Celebrating the 4th: a tale of two propers

This American Independence Day found me perusing the Missal and reflecting on the propers that are provided for today in the diocese of the United States. I am struck that, for each of the orations, two options are provided that present two quite distinct approaches to celebrating July 4th. For example, the first opening prayer reads:

God of justice, Father of truth,
who guide creation in wisdom and goodness
to fulfillment in Christ your Son,
open our hearts to the truth of his Gospel,
that your peace may rule in our hearts
and your justice guide our lives.
Through our Lord…

This prayer is relevant to the commemoration of American independence in its petition for an increase of peace and justice in our hearts—virtues that are impoortant for any well-functioning political entity—but it doesn’t make any explicit mention of the events of July 4, 1776, and could be use on any number of other occasions in any number of places. Not so the second prayer:

Father of all nations and ages,
we recall the day when our country
claimed its place among the family of nations;
for what has been achieved we give you thanks,
for the work that still remains we ask your help,
and as you have called us from many peoples
to be one nation,
grant that, under your providence,
our country may share your blessings
with all the peoples of the earth.
Through our Lord…

In this prayer, the founding of America is drawn into a theological narrative of God’s providence. This is not itself problematic, since Augustine saw the Roman Empire and even its persecution of Christians as part of God’s providence. Somewhat confusingly, however, the many peoples who become one nation are neither the eschatological Israel, as in Isaiah 2, nor the Church, as 1 Peter suggests, but the United States. It is also implied that America is somehow uniquely blessed by God, and given a correlative mission by God to share those blessings with the world. The sense of moral responsibility is, of course, commendable, but it seems to prejudge the nature of America’s role in God’s providence as a positive one.

For the prayer over the gifts, the first option reads:

Accept, Lord God,
these gifts we bring to this altar
and, having taught us through the wisdom of the Gospel,
lead us to true justice and lasting peace.
Through Christ our Lord.

Again, this is a prayer that could be used on any number of occasions, whether connected to a national holiday or not. It also  identifies the Gospel as the source of justice and peace. The second option, however, is explicitly tied to the founding of the United States:

Father, who have molded into one our nation,
drawn from the peoples of many lands,
grant, that as the grains of wheat become one bread
and the many grapes one cup of wine,
so we may before all others be instruments of your peace.
Through Christ our Lord.

This prayer asks, unobjectionably, that we might became instruments of God’s peace. It also echoes a statement of Augustine: “In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form ‘a single heart and mind in God'” (Sermon 272). But, for Augustine, the symbolism of the many grains making the one bread applies to the Church, not the nation. Again, we see language usually applied to the Church is usurped by the nation state, in this case in a way that almost makes the nation an alternative source of unity to the Church.

For the postcommunion prayer the first option reads:

By showing us in this Eucharist, O Lord,
a glimpse of the unity and joy
of your people in heaven,
deepen our unity and intensify our joy,
that all who believe in you
may work together to build the city of lasting peace.
Through Christ our Lord.

Again, there is no indication that a national holiday is being celebrated, aside from the petition that we might “build the city of lasting peace.”This is a potentially confusing reference since it can only refer to the heavenly city, since no earthly city has lasting peace, but might be heard by listeners as referring to the earthly city. The second option, however, is explicit in its national reference:

May the love we share in this Eucharist,
heavenly Father,
flow in rich blessing throughout our land
and by your grace may we as a nation
place our trust in you
and seek to do your will.
Through Christ our Lord.

Here we don’t really see any problematic theologizing of America’s providential role in history, nor any usurpation of the Church by American in that history. Still, the nation remains the focus of our concern, rather than the peace and justice of individual citizens.

So it seems that there is a fairly clear choice in how we commemorate July 4. On the one hand, we can pray for an increase of the peace and justice that is needed for any human society, letting the connection to Independence Day remain implicit. On the other hand, we can thank God for our nation’s providential founding and pray that she fulfill her God-given mission in history. I think the second option carries with it certain potential perils, reinforcing the tendency of American Catholics to conflate their identity as Catholics with their identity as Americans and to see the actions of America on the world stage as uniquely providential in carrying out God’s will.

Alas, my real preferred option—celebrating the memorial of St. Elizabeth of Portugal—no longer seems to be an option, since her feast day now gets transferred to July 5.

