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Archbishop Cupich remembers dad, other veterans at Memorial Day celebration

When Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich thinks of Memorial Day, he pictures the pink peonies his family grew in their spring garden in Omaha, Nebraska, and placed on the graves of fallen servicemen.

Cupich, whose father served in the Navy during World War II, celebrated Mass Monday at All Saints Cemetery and Mausoleums in Des Plaines as part of a national tribute by the Catholic church to the men and women who have died while serving in the armed forces.

The celebration was moved from the cemetery and into a chapel because of steady rain Monday morning. Hundreds of damp people stood in packed corridors to hear Cupich’s homily, which interlaced his personal memories of Memorial Day with the somber religious significance of the holiday.

“We all have, no doubt, as we come here today, our own memories of this day or maybe of the people who are being honored — those who have served our country, those who gave their lives, maybe in your own families: a brother, a son, someone who was related to you or a close friendship. And we hold those dear in our hearts,” he said.

“We are reminded they are also remembered by Jesus.”

Cupich, who had entered the chapel with a procession of priests and members of the Knights of Columbus in their swords and red capes, broke the solemnity of the day with a funny story about his mother flipping through photos of the ship his late father had served on during World War II.

The photos, which his family had discovered on the Internet, included one of a young sailor dressed in a white T-shirt, trousers and a hat. He was standing on the deck of the ship.

Cupich’s niece blurted out to his mother, “Who’s that guy? He’s hot!”

And Cupich’s mother replied, “That’s your grandfather. He was hot.”

Cupich also recalled a story he heard from the late Archbishop Joseph Ryan, a Marine chaplain during World War II. The Marines were staging for a fight with the Japanese on a Pacific island and Ryan was making preparations for a pre-battle Mass. One of the Marines, a former altar boy, was helping Ryan and received communion.

Later, Ryan came across a man lying on his stomach on the battlefield. He turned him over and it was the former altar boy, Jimmy, who asked if he was going to die.

“And Ryan said, ‘It’s a pretty bad wound. I don’t want to kid you, Jimmy. It’s bad,’ ” Cupich said. “And Jimmy said something Father Ryan said he would never forget. ‘Isn’t it something,’ he said to Father Ryan, ‘just this morning I received Jesus in the eucharist at mass and now I am going to see him.’ ”

“Let us be consoled by that,” Cupich said.

After Monday’s Mass, veterans in the congregation were applauded and taps was played on a lone trumpet in honor of the dead. Afterward, Cupich stood outside the chapel and greeted the congregation.

John Ricchio of North Riverside and his sister Linda Ricchio of Elmwood Park said the archbishop’s message resonated with them. Their father, Attilio Arthur Ricchio of Elmwood Park, was a World War II veteran, too, and is buried in All Saints Cemetery.

“He made it personal with his family,” Linda Ricchio said of Cupich’s homily.

John Ricchio, who said he served in the Air Force and flew into Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2005, added about the U.S. veterans of the past: “We have the same values. It’s just a different era.”