D-Day’s 80th anniversary honors the past, aims to teach future generations, French bishop says

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PARIS (OSV News) — The Catholic Church in France prepares to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Normandy landings June 6, a date known as D-Day that marked the beginning of the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi Germany’s occupation during World War II.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be among other world leaders in Normandy. President Joe Biden, along with dozens of World War II veterans, is also scheduled to attend this year’s commemorations of the landings. Many of the veterans will return to Normandy’s beaches for the last time.

Nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the United States, Canada and other nations landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944.

To kick off the commemorations, more than 400 people gathered at the immense American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer on Memorial Day, May 26 — a place marked with its white marble crosses, home to the graves of 9,387 American soldiers. Among participants was Bishop Jacques Habert of Bayeux-Lisieux, whose diocese includes Omaha Beach. All paid tribute to the American soldiers who fell during the Battle of Normandy, which ended with the liberation of Paris Aug. 25, 1944.

Catholics commemorate D-Day

“It is important for the Catholic Church to be present at the heart of these commemorations,” Father Laurent Berthout, diocesan communications liaison, told OSV News. “The church is keen to pass on the duty of remembrance we owe to those who gave their lives at the time of the D-Day landings, especially to young people,” he said.

“Peace and freedom are messages carried by the church, and unfortunately, they cannot be taken for granted, especially at the moment. We have to tell young people that they have to work on it every day,” Father Berthout said.

On the afternoon of May 28, the diocese organized a gathering of over 2,000 young people from Catholic schools, on Sword Beach — the code name for one of the five main beaches in the Battle of Normandy. Together with Bishop Habert, they listened to a 92-year-old man recount the landing he witnessed at the age of twelve. He said at the time they wrote a huge “thank you” on the sand to the soldiers who fought for the freedom of France and Europe 80 years ago.

Youth engagement

Gen. Laurent Michon invited the youth not to be frightened by the news of the conflicts of their time, but to commit themselves daily to the service of others, in the activities that are theirs, and thus concretely contribute to building peace at their level.

Bishop Habert spent the whole day with young people, listening to speakers. “The June 6 ceremonies have two main objectives,” he told OSV News. “There is a look to the past, to remember what happened 80 years ago, and to show our gratitude to these soldiers. And there is a look to the future, leading us to reflect on how their shattering example can inspire us today,” he said.

Peace is fragile, fragile, fragile,” Bishop Habert insisted. “We must encourage young people to practice justice, respect and fraternity on a daily basis. These are the inner attitudes that foster the peace we must constantly build,” he said.

Ecumenical liturgy and international commemorations

On the evening of June 5, Bishop Habert will welcome a British delegation to Bayeux Cathedral, including Princess Anne, sister of the British monarch, for an ecumenical liturgy with representatives of the Anglican Communion. The ceremony will be followed by a torchlight procession to the British cemetery for a joint prayer.

Earlier during the day, Princess Anne will unveil a statue in Normandy recognizing the Canadian contribution to D-Day.

The following morning, from dawn on June 6, a dozen parish Masses will be celebrated on the landing beaches. The official international commemoration ceremony will take place in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, the small town bordering Omaha Beach, with French and U.S. presidents present, among other heads of state.

This is the beach on which over 34,000 American soldiers landed on June 6, 1944. An estimated 2,500 were lost that day, a sacrifice inspiring the “Bloody Omaha” nickname for the beach. Bishop Habert will be present, along with all the bishops of Normandy and the president of the French bishops’ conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims.

King Charles III also plans to travel to France but will skip the larger international event as he continues to be treated for cancer. He will attend the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer on June 6, Buckingham Palace said May 17, The Associated Press reported. Queen Camilla will also be present.

On June 8, in Bayeux cathedral, Bishop Habert will bless a marble plaque bearing the names of 138 priests, seminarians, religious men and women who disappeared during World War II, either as victims of air attacks or deported to death camps for acts of resistance.

For the first time, the names of religious sisters who died in the Allied bombing raids that accompanied D-Day will be honored.

Caroline de Sury

Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.