transcendent realm. King George VI, in his D-Day address, went even further than FDR.

“I desire solemnly to call my people to prayer and dedication,” His Majesty said. “We are not unmindful of our own shortcomings, past and present. We shall ask not that God may do our will, but that we may be enabled to do the will of God: and we dare to believe that God has used our nation and Empire as an instrument for fulfilling his high purpose.”

D-Day was understood across the Allied leadership as more a providential moment than a historic one. Or perhaps better to say that it was one of those moments in which the designs of Providence are more easily traced in history.

The D-Day addresses were the finest English-language speeches on the purposes of God in war since the greatest speech ever made on the subject, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865. The second inaugural – “fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away” – is the finest political speech delivered in any language.

“Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln said. “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Indeed He does. And in the pivotal moments of history, the prayer of the great and powerful is that Providence will be at work.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca