Summary: We are Americans, and celebrate the wonderful gifts God has given to us as Americans. But we are first of all members of the Church that Jesus founded.
July 4, 2018
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.” The words of the prophet Isaiah.
Nobody would willingly leave home and allow himself to be crammed into steerage in a leaky old boat with hundreds of other people for a week or two or three without good reason. The reason? My ancestors did that because they were starving in Ireland and had to bury one or more of their close relatives there. Yours could have been escaping the bloody French revolution or Napoleon’s onslaught that followed. Maybe they were driven from Germany by the Kulturkampf of Bismarck, or from Italy by the land distribution following the unification, or Mexico by the godless revolution of the early twentieth century. Perhaps they were fleeing from the religious and political upheavals that followed World War II in the Far East. Most of us are descendants of refugees from political or religious or economic catastrophe.
When our forefathers got off the boat, maybe at Ellis Island or Galveston Island, or crossed the border at Nuevo or Matamoros, or landed at the Los Angeles airport, they came to a land that was new to them. In some cases the authorities may have changed their first or last names to sound more American–like Karoly to Charles. But whether that kind of alteration happened, change became a major part of their lives. They had to change attitudes, customs, expectations. But they had to hold on to the most critical parts of their existence. And that meant they desperately clung to their family and their faith. Whether they came from Portugal or Slovenia or Sicily or Guatemala, they and all the members of their families identified as Catholic.
So what did they find as they became Americans? First, Americans celebrate their freedoms. These are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the first ten amendments. If they came from a place like Prussia, where they had to practice the faith secretly, now they could attend Mass and devotions publicly, and build beautiful churches and schools, and see their priests and religious specially attired. They could hold religious processions on the street. And so they did.
Second, in the Old Country the family and community were fundamental units of the society. As Americans practiced their freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and the press, our forefathers discovered that many of them considered individuals the basic units of society. Individualism is born from these freedoms. So as Catholics moved out of their barrios and ghettos and enclaves into the suburbs, they discovered their neighbors were not automatically Catholics. Sometimes they were hostile; maybe they tried to convert their Catholic neighbors to one or the other flavor of Protestantism, or even to non-Christian religions. I recall my business partner–who was an evangelical Christian–and I calling on a client and being asked to help build his community’s Hindu temple. The religious people knocking on the front door are probably not from the Legion of Mary.
Catholics responded to these challenges by establishing and supporting institutions that carry on the work of the Church–work that in their countries of origin may have been done by the whole society because it was a Catholic society. So we have religious communities founded to staff hospitals or schools. We have the St. Vincent de Paul society, founded to help the poor. We have the Knights of Columbus, with their many charitable outreaches and insurance programs. There are the Catholic Daughters of America, who do charitable work. On and on they go, so that instead of individualism, Catholics tend toward communitarianism.
Finally, when the culture of the United States tends toward injustice and evil, Catholics as individuals and institutions stand in the way, jump into the breach. I think of Bishop Yanta and Virginian Catholic Judie Brown standing up for the dignity of children not yet born. I recall Archbishop Gomez telling me of his anger that if a foreign national brings a million dollars to the table, he or she can cut in line and get preferential treatment for immigration and naturalization. That’s the other side of the immigration controversy.
So we are Americans, and celebrate the wonderful gifts God has given to us as Americans. But we are first of all members of the Church that Jesus founded, and we bring as our special gift to the U.S. a devotion to the Gospel, a gospel of liberty from sin and love of all the humans that God has created, from conception to natural death. Blessed be God forever.