God bless America…

What’s a liturgist to do when calendars collide?

May 31, the Feast of the Visitation, was also Memorial Day this year. I wonder how many homilists tried to connect the two observances. My Bishop was celebrating Mass at one of our local cemeteries that day and asked me how he could connect the two in his homily. I suggested to him that they were both about saying “yes”–for those who died, their yes to serve; for Mary, her yes to God; for all of us, God’s yes to life. I think the Bishop ran with it.

Weekday Masses seem to have more leeway when it comes to incorporating civic observances. But when July 4 falls on Sunday, as it does this year, I brace myself for what is to come. I am an American citizen and have lived in the US almost all my life. But I don’t necessarily “look American,” whatever that means…let’s just say I may be asked for papers in one particular state. Less tactful, but well-meaninged strangers ask me where I come from. They always seem disappointed when I say, “Los Angeles.”

For me, the greater conflict is this: Am I a liturgist first, then an American? Which Constitution do I pledge allegiance to when preparing a Sunday Mass for July 4? (I overheard a couple of choir members who were also veterans arguing about which flag should fly above the other on a flagpole: the US flag or the Vatican flag. I don’t remember who won, but I figured you could always just get a second flagpole and move on.)

The readings for July 4…er, the Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, don’t particularly complement the holiday, but a good homilist can find a connecting thread. The greater struggle is in other elements of the liturgy: environment, music, even language. Should there be a US flag displayed somewhere? If so where? Should there be patriotic music? If so when and which ones? In communities with people of different cultures and languages, should there be any use of non-English languages (other than Greek or Latin) in the music or spoken texts?

In more ethnically diverse communities, this last point could be a very sore one. I’ve always lived in parishes where there was at least one other dominant language other than English. Many of these parishes celebrate multilingual liturgies on a regular basis. And a good majority of those parishioners whose first language is not English are also American citizens. July 4 is their holiday too. (For some immigrants newly-sworn as American citizens, it’s an espeically significant day because of what they have gone through in order to pledge allegiance to this country and to break their allegiance to the land of their birth.) Yet even in these parishes, we tended to stick with English-only when it came to liturgically marking these civic holidays. (I remember planning a Thanksgiving Day Mass about 15 years ago in a parish just beginning to explore bilingual liturgies. For its first foray into multicultural liturgy, the staff decided to incorporate some Spanish into the Mass for Thanksgiving Day so the Spanish-speaking community, which was about half the parish, could participate in the one Mass scheduled for that day. The organist, a blunt woman in her 70s who took cigarette breaks during homilies, said, “If English was good enough for Christopher Columbus, it’s good enough for me!”)

I don’t have any clear answers to this dilemma. But here’s what I’ve learned.

Those who come to us asking us to include the flag or a patriotic song in the Sunday liturgy, come with great love and often an equally-great story of what America means to them. I will not convert them to greater love for the liturgy or deeper love for Christ and the Church by beating them over the head with liturgical rubrics and principles. I need to hear their story and honor it as much as I honor my own, and as a liturgist, I need to find ways to connect their story to God’s story which we proclaim in the liturgy.

I think there are creative ways to be faithful to both “Constitutions.” We need to utilize our gatherings and our goings better. The time before the start of the liturgy could be time for sharing stories, for highlighting those who have exemplified the best values of this country (veterans, civic leaders, new citizens, etc.), for singing the songs we love in honor of this country, for telling the stories of how our families came to this land.

My parents were the first of our family to come to the US from the Philippines. The US Immigration Act of 1965 gave my mother, a college professor, and 170,000 other skilled persons from third world countries residency. But her visa would expire shortly after I, her first child, was born. So, leaving a two-month-old with her sisters and mother, she and my father got on a plane in Manila bound for LAX. They landed in Los Angeles not knowing anyone, got in a taxi and asked the driver to take them to a motel. On the way they picked up a newspaper and started looking for whatever jobs they could do. I wasn’t able to join them until two years later once they had gotten settled in their new home. I’m sure my parents made some of the details more dramatic than they actually were, but still, quite a story, don’t you think?

We also need to make better use of what happens after the liturgy. Obviously, postludes and parish picnics give us good opportunities to express our patriotism. But also, we should send people home with blessings to use at home: for their family flag, for meals on that day, for freedom, etc.

