Yesterday I heard an excellent homily at Mass. The Gospel reading (Mt 10:37-42) had Jesus telling his followers, with the uncompromising language he often used, that nothing comes before God. God comes first, and everything else is secondary—even the love for a mother and a father. In a line that undoubtedly shocked listeners in first-century Palestine and still has the power to shock, he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”
As the homilist told the congregation this Sunday, everything must be subordinated to God. Agreed.
That is why it was so jarring to hear the Communion meditation just a few minutes later. It was a song, which I had not heard before, in which the singer pledged her heart to America. Not to Jesus but to the United States of America.
God comes first, and everything else is secondary—even the love for a mother and a father.
Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. It was the Sunday before the Fourth of July, and I have come to expect patriotic songs in Catholic churches in the United States, around that time of year, as well as around Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.
But it was hard not to think: Isn’t this the opposite of what Jesus said in the Gospel? Surely we should all be good Americans and love and honor our country. But especially during the Mass, shouldn’t our hearts be pledged to something, or someone else?
Before we go further, a disclaimer: I am as patriotic as the next person. I love my country. I love saying the Pledge of Allegiance (which I knew before the Act of Contrition). I enjoy singing all manner of patriotic songs, especially “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America,” and when I lived in Kenya for two years and heard the National Anthem at a U.S. Embassy Fourth of July picnic I couldn’t believe how moved I was.
Some of the patriotic songs sung during Masses subordinate the Sacrifice of the Mass to the United States of America.
But we’re not talking about a U.S. Embassy picnic or a Fourth of July parade or a baseball game. We’re talking about the Mass. That is why I have a problem with some of the patriotic songs sung during Masses in this country. It subordinates the Sacrifice of the Mass to the United States of America. Some of the songs make it sound like we are at a Fourth of July picnic.
Typically, these songs are used as entrance hymns or recessional hymns, the two times when Catholics are most likely to join in the singing, which lends them added weight. (During the Offertory Hymns, parishioners are often scouting around for cash for the collection, and during the Communion meditation are either on their way up to or coming back from the Communion line.) Often the entrance hymn is “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and the recessional “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America.”
Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead.
It sometimes rankles. It’s as if the Fourth of July is more important than the Sacrifice of the Mass. As if the signing of the Declaration of Independence is more important than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And let me be clear: It is not. Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead. What’s more, our country is not going to be judging us in the afterlife. I always think of the lines from the Book of Isaiah:
Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/ and are accounted as dust on the scales…. All the nations are as nothing before him;/ they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Is 40:15-17).
Much of this is subjective. Some Catholics love these songs. They appreciate, as do I, being able to ask God to bless our country, being able to give thanks for our country, and, as one Catholic told me a few years ago, “At least they’re songs that I know!”
Some patriotic songs don’t bother me when sung during the Mass, particularly those you might call quasi-patriotic. “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” is a song that is often sung in military functions, which I love. (Also called the “Navy Hymn” it was a favorite of one of my heroes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was sung at his funeral.) But it’s quite clearly directed to God.
“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” on the other hand, is quite clearly about “my country.” It doesn’t get around to mentioning God until the fourth and final verse. Likewise, despite how many times it invokes God, “America the Beautiful” is not about how beautiful God is but how beautiful America is.
“America the Beautiful” is not about how beautiful God is but how beautiful America is.
One of the upsides of singing patriotic hymns is that they often remind us that it is God who is helping us along in whatever good we are trying to do in our nation. “America! America! God mend thine ev'ry flaw/ Confirm thy soul in self-control/ Thy liberty in law.” That’s an important insight. One of the downsides, however, is that it may encourage a kind of American exceptionalism. That is, isn’t God mending the flaws of other countries? Why not? Does God bless other countries? You can see the problem.
I asked John Baldovin, S.J., professor of historical and liturgical theology at Boston College what he thought of all this. “Frankly, I do not favor patriotic songs like ‘America the Beautiful’ at liturgy,” he wrote in an email today. “My reason is that they are addressed to the nation and not to God. There are patriotic hymns, e.g., ‘God of Our Fathers,’ ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save,’ ‘This is My Song’—all of these are addressed to God. I presided in two parishes this past weekend, and both had ‘America the Beautiful’ as a recessional hymn.”
Thomas Scirghi, S.J., who teaches sacramental theology at Fordham University, agreed, writing: “The patriotic songs should be sung for gatherings which celebrate the nation. For liturgy, though, we should cull the hymnal for appropriate festive hymns, to celebrate that we are ‘one nation under God.’ Indeed, in liturgy, to whom are we singing: to God or to ourselves?”
At a Fourth of July parade, I’m happy to sing to my country. At the Mass, I’d rather sing to my Savior.
Going to an even more authoritative source, the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, is of the same mind: “Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” That is, the songs should be connected to the Mass.
Father Scirghi posed another question about one of the most popular patriotic hymns. “What do we mean when we sing ‘God Bless America’? Are we stating that ‘God has blessed America’ (as in, ‘Aren’t we great!’) Or are we commanding God to bless this land (‘We earned it!’)? Or are we asking or pleading for God to bless us (so that we may fulfill our destiny)? If it is the third, then we need to ask, ‘And what will we do in return for this blessing?’”
As I said, the question of which patriotic songs should be sung during the Mass may be subjective. And I don’t think it troubled too many of people in the parish yesterday to listen to that Communion meditation about pledging our hearts to America.
For me, however, it’s a question of priorities, and as the homilist pointed out yesterday, what comes first. At a Fourth of July parade, I’m happy to sing to my country. At the Mass, I’d rather sing to my Savior.