4th of July: Our love of country is shaped by our love for Christ

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14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: July 4, 2010
Isa 66:10-14; Ps 66:1-7, 16, 20; Gal 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

In the United States, we celebrate Independence Day on July 4, because July 4, 1776, is the date marked on the Declaration of Independence—the date that the text of that declaration was approved; and, soon after which, it was signed.

Now there are 56 signers of the Declaration. One of them was Catholic: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, which names the land that he owned in Frederick County, here in Maryland. He had a cousin, Daniel Carroll, who was one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution a decade later; and he had another cousin, John Carroll, who became the first Catholic bishop in the United States.

All three of those Carrolls, along with the other Catholics in the English colonies, had been living under very severe legal restrictions throughout the 1700s, up until that point. And among those other Catholics in the English colonies was this parish—St. Mary’s, Piscataway—existing throughout that time—not yet at this location, but located a few miles north of here—and having to meet secretly. Because during the 1700s, Catholics in the English colonies could not hold public office, could not vote, could not educate their children in the Catholic faith, could not even worship in public.

And yet Charles Carroll was among those who joined together to plan and to form a new nation. And surely he anticipated that, as he signed that Declaration, in separating from the King of England, it would also mean a separating from those severely repressive English laws upon Catholics. As indeed it did; and all of that began to change on that day, July 4, 1776. And so Catholics have an extra reason to rejoice on this day.

And yet the story was not done then. The laws may have changed, but in many ways the attitudes of the culture did not. And when we look at the stories of our American saints, we see the evidence of that.

  • How St. Elizabeth Ann Seton—who was raised a well-off Episcopalian in New York City—after she was widowed, started a school to support herself and her children. And then after she converted to Catholicism that school failed because everybody pulled their kids out, because they didn’t want them to be taught by a Catholic.
  • Or how St. John Neumann, during the period when he was bishop in Philadelphia, faced the challenge—among other challenges there in the early 1800s—of the Know-Nothing Party going around and burning down Catholic convents, schools, parishes.

On this holiday we often speak of patriotism—meaning a love of one’s country. The root of patriotism is “patria,” from Latin, which can be translated as one’s native place, one’s homeland—or even as one’s fatherland, since “patria” and “pater,” or father, are clearly related.

And the comparison of the love of country to the love of family is a good one. And perhaps we should be acknowledging that love of family—indeed our whole relationship with our family—is not necessarily simple or peaceful. There is love, but there is often conflict.

And surely everyone here knows that their relationship with the United States as patria is not uncomplicated either. Some here come from family and ancestry that was very poorly treated, unjustly treated, by these United States. Others were born and grew up elsewhere and now the United States is a sort of adopted family. And how do you work that out, between the family relationship that you have with the land you came from, and the one that you have here now?

So Catholics are especially well-prepared to consider that the love for country, while it is real, is not simple or uncomplicated.

What is it that we are asked to give through love of country, through service to country? Well, let’s consider these complications that enter into this relationship with “patria.”

If we consider first the first reading: there we are hearing the words of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, that are addressing the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah concerning the time after their return from exile to Babylon. These are comforting and encouraging words, for they speak of the return from exile, and the restoration of the country and of its capital, Jerusalem. We heard over and over in the reading Jerusalem portrayed as a mother—indeed that same family relationship, that a capital and a country could be like a mother that someone loves and that provides for each person.

Now, at this time, if we think about it, Jerusalem meant all kinds of things, all wrapped together. It was people; it was language; it was culture; it was, if you will, race. It was also government; it was where the king, the Son of David, had his throne and from which he ruled, from which he sent forth the armies. And it was also worship and the truth about God: for in Jerusalem was the Temple, and there the priests taught the Law and led the people in offering sacrifice to God. All of this was in Jerusalem. All of this was the way in which the Lord led his People under the Old Covenant as we read in the Old Testament. It was all one. And so one’s relationship to patria—even knowing what patria was—would have been very straightforward.

But when we turn to the coming of Christ, and the message that he brought and the New Covenant that he established, things become a little more complicated. We heard in the Gospel today that he sent out 72 disciples to visit different towns, and to proclaim to them, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Now, how would people have heard the proclamation of the Kingdom of God? To them, when they heard the word “kingdom,” might they have thought, first off, that the proclamation of kingdom was the proclamation of a new government, a new regime?—that someone was asking for a different allegiance from them; was trying to establish a new territory, with new boundaries? A foreign king trying to encroach upon that land; or some upstart, would-be king provoking a civil war?

Now we might well respond to them: that’s not what Jesus was preaching. But we know that the charge over Jesus’ head on the cross was “the King of the Jews.” Using these words, “kingdom” and “king,” was not small thing.