And even though there are some USCCB guidelines which suggest limiting the use of national flags in the church, we can surely highlight our American saints on that day–in the icons, statues, and windows of our churches, and in litanies of American saints and blesseds (wouldn’t it be nice to sing a litany of saints using the names of American saints as the gathering song that day?).

As to music, I tend to leave the more overtly patriotic songs to the recessional and postlude. And everytime we do sing “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful” at the end of Mass, my liturgist-side is always surprised at how touched I am in singing them with a liturgical assembly. These songs should be sung by assemblies, and not just at the seventh-inning stretch. But they should be sung so as to serve the liturgy. I believe the concluding procession is the best time for them.

Now my most favorite liturgical song to sing on days like July 4: This one I would use at the Preparation of the Gifts, no doubt, or as a conclusion to the homily.

And btw, the 10th anniversary of September 11 falls on a Sunday next year. The readings could not be any more perfect. May God, indeed, bless America!


  1. Here’s text to the song.

    Tune: FINLANDIA, Jean Sibelius (1899)
    Vv. 1-2: Lloyd Stone (1912-1992)
    Vv. 3-5: George Harkness

    This is my song, O God of all the nations,
    a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
    this is my home, the country where my heart is;
    here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
    but other hearts in other lands are beating
    with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

    My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
    and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
    but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
    and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
    O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
    a song of peace for their land and for mine.

    This is my song, O God of all the nations,
    a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
    and yet I pray for my beloved country,
    the reassurance of continued grace:
    Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
    in spite of differences of age and race.

    May truth and freedom come to every nation;
    may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
    that each may seek to love and build together,
    a world united, righting every wrong;
    a world united in its love for freedom,
    proclaiming peace together in one song.

    This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms,
    thy kingdom come, on earth, thy will be done;
    let Christ be lifted up ’til all shall serve him,
    and hearts united, learn to live as one:
    O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
    myself I give thee; let thy will be done.

  2. Oh, what a wonderful post! This lays out very clearly where academic liturgy and pastoral liturgy intersect.

    In answer to the question, “Am I a liturgist or an American?”, I would say the question ought to be “Am I a liturgist or a member of the human race?”

    As someone who lived in Southern California for a number of years, whose English accent was different from many others, but who was embraced in that melting-pot of cultures to the extent that I almost felt I didn’t stick out as someone from a different culture but was accepted for who I was, I will always be grateful for the realization that all people have something to give, no matter whether they are gringos or Mexicanos, progressives or conservatives [read Vatican II-ists or traditionalists], white or tinted.. well, you continue the list. In the end, I came to realize that it didn’t matter what kind of language I spoke, everyone spoke differently. And thought differently. And prayed differently. But was nevertheless valued as a child of God. And could celebrate together, if only everyone was prepared to create the conditions in which that could happen.

    So a big thank-you to Diana for bringing us back to what really matters.

  3. My preferred national anthem type song for a recessional at this liturgical situation is My Country ‘Tis of Thee (1830, Boston). It is a prayer, and not of the chest-beating or ain’t-we-just-wonderful type. It was de facto the national anthem until the era of the World Wars. More importantly, after it was published in the 1830s, it quickly became associated with abolitionism (which may be why Marian Anderson chose to sing it, though she did not sing the abolition verses by the Massachusetts Antislavery Society that were soon tacked onto the original text – imagine a congregation getting to sing: “My native country, thee // Where all men are born free // if white’s their skin // I love thy hills and dales // Thy mounts and pleasant vales // But hate thy negro sales, as foulest sin” . . . ) – so, like the Battle Hymn of the Republic but without its martial overtones, it has associations with themes of liberation and jubilee. Oh, and unlike Irving Berlin’s work, the copyrights for which are jealously guarded by his estate, it’s public domain. (Btw, the text of My Country ‘Tis of Thee sounds lovely when sung to the tune Moscow aka Italian Hymn, but I would not suggest it except for that rare (but not non-existent) American Catholic congregation that would that kind of mix-and-match delightful rather than perverse.)

    For a processional, I suggest a neglected work in the public domain: the text is by none other than Francis Scott Key (for non-American readers, he famously penned the text of the Star Spangled Banner during the War of 1812) and it fits the tune Darwall’s 148th (commonly associated with Rejoice The Lord Is King):

    1. Before the Lord we bow,
    The God who reigns above
    And rules the world below
    In boundless pow’r and love.
    Our thanks we bring,
    In joy and praise
    Our hearts we raise
    To heav’n’s high King.