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31 comments

  1. Never understood why the Ordinary Form sees the need to have liturgical texts/memorials for secular holidays like 4 July. Thanksgiving and Labor can easily be served as needed by Votive Masses…but to have a specific “feast” for Independence Day seems foreign to the spirit of the liturgy. On this one, I think some progressives might actually find themselves in agreement with the ethos of the Extraordinary Form, which doesn’t envisage this sort of weird canonization of national memorials.

      1. In Canada we have optional Mass texts for Canada Day and Labour Day, however at my parish we celebrate a Votive Mass of St Joseph (Patron of Canada) on Canada Day and St Joseph the Worker on Labour Day (Provided it doesn’t conflict with a Saint’s Day). Canada also has Mass texts for Remembrance Day and Thanksgiving, however we never use them. I don’t know how it works in the United States, but perhaps a Votive Mass of the Immaculate Conception would serve better to counter any perceived nationalism. I am very much a monarchist, in regards to both my earthly queen, Her Majesty Elizabeth II and the Heavenly Queenship of the Blessed Virgin, if we are not prepared to ask the Saints, particularly the Queen of All Saints, to intercede for us, we lose a valuable source of God’s grace. That is why my parish always celebrates optional memorials (except in Lent and in Advent after December 17th). I have found the Saints to be a force against nationalism, holy men and women from every continent and walk of life, all giving us examples of how to draw into deeper union with our Lord and His Holy Church.

        I’m sorry for rambling, but this comment was written as a reflection of my train of thought and not as a prepared arguement.

    1. It is possible the bishops just asked for the special Mass. But yes, my Vatican II ethos would suggest that a votive Mass of Thanksgiving would suit just fine. Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18, Psalm 113, Colossians 3:12-17, Matthew 7:7-11. That Deuteronomy periscope isn’t in the Lectionary. But it should be.

      1. Dt. 8:7-18 is actually given as an option for the OT reading in the Masses for Various Needs section, for “After the Harvest” (OLM 917.1). Granted, this is the only occurrence in the OLM, but it is there.

      2. Don’t you just love the way autocorrect renders “pericope” as “periscope” if you don’t pay attention?!

      3. MIght be improved further if Siri/Alexa/Whoever would pronounce it per-ISK-up-pee…

      1. I see it as a commemoration of the men and women who gave their lives for the freedom enjoyed by this nation. People who through sacrifice settled this land based upon a desire for religious freedom, among other freedoms.

        I do not see it as Valentine’s Day or Halloween. I see it as a moment to remember how this country was settled.

        Personally, I like the preface for Thanksgiving Day for Independence day as well.

      2. Funny, since Halloween and Valentine’s Day are both, by origin, religious celebrations.

        As to July 4, it is, again by origin, a commemoration of the historical event of the US declaring independence from England. It’s not Memorial or Veterans Day.

  2. Lee, the EF makes no provision for any kind of festival that post dates the 1962 missal. It seems to presume that it has achieved an eternal perfection. But let me assure you that those of us who grew up with the Missal of Pius V would have taken no offense from texts, said or sung, that made note of American festivals since we would not have heard or understood them

    1. Your statement “It seems to presume that it has achieved an eternal perfection” doesn’t make sense. Many people would like the calendar updated to reflect more recently canonized saints. Historical reasons are why the calendar is frozen in 1962, but I doubt that will last forever.

      Based on your recent posts, I think it would personally benefit you to find some EF people to worship with and get to know. It might help you see us as being your brothers and sisters rather than as something irredeemably awful.

      1. Jack Wayne, I value your presence here and read your comments with interest and respect. Jack Feehily has like you, always come across to me as generous and thoughtful.

        I also see the danger of “you’re another” rhetoric. None of the quotes I am about to cite are from you, or reflect your style here on Pray Tell. But they are from widely published and frequently cited traditionalists:

        …the superficial sloganeering of the postconciliar Church…

        …a strange custom that arises in the 20th or 21st century cannot lay claim to being a natural development but is more like a cancerous tumor in a body. It is like an infantilization, a rejection of maturity…

        [Pope Paul VI] is responsible for the evil of rupture; he is answerable for each and every one of the numberless abuses of the rite he promulgated, because in the manner of its redaction as well as in the manner of its very existence and operation, it … opens the way to false inculturation, pluralism without end, and celebratory individualism, egoism, and narcissism….

