Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Happy Independence Day!
I love this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a Supreme Court Justice from 1902-1932. He knew implicitly what “one” meant when speaking of our American Nation. Why? Well, he was a veteran of the Civil War, having fought for the Union in some of the bloodiest battles of the war to preserve the oneness of our nation. He was wounded three times and nearly died on more than one occasion. He described his experience of the civil war as being horrific. But he willingly shed blood for the sake of preserving our national unity. Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 describes America not so much as being a country as an idea. I think Justice Holmes would appreciate that notion. On this July 4th, we continue to celebrate the great American experiment; the idea that out of many we can become one. It seems like this grand idea is somewhat in tatters these days. But if we remember that there is much more that unites us than divides us, we can raise the flag high on this July 4th.
Now, aside from our unity as Americans, there is something more fundamental that we Catholics need to take to heart these days. That is the fact that before we are Americans, we are Christians. We are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ first and foremost. It’s the fruit of our faith that gives us the ability to be good citizens. America does not save us; only Christ saves us. I have often felt that if we had as much passion about Jesus Christ and His good news as we did about political, cultural, and societal ideas and movements, how amazing and transformative our lives and nation would be. Rather, we get stuck and distracted by the smallness of political and cultural debate, which seems to be too focused on self-interest and gain. Too often we feel that everything stands or falls on the latest poll, news story, protest, or legislation. And this debate is often mixed with intolerance and hatred rather than true Christian charity. We get caught up in the things of the moment without seeing where we are really going with it all.
In this context, I think these words of Cardinal Robert Sarah are worth noting:
“[Today’s faithful] remind me of the Christians who, in the twilight years of the Roman Empire, kept watch over the flickering flame of civilization. I want to encourage them. I want to tell them your mission is not to save a dying world. No civilization has the promises of eternal life. Your mission is to live out with fidelity and without compromise the faith you received from Christ . . . It is not a matter of winning elections or influencing opinions. It is a matter of living the Gospel. Faith is a fire. A person must be on fire in order to transmit it. Watch over this sacred fire!”
This doesn’t mean that we as Catholics should give up on the American ideal, or not have a role in it. I am not saying that we should in any way retreat or not be active in civil debate or action. However, as Christians, we need to do so from a place of being faithful followers of Christ first, knowing that who we are as His disciples says more about us than anything else. It means that we need to first keep an eye on the true prize: our identity as beloved sons and daughters of a loving Father and on our eternal destiny. Remember, Heaven is our homeland, not the USA! It also means we truly need to pray and discern what we latch onto in civil debate. Is the fire of my faith in Christ seen in my speech and actions; is it consistent with who I am first as a follower of the Lord Jesus? We need to pray and reason and think much more before we act and speak. As Christians, we are called to attract others to life with Christ and not repel them. In the end, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, we will be judged on how well we have loved as Christians. If we take that to heart, then we will contribute much as Catholics to the great American idea by our prayer and action. Again, as Bono says, grace isn’t just the name of a girl, it’s a thought that can change the world!
Blessed Holiday to you all!
Fr. David Mulholland