    2. The nation Thou hast blest
    May well Thy love declare,
    From foes and fears at rest,
    Protected by Thy care.
    For this fair land,
    For this bright day,
    Our thanks we pay–
    Gifts of Thy hand.

    3. May ev’ry mountain height,
    Each vale and forest green,
    Shine in Thy Word’s pure light
    And its rich fruits be seen!
    May ev’ry tongue
    Be tuned to praise
    And join to raise
    A grateful song!

    4. Earth, hear thy Maker’s voice,
    Thy great Redeemer own;
    Believe, obey, rejoice,
    And worship Him alone.
    Cast down thy pride,
    Thy sin deplore,
    And bow before
    The Crucified.

    5. And when in pow’r He comes,
    Oh, may our native land
    From all its rending tombs
    Send forth a glorious band,
    A countless throng,
    For aye to sing
    To heaven’s high King
    Salvation’s song!

  4. I am in the first year of my first pastorate and struggle with this challenge as well. On Trinity Sunday/Memorial Day Weekend I preached Trinity while we sung “America.” It was quite a disjointed service. My fault though – I didn’t send the memo to our pianist.

    For good or for bad I have been sticking with the Church calendar and mentioning the secular calendar in the Prayers of the People.

    You have given me some good food for thought however. Homilies have to touch ground somewhere, and why not with civic/secular holidays?

  5. As a director of lay liturgical ministries in a large parish for over 25 years (2 parishes), I’ve had to deal with this many times. Even this nation does not necessarily celebrate a holiday on the day itself; it’s often moved to the closest Monday. In this case, our local July 4 parade is being held on July 3, a Saturday. I can’t think of any cogent reason to sing patriotic songs at Sunday mass on this or any year. We always have a day (July 3 this year, usually on the day upon which the holiday is kept) when we have a votive mass for the national holiday.
    As to the homily, however, there is never any shortage of ways to connect the scripture and the holiday. We’re resident aliens in this and every land, not citizens. We render to God first, then to Caesar whatever might be left over. The reign of God is a reign of justice and equality, economic and environmental, for all equally. That shines out in every gospel, I think, and nicely in the readings of July 4. The intercessions are another place where mention might be made of the holiday celebrated. I would avoid any celebration in song of America that might confuse this nation with the reign of God. That sort of confusion is rampant enough in civil religion, and is in fact the precise alternative Jesus offered when he came preaching metanoia, to turn away from the empire of Caesar, and to embrace in belief (love) the reign of God. :-)…yes, your mileage may vary.

  6. “This lays out very clearly where academic liturgy and pastoral liturgy intersect.”

    Amen!! Often, when trying to be pastoral in our liturgy planning, it is dismissed by the academic liturgists as less than perfect liturgy and the perpetrators of this liturgy are looked upon as little more than heretics!
    (exaggeration for effect!)
    I am so glad to see this post,
    While we are not “of the world” we are indeed in the world and the world is filled with people who have stories. In certain circumstances, those stories need to be acknowledged. I do not mean the unbridled patriotism of the “my-country-right-or-wrong” sort, but a simple acknowledgment of what is going on around us – i.e. When the war in Iraq broke out, we sang Marty Haugen’s “World Peace Prayer” for many weeks as the closing song.

    I have a friend who plans his homilies by first consulting and praying with the readings of the day and then reading the newspaper!
    Thank you, Diana (and Paul!)

    1. One of the problems with an academically-driven approach to liturgy is the tendency evaluate each liturgical event on its own (a photo, as it were) rather than as part of a series of connected liturgical event (a movie, as it were). This is where the reliance on rules of whatever sort (be they actual rubrics or local generated “rules” that supplant them – like a rule that says you can never sing about your nation in liturgy without running afoul of a host of Issues) is more typically a problem, because one tends to run each liturgy through an evaluation wringer. It’s great for the academically inclined but hard on the liturgy as lived experience.

  7. Thank you for your post on what is a very common problem.

    We had a similar issue here in Australia this year. Anzac Day (like Memorial Day, in that we remember those who served in military conflicts) fell on the Fourth Sunday of Easter! The fact that it typically falls in Easter can make it very difficult to make accommodations. Normally, if the day falls on a weekday outside the octave, we use the Mass for Anzac Day which is approved for use here.