        … let us put aside forced apologetics for the liturgical reform, frankly see it for the stupendous disaster it was, and seek our healing in a return to venerable rites …

        Nowadays, the poor old Novus Ordo is anything but exciting and new. Arthritic, rather, and with poor wind, and suffering horribly from her varicose veins. It is time, surely, to euthanise and then respectfully to bury the poor dear old biddy and to hurry quietly away and to keep one’s fingers crossed that no-one digs her up. A stake through the heart, possibly, would be a wise precaution….

        I chose these either from Peter Kwasniewski or Fr John Hunwicke, because their views are easily and quickly accessible. They are comparatively mild because for the most part they attack the reformed liturgy itself rather than those who believe it a positive. But it would be easy to find plenty of quotes characterizing proponents of reform as stupid, or obtuse, or ignorant, or under diabolical influence.

        There are myths about ‘traditional Catholics as hateful bigots’ (Joseph Shaw, writing about an article by Michael Davis). There are myths about progressives and those of us who write for Pray Tell as trendy loonies, ready to follow the latest liturgical fad wherever it leads.

        How can we get beyond trading “you’re another” accusations? Is there any dialogue to be had here?

      2. I’m well aware of the negativity that can run in traditionalist circles, and have defended the Novus Ordo in person to other people. However, I think you neglect that there is a real imbalance of power between the two groups you mention (“traditional” and “progressive” – which I’ll prefer to call “reformers”) that often makes the bitterness of traditionalists somewhat more understandable. I don’t mean to say it is more *right* – just that it is more understandable given historical context. I also realize what I have to say will likely get little sympathy here: On the one hand you have a group (“progressives/reformers”) who have generally had all the power, money, influence, etc for the last half century, and on the other hand you have another group (“traditionalists”) who for the most part have had none of those things and are often at the whim of the “reformers.” A few bones being thrown to traditionalists (indult, SP) are treated like an extreme form of favoritism for which they are always considered ungrateful. There are a few (more recent) cases worldwide of the balance of power being reversed and a traditional priest or bishop wrongly forcing the EF on people, but in the overall narrative of the last half-century it is rare and people who want a “typical” OF Mass are almost never denied it.

        I’m certainly not trying to say the majority of reform-loving Catholics are cruel, or trying to say it is 100% their fault for everything and they are the only ones who need to change. I’m also not trying to throw a pity party. However, in a lot of ways, the more bitter expressions of traditionalism are a fruit of the liturgical reform and the actions of some reformers, and that is something that I really think needs to be grappled with in any dialogue that is to be had.

      3. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Jack (Wayne); I take the point about the relative imbalance of power. I agree that awareness of this makes the bitterness of the traditionalists (their term for themselves) more understandable.

        I don’t experience an imbalance of power as much where i live, perhaps because liturgical pluralism really does live here — there are multiple old rite Masses every Sunday, a good number of solemn sung Latin Novus Ordo Masses, Masses in English in a wide variety of styles, Masses in many other languages. But London is unusual.

        More on this would take this thread too far afield, so I’m happy to leave it there.

  3. In Australia we have been provided with liturgical texts for the national day, Australia Day, on 28 January. But what once seemed uncomplicated is now fraught, and the political and popular tide is gradually turning against the day as a monument to imperialism and colonialism. Many are in sympathy with indigeneous people who call it “Invasion Day”. There are moves to change it. A warning about the dangers of introducing secular festivals to the liturgy?

  4. The whole notion of propers for any particular national holiday seem to stand in stark contrast to the core impetus of Liturgical Movement.

    Me? I say 86 them all.

  5. I suppose it hasn’t escaped our collective notice that the appointed saint for July 4th is Elizabeth of Portugal. If we are to reform nationalist instincts that creep into our liturgy, then perhaps, in the spirit of keeping our own house in order, we might start by reconsidering the European monarchs who have been given a spot on the universal Roman calendar?

    I trust the instinct of the people of God, whom I’d think would overwhelmingly support honoring Independence Day at church, just as they do Thanksgiving. If there are problematic aspects of the appointed texts, those can be revised – or, as Fritz implies, simply ignored in favor of less specific alternatives.

    But I’m not convinced the texts in question are problematic. I don’t see them as usurping for nationalistic purposes theology or imagery that is more properly applicable to God’s people. I see them as finding imagery in the events of our nation’s history which strikes chords with our spiritual lives as citizens in exile of God’s kingdom.

