On your bike padre
Fr Roger Dawson SJ, the pedalling padre, has just finished cycling 350 miles through Europe in this year's Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2017, an annual fundraiser for the charity Help for Heroes. This year nearly 200 cyclists rode from Tournai on the Belgium border, up through Eindhoven and Nijmegen to Arnhem, following the route of the 1944 British Operation Market Garden. Fr Roger explained its significance, ‘This bold airborne operation aimed to capture key bridges and bring about an early end to the war, but met with fierce resistance and the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem never succeeded in achieving its objective’. The famous novel and film about this operation was ‘A Bridge too Far’, a quote attributed to Frederick Browning, deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army. He told Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the operation's architect, before the operation: "I think we may be going a bridge too far", in reference to the intention of seizing the Arnhem bridgehead over the Rhine river. Thus Arnhem was the intrepid cyclists' destination.
Riding with Fr Dawson this year were about a dozen servicemen and women who are wounded, injured or sick, some with very visible injuries. Royal Engineer Josh Biaggi has lost both legs and part of one arm and completed his fifth ride on a handbike! There were others in the group who have struggled for long periods with post-traumatic stress disorder. Over £600,000 was raised for the charity which seeks to support and enable veterans injured in combat and to help them to rebuild their lives. Fr Dawson’s close links with the charity are due to a long friendship with one of the co-founders of Help for Heroes, Bryn Parry. They served together in the Royal Green Jackets.
Recounting the experience Fr Roger said, ‘Each day there was a moving simple wreath-laying ceremony, accompanied by the Last Post and two minutes silence and followed by the mournful lament on the bagpipes, Flowers of the Forest. I would speak at each of these ceremonies leading the group in reflection and in some cases prayer.’ Being chaplain to the group was a powerful experience and also an opportunity to accompany a unique group of people who have great courage. “As a largely secular group, the experience of riding for Help for Heroes takes the riders into a ‘liminal space’, rather like a pilgrimage. The ride is great fun with a lot of humour and camaraderie and celebration, but the riders are also confronted with wounds and injuries, war and suffering, the best and worst of humankind. I am trying to help them to reflect on this, covertly using Ignatian spirituality and prompting them to look for the beauty, truth and goodness around them, rather than the ugliness, lies and evil. This is the eighth time I have been the pedalling padre on the Battlefield Bike Ride and it is not hard to ‘find God in all things’ on this ride. It is also, I think, one of the ‘existential peripheries’ where Jesuits ought to be.'
One of the factors which affected the outcome of Operation Market Garden was the inclement weather – the irony of this was not lost on the cyclists who endured some pretty spectacular downpours and gale-force headwinds. Technical problems abounded, there may have been 40 punctures in one morning, and a few broken spokes, a few tumbles, but listening to the incredible stories of bravery in historic wars helped keep spirits up. The funds raised will be used to support the wounded and their families who have already given so much in service.