    There is certainly scope to mark such as day, particularly once the liturgy has concluded. We’ve looked at these possibilities in my our parish, and people have responded positively.

    Also here in Australia, Dr Robin Sharwood (of the Anglican tradition) has penned a more Christian-focused text which can be set to the tune of our national anthem. This appeared in the journal ‘Liturgy News’ in December 2001 (p 7), and may be used freely ‘as-is’ with due acknowledgement.

    O God, who made this ancient land,
    and set it round with sea,
    sustain us all who dwell herein,
    one people, strong and free.
    Grant we may guard its generous gifts,
    its beauty rich and rare.
    In your great name, may we proclaim,
    ‘Advance Australia fair!’

    With thankful hearts then let us sing,
    ‘Advance Australia fair!’

    Your star-bright Cross aslant our skies
    gives promise sure and true
    that we may know this land of ours
    a nation blessed by you.
    May all who come within its bounds
    its peace and plenty share,
    and grant that we may…

  8. As a layman, I question the wisdom of special propers for civic holidays. I also question the wisdom of performing patriotic hymns at Mass.

    The wholly confected civic holiday propers of bishops’ conferences detract from the intricate weave of the temporal and sanctoral calendars. The ever-revelatory Church calendar influences the civic lives of Christians and not the converse.

    The sung Mass has its own “soundtrack”. Over the centuries the Latin Church has developed a profound accompaniment to the propers. The merger of the human voice and profound text exceeds individual and generational tastes. Patriotic hymns, though beautiful and moving, do not truly reflect the calendar and propers of the Mass. Their performance temporarily unyokes the Mass from its crucial musical substratum.

    Perhaps a parish might observe Memorial Day with a special prayer for veterans, both living and deceased, during the Prayer of the Faithful. In EF communities a priest might say a daily requiem or other votive Mass in memory of veterans and/or fallen soldiers. Perhaps parishioners could also gather for special Memorial Day prayers and civic hymns after an evening Mass. These options honor our veterans without placing civic observances ahead of the Church’s venerable calendar and awe-inspiring liturgical patrimony.

  9. Heh—it’s even more complicated for us Episcopalians. In our American ’79 Book of Common Prayer, Independence Day is ranked as a Major Feast equal to the feasts of the Apostles and the BVM. Since it’s Ordinary Time our rubrics allow–but do not *require*–the replacement of the Sunday Propers with the festal Propers.

    Needless to say a lot of clergy will be making some interesting decisions (particularly since our clergy tend to be politically more liberal than our congregants)!

  10. Diana,

    I think you’ve got an excellent way to approach the matter. It’s essentially the same at our parish.

    Some folks will be disappointed that more is not made of the holiday, and some will be annoyed that there is any acknowledgment of a civil holiday at all. I’m inclined to think the latter in particular should just suck it up and move on. Singing one patriotic song like ‘America the Beautiful’ or ‘America’ at recessional does not constitute a horrible violation of the liturgy and does rather connect the best of our patriotic inclinations with our faith and love of God.

    I wonder what Linda’s academic liturgists would make of the folks who brought forth the gifts at our Memorial Day Mass. They are a married couple, he a retired Army officer, she a Naval officer, and they wore their dress uniforms that day. Both were approached by several people after Mass and thanked for both their service and appearance in uniform. We did sing a patriotic song at recessional, too.

  11. I agree with Rory Cooney’s comment, and I must say I am also sympathetic to Jordan Zarembo’s concerns. I don’t know how we can refuse to sing Danny Boy at funerals or You Fill Up My Senses at weddings, then agree in good conscience to displace themes proper to the liturgical year in favor of civic holidays or to shape the theological content of a feast to reflect a civic observance. I have nothing against special intercessions, blessings, or including representative folks in the gifts procession. But the idea that the fiat of Mary might be presented as comparable to the death of conscripts in war, for example, is one that I find extremely troubling. It’s not that there can be no virtue in military service or in defending one’s country. It’s that the Visitation is the wrong theological lens, and it would never occur to anybody had it not been foisted upon the situation by a calendrical coincidence.

    People may very well be hungry for gatherings to affirm their national identity or to honor and revere the ideas and ideals from which their country draws inspiration. Why not join a patriotic association, or sing national hymns at public events which take place at city hall? Is it because an aggressive secularity in the public sphere has barred religious expression (for the most part) from public gatherings? Maybe that’s the flip side of this issue.

