Thursday, May 03, 2007

'Jesus Day,' God and Country

Today is "Jesus Day" in Piqua -- at least, for the Catholics.

Every year, about this time, we have "Jesus Day" for the second-graders who are soon to receive the Eucharist for the first time (i.e., this Sunday). "Jesus Day" is a series of activities, both fun and instructive, designed to prepare for that. Part of it is having the sacrament of reconciliation for the second-graders. I am proud of our community here: our second graders will have received the sacrament of confession several times before their first communion -- meaning, it is more than merely "something you have to do first." Our hope is it becomes a meaningful spiritual habit and source of grace all by itself.

So, in a bit, I'll head over to "shrive" our dear children. Later, we'll also have confessions for the 3rd graders, because we have confessions for all grades about four or five times during the school year, and they are due. We'll get the other grades next week, and the week after that.

Meanwhile, the other churches in town are participating in the "National Day of Prayer." Our parishes here haven't, in recent years, taken much role in that. Nobody asks why, so I'll just say it here, and I'll explain by way of describing the mailing I got, the other day, about it.

The flyer talked about events of the local, "National Day of Prayer" observance, how we'd pray for various worthy needs. But then it said something to this effect: "check here to indicate how many American flags you will need."

American flags?

Why do I need an American flag in order to pray?

I love our country, but I don't understand why so many folks get mixed up on "God and Country." It's not like, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" -- it's more like:



And I have to say -- there is open space between God and country because some values are higher than patriotism. If our nation promotes evil -- such as abortion, contraception, pornography, plays word-games with torture, and so forth -- then while I still love my country, what is true and what is good is a higher loyalty.

But I have been to a number of these "God and Country" rallies, and while I know people mean well, to me they border on idolatry. About 70% country, and 30% God; lots of "God Bless America" when it should be, "America, bless God!" These events give every impression of suggesting God is an American, and favors our cause.

Wrong. God's Providence is vastly beyond our understanding; and if it happens (and it does often seem to be the case) that it serves God's purpose to use the United States or any other nation in pursuit of his purpose, than we ought to be humbled by that, and say, "we are but unworthy servants" and stop there.

There are many good things to say about our nation, and its principles and way of life; I'm not saying we shouldn't lift up those good things, and strengthen them. I think we should; and I think we should continue to be a beacon to the world, as we have been. There's no question we have something remarkable in our constitution and our liberty and free market economy. We have many good reasons to be proud of what our nation has contributed to the welfare of humanity.

But as between "God and Country, rah-rah America--er, I mean, um, God!" and "Jesus Day," I prefer the latter.


Anonymous said...

A very large AMEN!! to this, Father, from back here in the Commonwealth (where there is nothing common about the wealth) in Massachusetts.


Fr. Stephen said...

Don't be fooled, Father. The real religion of America is sports.

Anonymous said...

For me it's God, family, then country. We have had some in our parish that insist on having the American flag right up by the altar. Honestly in light of what father has said, I think that should be the last place it should be.

Thom said...

This one of the best discussions on the topic that I have ever read. Thank you.

Victor said...

To partially echo Eric:

I hope I never get used to seeing an American flag anywhere in the church, much less anywhere in the sight-line to the altar (what I'd call "a place of honor," though I don't know what if any Church rules there are).

Oh, I see it quite a bit obviously, but it will always look wrong to me. Maybe another residue of being raised as a Catholic in Britain, where it literally IS unthinkable for a variety of historical reasons.

Kasia said...

I grew up in a church that had the U.N. flag as well as the U.S. flag up by the steps to the chancel. It was normal to me then. Now it really bothers me.

I also don't like the stuff people sell that wraps the Cross and the flag together, for the same reason that Fr. Fox suggested: it seems to hint that God is American, and favors our cause.

'Jesus Day' sounds great to me. 'God and country,' not quite so much.

Victor said...

I grew up in a church that had the U.N. flag as well as the U.S. flag up by the steps to the chancel.

Talk about bad to worse.

