Memorial Day: Gratitude and Patriotism

flagsMemorial Day nicely illuminates key aspects of Catholic spirituality – of our life in but not of the world.

On the one hand, the Catholic cannot wholly entrust himself to any earthly nation. Our “alien allegiance” has sometimes been misunderstood, as if the Pope were just a foreign sovereign. But rather, our only true sovereign is Christ the King, our true homeland is heaven, and our true nation is the Church: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).

There’s something lost in translation, but the real heart of Vatican II’s understanding of the Church is the phrase “people of God.” But “people” here, Latin populus, is not the plural of “person”: in Lumen Gentium, we’re not a bunch of individuals who are each a “person of God.” The “people” is a collective – connected with Peter’s words “race” (genos, like genus) and “nation” (ethnos). The Church is our country, our true ethnicity, and we are meant to see ourselves as part of that country before we are part of any other.


On a day like Memorial Day, this shows itself, in one sense, negatively. (Don’t mistake me – I’m getting to the positive!) As Christians we can never submit ourselves wholly to this earthly nation, or its moral mishaps. My grandfathers fought in World War II, and I am grateful for them today. On balance, they did much good. But we must never forget that the Church (our true nation) unequivocally condemns our earthly nation for targeting civilians, not only at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also at Tokyo, Dresden, and many other cities we carpet-bombed.

Nowhere else do we more clearly see the distance between Catholicism and jingoist nationalism than in the importance of such moral condemnations. We can never say that whatever our country does, or whatever helps our country, is good. Our country has committed, and will continue to commit, many moral atrocities. (We need not name them here.)


That must not stop us, however, from honoring our soldiers on Memorial Day.

At the heart of the soldier’s vocation is the Gospel precept, “no greater love has any man, than to lay down his life for his friend.” Or, as America the Beautiful says, “who more than self their country loved.”

What most defines a soldier is not that he kills, nor that he carries a gun. What most defines a soldier is that he puts his own life in harm’s way to protect his homeland – and that he submits himself to the higher authorities of his country in so doing. A Christian soldier cannot be obedient when his earthly authorities contradict Christ the King. But outside of those circumstances, his obedience is the sign that he seeks not his own good, nor his own pride, but the good of his country. That he lays down his life for his friends.

This is among the most noble things a human person can do.


A soldier goes to war out of gratitude for his country; Memorial Day encourages us at home to imitate that gratitude. The soldier recognizes that his homeland is worth giving his life for. For the beauty of the land, but even more for the beauty of his people. A truly Christian soldier cannot, of course, think that his people are without sin. But that doesn’t stop him from loving their music, their food, their leisure, the things they build, their ways of relating.

My great-grandfathers and grandfathers went to the First and Second World Wars in regiments from Wisconsin. I think we miss the nature of patriotism if we think they only fought for the broad idea of America. They sang, till their death, almost bizarrely patriotic songs about their home state, and their home city. It was those details they fought for. They fought for home.


When the commandments – and the example of Jesus – tell us to honor our father and mother, they remind us that home itself is a gift from God. We are not of this world, and no earthly country can ever claim ultimate sovereignty over our hearts. But our love of God itself demands gratitude for the people and places we belong to.

This is the deepest meaning of laying down our life for our friends. To realize that God didn’t make us to be radical individuals, but to love the people around us intensely, so that we would lay down our life: for Wisconsin, New Jersey, Rhode Island, or whatever our earthly home may be.


Think of the soldiers in your family’s history – and let them lead you to deeper gratitude for the home God has given you.

Our Lady of Guadalupe (belated)

Virgen_de_guadalupe1On Wednesday my family and I were dreadfully sick, and I missed the opportunity to write a post for Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast was Thursday. I offer one now.

I presume all my readers know the story. In the early days of the mission to the Americas, things were not going well. Mary appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in the image of an Aztec princess. She imprinted a miraculous image of this apparition on his tilma, which remains miraculously preserved to this day. The image served as a major point of conversion for the Indians throughout the Americas, and remains a key part of the North and South American Catholic heritage to this day.


I want to make just two points about Our Lady of Guadalupe.

First, she shows us that God is truly with us. The central point of the image is that Mary appears not as a European, but as an Indian. God became man in a particular time and place. Jesus spoke a particular language, with a particular dialect. His skin, eyes, and hair color showed him to belong to a particular race (though, amazingly, most of us aren’t sure what that was). His disciples were known by their funny accents. I was not there.

