Freedom Revisited: Patriotism & Universality

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on on 7/4/13.

As Catholic Americans, can we revisit the Fourth of July and what freedom means?

In Galatians we read, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” 

‘Use our freedom to become slaves to one another’…So how’s that going?

freedomI have to confess that I never entered into the celebratory spirit of the Fourth. My soul never overflowed with an abundance of zealous patriotism, nor did I feel compelled to hang a flag outside my apartment door.  More prominent was the dread of impending sunburn, ringing in my ears the following morning, and hunger from having not found any vegan-friendly food the night before.

Spiritually, the Fourth of July meant even less to me. In fact, I struggled to see the connection with my faith life. The only connection between Independence Day and the Church is the certain backlash the choir receives if it does not robustly sing ‘God Bless America’. So my liturgical focus became placating parishioners instead of prayerful meditation on how I might connect this secular holiday to my spiritual life and the lives of others. Since the Catholic Church is, by its very definition, universal, I had difficulty reconciling the promotion of celebrating a particular nation, isolated and apart from everyone else.

Looking carefully at the liturgical text for Independence Day, I believe the Church has been wisely careful not to promote nationalism for its own sake, but to capture a sense of sincere gratitude and thanksgiving for what has been achieved as a nation, and to petition strength to continue working in that spirit of gratitude. The intent is to remind us that our blessings from God are to be shared with all people of all nations.

In the Roman Missal, in the opening prayer, we pray “Father of all nations and ages, we recall the day when our country claimed its place among the family of nations; for what has been achieved we give you thanks, for the work that still remains we ask your help, and as you have called us from many peoples to be one nation, grant that, under your providence, our country may share your blessings with all the peoples of the earth. “

To be sure, I am sensitive that much of our population throughout history have served and sacrificed greatly to give the US the freedom that it enjoys today. Much blood has been spilled in conflicts, and without digressing into the efficacy of these wars and conflicts and their relationship to our present freedoms, and without taking away from their value, I cannot help but think of battlefields that also happen to be our backyards. I choke up to think of the Calvary that was Matthew Shepard’s death; the battlefield of women’s suffrage and the continued movement toward gender equality. We don’t wear replicas of the Memphis hotel where Dr. King was assassinated, yet surely his work, and ultimately his death, ushered in freedom for all African Americans. Catholic Americans, in their remembrance practice, might reflect this week upon these battles at home and see how all these movements were movements toward equality and oneness. Might then those movements connect with the larger mission of the Church and Christ, “that all may be as one”?

In the Solemn blessing for the Mass on July fourth, the church prays that the Holy Spirit may “be the bond of love among you, our nation, and all peoples.” It asks for unity among us as country, so that we can then have unity with all people of all nations. Can our patriotism move us toward this ideal?

One of my favorite patriotic hymns is “This is My Song”, to the tune of the melody by the late composer, Jean Sibelius. In it, we sing the following text by Lloyd Stone:

“This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is, Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; But other hearts in other lands are breathing, with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”

In this week of celebration, what does freedom mean to you?

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