Bad enough suggesting that God is an American. That He's a corrupt cosmopolitan -- surely SOME things are unforgivable.

Anonymous said...

Father Fox, I don't think our nation "promotes" evil but that evil has infiltrated into our nation - much as our church leadership is not evil, but as we have seen in recent years, evil has crept into parts of it. As long as there is evil in the world it will go everywhere, including nations, churches, and the hearts of men.
The truth is that there is a vast amount of goodness and truth in our nation as well, far greater than the evil, though it does not receive the same media attention as negative or sinful acts. If you stop to catalog everything which is good about our country you will soon be in awe. God is IN that goodness, not separate from it or competing with it!
I've never been to any of these rallies but I know people who have, who come away edified.
I'm guessing there seems to be an emphasis on patriotism because it is easier to symbolise and talk about than God, who is abstract in a sense and does not have special flags or colors or graphics that represent him, as a country does.
I think that whenever people come together in public to proclaim their faith in God, it is a powerful and admirable witness. How often does it happen - almost never! So why disparage it?
It makes me sad when people of one faith are rough on people of a different view who are acting out of a desire to do good and serve the same God we all adore.
Once I heard a Catholic mother carry on about how horrid the public schools were. She said the "best" families sent their children to parochial schools. The flip side of her statement is, if the "best" went to one school, then who did that leave for the other school?
Sometimes when we separate ourselves out, thinking that only we ourselves have all the truth and goodness, then perhaps we are withholding those features from those we critise. And you never know, perhaps those others have some truth and goodness too, that we could share!
How can we be the "one" Jesus yearned for if we continue to
look for ways to justify separation from our fellow Christian brethren?
Would it help if prior to next year's events a delegation of Catholics met with the leaders of the program to voice their concerns and offer viable suggestions for improvement?
Sad, sad Annie

Father Martin Fox said...


You raise many interesting points.

I have nothing against a patriotism rally; I have been to a few, although that was when I was involved in politics; now, my role is different. But I have no problem with flag-waving, per se. I simply think organizers should be more thoughtful about how they do these "God and country" rallies.

Would I be willing to offer suggestions? Of course, if asked. But I doubt unsolicited suggestions/re-workings of someone else's project would be a good way to go.

I don't mean to disparage anyone who attends such rallies, my comments were directed at those who organize them. I do think pastors should be more careful, and the fact is, many of these things are very cynical exercises, essentially pep rallies for America (which I just said I don't object to), dressed up as prayer meetings. And I do take a dim view of such things. (What's more, some of these are really political--i.e., they happen near elections, and "lo and behold, here comes Brother So-and-so who is running for Congress!")

Finally, as much as it pains me to say it, I believer our country does promote evil: our tax dollars prop up the Planned Barrenhood propaganda machine, and that is evil right there. In addition, we have a huge pornography industry, polluting the world. Not to mention our sleazy, soul-killing entertainment industry, or any number of things various U.S. corporations do. I.e., when I said our country promotes evil, I didn't mean just government.

Now, I think our nation does many good things too, without question. My point is simply to challenge the idea that the U.S.A. is some sort of divinely appointed Messianic force. I don't mean you believe that; but there are those who talk about our nation that way. And that is simply false.

I might say this: one "patriotic" hymn/song that I like, that I think strikes the right tone, is "America the Beautiful." I say that because I think it expresses well the idea that it is important that America be beautiful -- and it moves, in its verses, from physical/natural beauty, to beauty of spirit and character.

The final verse--which is seldom sung--is amazing to me; because what it seems to do is ask the question: will this vision be true? In years to come, will our "alabaster cities gleam"? That is the true "patriot's dream": an America that is great because she is good.

O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountains' majesty
Above the fruited plains!
America, America!
God shed his grace on thee!
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion'd stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes prov'd
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

Anonymous said...