But the point of the Incarnation was not that Jesus came just for that time and place, but that he came for all times and places. That he embraces the particular, so that I find him in the funny accents where I live, my particular culture, my time in history. Jesus did not banish history, but embraced it, in all its particularity.

The infamous blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus speaks truth if by it we mean that he came also for people like me. It speaks a lie if it makes us think he only came for people like me. (And Pope Francis has vividly reminded us, with his economic message, that that lie is so very easy to embrace. We of the blue eyes and richest nation in the history of the world probably do well to think more about him coming for people who don’t look like us! He is just as black as he is blue eyed.)

Mary stands for the humanity of Jesus. It is her particularity that he embraces. And so Mary is the one who appears to the Indians as one of them: to say, yes, Jesus was born of woman not to alienate you, but to embrace you. God is so close to you in Jesus that you can count his mother as one of you. It is your world that God embraced in the Incarnation.


My second point is that we live at the Antipodes. We, the Americans – with our Pope, from the most southern country of the Americas – are truly “the ends of the earth.”

We live in an age of American Empire. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if rightly embraced. Empires can bring peace, as the Roman Empire did in the time of Jesus. And our Empire, in some ways, is particularly benevolent, or at least has the opportunity to be that way.

But to be a truly benevolent Empire – or anyway, a truly benevolent America – it does us well to remember that we actually aren’t the center of the world. Jerusalem is.

1581_bunting_clover_leaf_map_1024The old medieval maps showed it this way, and the insight is remarkable. From Jerusalem spring out the three great ancient continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. All of them, in fact, took turns conquering Jerusalem: first Egypt, then Babylon, then Rome. But there it is: the world radiating out from Jerusalem. And America, the New World, is really the other side of the world, the big island that is opposite. They used to call this the “antipodes.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds us Americans that we belong to this strange Atlantis. Not the center of the world, but its farthest reaches, its strangest and youngest outpost. Not Australia: they are the farthest reach of the old world, the normal world!

It does us well, first, to see that Jerusalem really is the center, that we all measure our distance from Jesus.

Second, to know that the three old continents are all due their respect as the normal world, the ancient world, the respectable world. America has great young energy: but respect your elders!

And third, to remember that the “Americas” are one. The Europeans (including the Vatican) count us as one continent. And really, we do well to see that we are all in this together: we, the youthful nations; we, the land of the Indians and the slaves; we, who might be the future, but shouldn’t forget the past: especially the sacred history of Jerusalem, the center of the world.


How do you see America forgetting its youthfulness? What could we learn from seeing ourselves as the antipodes?

Leo XIII on America’s Founding

Pope-Leo-XIII-1900And since Thanksgiving is a fine national holiday for America:

A few words from Pope Leo XIII about what is good in America’s founding. We certainly are aware, these days, of many things our forefathers did wrong. But it is good to be thankful for what is good and right.


“Very rapidly did the light of the Gospel shine upon the savage tribes discovered by the Ligurian [i.e., Christopher Columbus]. For it is sufficiently well known how many of the children of Francis, as well as of Dominic and of Loyola, were accustomed during the two following centuries to voyage thither for this purpose; how they cared for the colonies brought over from Europe; but primarily and chiefly how they converted the natives from superstition to Christianity, sealing their labors in many instances with the testimony of their blood. The names newly given to so many of your towns and rivers and mountains and lakes teach and clearly witness how deeply your beginnings were marked with the footprints of the Catholic Church.

“Nor, perchance, did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you [that is, we got our first American bishop, John Carroll]; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church.

“The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned [George Washington], with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion. Religion, by her very nature, guards and defends all the principles on which duties are founded, and setting before us the motives most powerful to influence us, commands us to live virtuously and forbids us to transgress.

“Now what is the Church other than a legitimate society, founded by the will and ordinance of Jesus Christ for the preservation of morality and the defence of religion? For this reason have We repeatedly endeavored, from the summit of the pontifical dignity, to inculcate that the Church, whilst directly and immediately aiming at the salvation of souls and the beatitude which is to be attained in heaven, is yet, even in the order of temporal things, the fountain of blessings so numerous and great that they could not have been greater or more numerous had the original purpose of her institution been the pursuit of happiness during the life which is spent on earth.”

–Leo XIII, Longinqua, 1895