Jesus of course explained at different points in the Gospels, “My kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36]. It’s not the same as an ordinary kingdom. And he also said—at that time when the Pharisees were trying to trap him with a question about paying taxes—”Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s” [Matt 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25].

But does this neatly solve the question and set it aside? It doesn’t. Because what Christ was doing, in effect, was taking all those things that we could see bound together in one, in patria, in the Old Covenant; and pulling the elements apart. And so now, while the Kingdom of God did not ask for territory, boundaries, military, government leadership, taxation—all of those things would rest with the individual country, while the Church would spread across all countries—nevertheless there things that belonged to God and not to Caesar; to God and not to patria.

And while that might sound like a nice division, in a sense I think it probably goes against our nature: our nature prefers for all of these things to be bound in one. And it also goes against what every country and every government, at one point or another, is probably going to ask for. Even if they are Christian; even if they are Catholic. At some point they will probably want to ask for everything. They will not be satisfied with one’s heart and mind being held by God. They will not be satisfied that there are certain things that one must do morally, or must not do morally; and that they, the government, cannot define morality for us. And so, again and again throughout history, in all places, at all times, in all forms of government, we will see a tension and sometimes even a sharp conflict between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.

{{The word “patria” can be used to translate the Greek “patris”—a word that occurs 8 times in the New Testament, after many more times in the Old. And if we look at those 8 times, we find that at no time is it a simple word. Seven of those times occur in the Gospel accounts of that incident when Christ spoke of how a prophet is not accepted in his patria, in his homeland; and of how Christ himself was not accepted in his patria [Matt 13:54, 57; Mark 6:1, 4; Luke 4:23-24; John 4:44].

And the eighth is found in Hebrews chapter 11 [:13-16], in the midst of a recitation of the giants of faith of the Old Testament; and in the midst of this recitation, the author declares:

All these … acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland [patria]. If they had been thinking of the land from which they had come, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.

And so it is that Christ can say to his disciples, “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven”; that St. Paul can say in the second reading that he bears the marks of Jesus on his body—like those marks that the masters of the ancient world would put upon the bodies of their slaves, in the form of tattoos or other ways, to show that they were theirs. And St. Paul pointed to the scars that he had gained through his suffering, his persecution, as the marks that Christ had put on him to show that he was Christ’s.}}

What is it, then, that we give to government? That we owe in our love for country, for patria? The Catechism treats this question under the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother”; and so loving your family and loving your country are treated one after the other. And the Catechism tells us:

2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. …

—much as one’s love and service to one’s family involve gratitude. Among the positive things that this means, the Catechism tells us that it is

2240 … morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country…

And yet the Catechism also clarifies:

2238 … Their loyal collaboration includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community.

We know that love for one’s family does not mean hatred for everyone who is not of one’s family. It rather means that, though we love and respect all, we have a special love for our family; though we owe good treatment and respect to all, we have special duties to our families. We also know that our love for family is not blind: that if we see a member of the family who is going down a wrong way, an evil way, a harmful way, we will try as we have opportunity to turn them back to the way that is good and the way that is healthy.

And yet, as we follow Christ, even as some things cannot be asked of us by our family, or by our patria, nevertheless what he supplies us with enables us to give all the more. And his example of pouring himself out in service and sacrifice becomes an example for us too. And so it may be that, even though some things must be marked off, nevertheless what we give is even greater, and even more recognizable, even by those who might have a problem with the Catholic faith.

And so we find, even among the statues in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, many Catholics who have been recognized by the states for their contribution.

  • We find Bl. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who traveled thousands of miles, who baptized and confirmed thousands, as he established missions along the coast of California.
  • We find St. Damien of Molokai, that Belgian priest who gave years of service and ultimately his life serving the lepers on that Hawaiian island.
  • We find Mother Joseph, that religious sister who served in the Pacific Northwest, founding schools, orphanages, hospitals, serving there for decades.

And she stands for so many other sisters, including St. Katharine Drexel, St. Theodore Guerin, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, [St. Rose Philippine Duchesne,] and others who similarly, in their different places, gave and gave. And so the United States has recognized them.

I want to close with a quotation from a text called the “Letter to Diognetus.” We’re not sure who wrote this. We’re not sure exactly when it was written, but it was sometime during the 2nd century. So these were words, more than 1800 years ago, that were written to someone named Diognetus in a public position, there in the ancient world—to explain who these Christians are, and to defend them in society. We read in part:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs that they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, … following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every native country is foreign.

They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. … They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.

They love all men, and are persecuted by all. … They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; … They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. … yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that is what Christians are in the world.

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Published in: on July 4, 2010 at 3:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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