Father Fox, thank you for taking the time to make these comments! I appreciate your thoughts and agree with them for the most part. I misunderstood that you were just against the organisers of the events, not the attendees (folks of different faiths).
Color me naive, because I can't seem to make myself believe "our country" is behind the rampant evil within it. It simply fails to legislate against it - does that sound accurate? Somehow I can't bear to believe our government really wants to foist evil on us. Some individuals in power would qualify on that point, but surely not the governmental body as a whole? A scary thought!
We certainly agree about the evil of abortion and the abundance of sleazy, degrading "entertainment" available today. Any person of any faith or political persuasion who condones, enjoys, pays for, or otherwise supports and encourages pornography and violence, is an agent of the devil.
It was refreshing to see the words to American the Beautiful. Our parish always sings this on Thanksgiving Day!

Anonymous said...

It was refreshing to see the words to America the Beautiful. Our parish always sings this on Thanksgiving Day!

I cannot fathom that. Not at all. Does. Not. Compute.

And apart from that, the second-last verse, which Father Fox likes ...

"O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears."

... seems to me to be secular messianism unvarnished ("alabaster," one might call it). No polity will ever be undimmed by human tears and, in modern times anyway, the ones that have tried hardest to be so undimmed have tended to produce the most tears.

Robert said...

Annie, are you sure the US does not "promote evil"? From what I can see there is plenty of evil being promoted, intentionally or otherwise. The spreading dehumanisation of unborn children, the irreverent and hateful treatment of traditional ethics and morality, the disdain for socially-funded public services (such as health care and education) in favour of private enterprises (ie exploitative hospital and school "businesses"), the mockery and derision of the stay-at-home mother, replaced by popular idolatry for the barren "career woman".

That's a lot of evil, and each point is undeniably spread by US forces (be they political, judicial or commercial in the form of your news media).

Of course not every American is guilty of such terrible deeds - but America as a nation most certainly is.

Maureen said...

I always regard having the American flag in or around church as a reminder that we have religious freedom here in the US, so if you don't like our Catholicism, you can lump it. :)

Re: "undimmed by human tears"

Y'all do realize that the "new heavens and new earth" are not going to consist solely of Jerusalem. Logically, then, there are environs, which would include a new America and a new Piqua, Dayton, and Cincinnati also.

Oh, come on. Smile at that one.

Tom McKenna said...

Having a flag in the sanctuary is a quite unremarkable tradition in this country that predates the recent Conciliar reforms.

And really now, if Our Lord could see fit to counsel "render unto Caesar" when that Caesar was oh, probably a little bit worse than America, I think it's not a stretch to say that Catholics can spare some legitimate pride and love for their patria. This legitimate patriotism has never as far as I can tell implied approval of every defect present in our country.

I think our old Pastor who served in WWII and shepards our little indult flock in Richmond, manages the proper balance: flag in sanctuary, Memorial Day Mass with trumpet solos in memory of the fallen soldiers, and yet fiery orthodoxy in the pulpit, including clear denunciations of abortion and contraception and advice on voting according to a properly formed Catholic conscience.

The virtue of patriotism, like with all virtues, lies in avoiding the defects of either excess or deficiency.

Display of a flag in the sanctuary, with all due respect, is both consonant with ecclesiastical law and with the virtue of patriotism.

Patrick said...

I once was in a [Catholic] church, in San Jose, Calif., where the American flag was on the centerline behind the altar. In other words, where ideally we want the tabernacle to be, the flag was. And the choir area was beyond that.

I'm a patriotic American, but our flag does not belong anywhere in the sanctuary. No national flag does. Narthex, maybe. But not in the sanctuary.

Ambrose said...

I'll have to check this weekend, but I am pretty sure that my parish in China doesn't even have a PRC flag in the church. And this parish is part of the "Patriotic Association."

Morning's Minion said...

I think nationalism is the greatest heresy of our time. And it seeps even into the Catholic Church. In Washington DC, during the annual red Mass, there is a military-style procession with the singing of the US secular anthem. Horrible, horrible, horrible!

Erik Keilholtz said...

I think nationalism is the greatest heresy of our time.