    It would be a rather egregious ingratitude for us to not acknowledge and express our thanks for “what has been achieved”. We’ve achieved liberty, education, health and justice. Nearly all of us have a place to live and most of us have enough – in many cases, more than enough – to eat. Our media has the freedom to tell inconvenient truths, and our people have the freedom to worship as they wish. None of this is to be taken for granted, and yet we do.

    1. I really do think it’s unfair to draw a direct comparison between a liturgical commemoration of a feast or solemnity of a man or woman designated as holy by the universal church and that of a nationalistic celebration which by its very nature is exclusionary and non-ecumenical.

  6. “Before him all the nations are as naught, as nothing and void he accounts them.” — Isaiah (40: 17)
    “MY kingdom does not belong to this world. — Jesus (John 18:36, emphasis added).
    I admit to being rather tee-total on this subject. Flags — including the Vatican state’s — on or about the altar give me the creeps. I can, sort of, live with option 1. We had the Mass of the Day.

  7. Another point is that secular holidays should not be observed with more outward solemnity (e.g., white vestments, music) than major feasts of the Church.

  8. There are also big problems with the first Preface for July 4. Among them:
    Christ’s “message took form in the vision of our founding fathers as they founded a nation where we might live as one.”

    In effect, we canonize the nation’s founders and give praise, not to God for the wonder of our participation in Christ’s dying and rising, but for a nation that is (hardly) an earthly realization of the Kingdom.

    These texts are more stump speech than doxology.

    1. I noticed that too and gave thanks that I live in the UK!

      We had a long debate about observing Saint George’s day some years ago, as it always falls in Eastertide so often got dumped. But the texts for the celebration are not about England.

      AG.

    2. David,

      Thanks for mentioning the first preface. It may be the most egregious example of over-theologizing the nation—the idea of the message of Jesus “taking form” in the vision of the founders not only seems to turn American into a quasi-church, but falsifies the intentions of the founders. The puritans may have aspired to be an earthly outpost of the kingdom, but I don’t think the same could be said for Jefferson et al.

      The second preface, on the other hand, is actually quite nice: “he loved the children of the lands he walked and enriched them with his witness of justice and truth. He lived and died that we might be reborn in the Spirit and filled with love for all people.” While this hints at the virtue of patriotism, it is pretty free of nationalism. I also reads better than a lot of the other prefaces in the Missal, I suspect because it was composed in English and is therefore free from the stilted prose style imposed by Liturgiam Authenticam.

      I would also note that the propers for Independence Day are located in the sanctoral section of the missal. I can see why this would be convenient, since it occurs of the same day every year, I think they would be more appropriately located among the votive masses.

    3. I take it the Native Americans don’t get much of a look in.
      Were there a British equivalent celebration I would hope for a rather extended penitential rite.

      1. Well, the UK has a parallel tracks, one of holidays, which are about days of reduced labor, and the other of flag days that are connected to persons or events of state (given that the Union Flag is not flown with such insistent abandon as the national flag of the USA):

        https://www.gov.uk/guidance/designated-days-for-union-flag-flying

        Independence Day is a public holiday that celebrates the adoption of the explanation for a legislative resolution approved two days earlier and has since been understood in civic religion as the birth of the nation.

        The first preface is weird beyond words.

    4. Read the Preface from the 1985 Sacramentary for Thanksgiving Day if you want nationalism and phyletism.

      “Once you chose a people and gave them a destiny, and when you brought them out of bondage they carried with them the promise that all men could be blessed and all men could be free… It happened to our fathers who came to this land as if out of the desert into a place of promise and hope…”

      Well, actually our fathers and mothers who were Catholic found anything but a place of promise and hope. The early ones came here to find more of the same persecution they suffered in England. Our First Peoples, Hispanics and Latinos were already here and many of our fathers and mothers brought with them disease, bigotry and slavery.

      I’ll stick with the Mass in the Missal for the “Forgiveness of Sins” Option 2. In the EO it was called the “Mass for the Gift of Tears”. The other Mass I’ve used is “For the Progress of Peoples”.

      The stuff for national days must have been written by those who forgot that God loves every people, land and nation and we aren’t more special in the USA than any other country.

  9. But e don’t celebrate them liturgically. They are strictly secular. And as this is a liturgy forum ……

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