If you happened to be at Mass in France on Bastille Day and everyone sang La Marseillaise, would you feel just a bit of an outsider to what was going on? Of course you’d understand it, and maybe even appreciate it as a bit of local color. Or if you were in a church in Moscow for Mass on May Day and the congregation sang a rousing chorus of the State Anthem of the Russian Federation (or the Internationale), would you feel less-included in the Eucharist that day?
This is why we don’t sing “patriotic” songs at Mass, even at times like around Veterans’ Day.
The Eucharist is the very heart and soul of our faith – the Sacrament which binds all believers into the Body of Christ. The criterion for inclusion into His Body is Baptism into Christ and living a life in Communion with the Church. Nationality isn’t relevant at Mass, and anything that seems to set up “insiders” and “outsiders” on any basis other than life in the Church Communion is wrong.
I understand that a lot of people – even some Catholic pastors – disagree with me on this. I know you may find churches in which “God Bless America” or the like is sung at Mass on patriotic holidays. I am convinced that this damages the meaning of the Eucharist, and reinforces in people an unfortunate confusion between “being a good Christian” and “being a good American.” And anyone who says “It doesn’t really matter” understands nothing about the power of ritual to shape our lives.
(For the record, I have no objection to singing patriotic hymns outside Mass. You may remember that for several years our parish held patriotic hymn-sings at the outdoor flagpole on the Sunday morning nearest to July 4, and I attended each year and enjoyed it. We gave the practice up because so few people attended. But back to my main topic.)
The church’s ritual demonstrates exactly the distinction I’m making about where symbols of patriotism belong and don’t when it comes to worship. If you’ve been at the Funeral Mass for a person who served in the military (or certain other government groups) you’ll have seen the casket draped in the American flag when the funeral procession arrives. But when the casket is ready to enter the church, the American flag is removed and a white ritual drape called the pall is put on – a reminder of the white garment given at Baptism. For the duration of the Mass, the deceased person’s baptismal identity is what matters. The American flag (quite properly) doesn’t promise eternal life; baptism does.
Two of the reasons for our confusion about religion and culture are matters of history. First, our country was founded partly out of a religious (that is, Protestant Christian) impulse, so matters of national identity and of Christian identity are mixed thoroughly in our history. Catholic schools were created by the bishops of the nineteenth century largely to protect immigrant Catholic children from the Protestant ethos of the “public” schools. Second, Catholics were often suspected of dual loyalties (to country and to Pope) by bigots in the not-so-distant past; so – especially during the First World War – Catholics put on displays of patriotism to show that we were no less citizens than anyone else. Some of these displays were entirely proper; others (like American flags on church altars) were understandable but went too far. (The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy recommends that national flags not be placed in the sanctuary – to make exactly the point I made at the start of this column.)
Another, contemporary difficulty is that religious affiliation has become for some people not unlike membership in a health club – a choice to affiliate. But Catholic Christians can’t allow this way of thinking. We believe that we were called by God’s eternal plan to become members of his Risen Son – just as French Catholics and Russian Catholics and Mexican Catholics and every other sort of Catholic is. Our membership in Christ’s one Risen Body is not like the accident of being born somewhere, or a matter of “joining up.” While there is no doubt a place for proper love of one’s country, and for honoring that love in ceremony, ritual in church describes something else entirely. We confuse ourselves and others when we mix the two. Until next week, peace.