Ach! That is an idea that can be easily cured by the singing of a couple of verses of Deutschland Uber Alles each morning. It does me wonders.

Kaleb said...

Father, thank you for the post.

From the comments, I'm reminded of Fr. Emmanuel McCarthy's essay, Sacerdotal Flagism, which deals with the issue of putting flags in churches.


Anonymous said...

Full address

Alan Carter said...

I'm just happy to live in a country that can freely celebrate a "National Day of Prayer" - whether we choose to "wave the flag" or not.

For my part, I'm happy to join in with any group when the purpose is to offer prayer together. There's so much that divides - so much room for finding error - so much imperfection among any group of people... the one thing I personally can get behind is a celebration of prayer.

Lynne said...

Check out the 9th episode of Father Groeschel's series, "Get a Life in Christ" where he talks about Love.

There's several types of Love, we hear about agape and eros but one is rarely mentioned, storge, love of belonging, the love of country, patriotism. Our parents and grandparents had it. Many of us don't. The country reflects it.

Rachel Gray said...

Father, I was going to mention "America the Beautiful" until I saw that you already had! It's my favorite patriotic hymn because (in spite of that ridiculous "undimmed by human tears" line) it shows humility and keeps priorities straight. It expresses a hope that America *will* be good. "May God thy gold refine..." I used to think that meant "May God make you rich"; now I realize it's the Biblical metaphor of purification.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing to see the different interpretations folks put on display of the American flag in the sanctuary. I always assumed it meant that we commended our country to God for guidance and safekeeping, that it represented hope rather than idolatry.

When people rant about how evil the country is, what if Catholics took a stronger role in reversing the evil? Many of you younger respondents will say, "But I'm already doing that!"

Are you sure?

If, for instance, you have ever purchased movies, music, or video games which feature violence or pornography as entertainment, then you are guilty of feeding the evil in our nation.

If you have allowed your children to use entertainment like this, or worse yet purchased it for them, then you are guilty.

If you fail to alert sponsors of unsavory tv programs and advise them you will not be purchasing their products, then you are guilty.

If you notice soft porn commercials such as Victoria's Secret or commercials which promote any kind of violence or degrading activity and fail to complain, then you are guilty.

If you think violence and destruction can ever be fun, amusing, and harmless entertainment, then you are guilty.

If you neglect to contribute fairly to charity while you struggle to support a comepetitive or luxurious lifestyle to satisfy your ego, then you are guilty.

If you fail to protect the innocent, support the needy, uplift the prisoner, minister to the sick or lonely, and care for the elderly, then you are guilty.

This list is far, far from being complete. I challenge you to make further additions.

Though I have a post graduate diploma in theology for a paper credential, 65 years of life experience and observation qualify me for a higher degree - a Master's in Common Sense. So you can bet I know what I'm talking about when I say reform and redirection begin with individual action. Instead of hissy fits about the flag, why not begin today to reverse the situation we Americans now find ourselves in by first admitting that nearly all of us, even if by default or indifference, eventually contribute in some way or another toward maintaining the ugly mess?
When people rise up against evil they can make powerful changes, with God's help.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to sign my post and do not want anyone else to be blamed for it!

Father Martin Fox said...

Rachel, cc: Victor --

I understand how you are reading the "undimmed by human tears" line, but I see it saying something different--not that human tears don't come, but rather, that they do not dim the view of and hope for the future.

I found that last verse very powerful, right after 9/11; for me it was a hopeful thought.

And I took the term "alabaster" to betoken a purity of character.

kkollwitz said...

Because I consider America my extended family, I would not exclude her from church any more than I'd exclude the rest of my family. Given that this extended family consists of millions, using a symbol is a reasonable shortcut.
I think a useful comparison is to compare the flag to a monarch. I don't think I'd object to the presence of a Queen (physically representing the nation)in the front row of church, thus I wouldn't object to the flag (symbolically representing the nation)being visible as well.

Lynne said...

An excellent example of storge...