  12. If the Mass is actually ON Memorial Day, and it is a distinct Mass that is using the Readings for National and/or Civic Holidays, then nationalistic or patriotic hymns such as “God of Our Fathers”, “America” or the “Finlandia” re-work “This is My Song” (which I like a lot, BTW) are an excellent choice.

    If it is a Sunday Mass that just happens to fall on July 4th, or September 11th, or June 6th (D-Day) or other day of national importance, then no… such hymns are not only innapropriate but serve to hijack the Mass for a secondary, largely secular purpose. It comes back to the root of so much of the liturgical wierdness that I’ve encountered in my many years on the bench (organ bench, that is!)…the idea that EVERYTHING that goes on at Church has to happen within the Mass, from recognizing and giving awards to High School Seniors, to bestowing retirement gifts on teachers from the school. The little Kindergartners Christmas Pageant, the reading of School Essay Contest winning entries in place of the homily… the list goes on. It seems that we don’t want to be at church more than an hour a week, so if it’s gonna happen, it’s gotta happen at the Sunday Mass!!

    If it’s all that important that we hear “America” and “The Star Spangled Banner” in Church, request that the Pastor schedule a special Mass for that purpose and see how important it actually is to people.

  13. I’m a bit (pleasantly) surprsied at the broad spectrum of responses.

    First I hope readers aren’t thinking I was advocating singing patriotic hymns throughout the Mass. Only if it was requested and it would cause more harm to the community than theological and liturgical good would merit if the request were denied, I would plan for something first as a postlude, and if that doesn’t fly, then as the recessional song.

    Second, I wholeheartedly agree with commenters who want to uphold the integrity of the liturgical calendar. Yet I also want to broaden that ideal by saying it’s also the calendar by which we see and live within secular time. As theologically imbalanced as it may be to put Mary’s fiat in the same breath as “semper fi,” I think that is exactly the challenge and duty for the church which dares to speak to the reality of people’s lives.

    My favorite part from Fulfilled In Your Hearing (52): “Since the purpose of the homily is to enable the gathered congregation to celebrate the liturgy with faith, the preacher does not so much attempt to explain the Scriptures as to interpret the human situation through the Scriptures…. In other words, the goal of the liturgical preacher is not to interpret a text of the Bible (as would be the case in teaching a Scripture class) as much as to draw on the texts of the Bible as they are presented in the lectionary to interpret people’s lives….”


  14. …We surely can’t expect the Mass to include *everything,* but we do need to look at our assembly, know what is on their hearts and minds on that day, and speak to that through the lens of the Word and Sacrament.

    Now a related rant:

    If we are to be diligent about upholding the integrity of the liturgical calendar and the structure of the liturgy, then let’s quit with assigning things like Divine Mercy Sunday, World Missions Sunday, Catechetical Sunday, World Youth Day, Priesthood Sunday, and the likes, including missionary and local appeals, et al, which replace the homily or abridge it.

  15. Wholeheartedly agree with the last rant – actually, no rant but good, common sense, liturgical reasoning. I always get a kick out of our “new” auxiliary bishop (current pastor) who has a degree in liturgy but picks and chooses with the best of them – can we call that another form of “cafeteria catholicism or cafeteria liturgy or is it just a version of the reform of the reform”; yet, if bishop says then it must be right. If USCCB or Rome wants a Divine Mercy Sunday, well.

    In terms of civic holidays – agree with Rory’s and Rita’s comments (gee, Rory, really need your photo in your comments)

  16. Yes, we overload the Mass but neglect the time before and after Mass.

    Avery Dulles, arguing that we ask the Mass to do too much, suggested developing devotions, i.e. paraliturgical services to complement Mass.

    Some July 4th pre-Mass ideas:

    Optional service of prayerful concern for our nation’s blessings (environment, buildings, and business) and problems (the oil spill, the mortgage crisis, the banking crisis) for all parish members organized and led by pastoral staff.

    A different character and location service of support group for military families. Places for participants could be reserved at Mass; the pastor acknowledges the ministry at the beginning.

    After Mass is a good time for Te Deum celebrations:

    A general hymn of thanksgiving for our nation’s blessings might conclude the Mass.

    A post Mass coffee & donuts reception celebrating a wide variety of parish members working and participating in public life might be organized & led by pastoral staff.

    More targeted recognitions, e.g. military, ought to be sponsored by a particular group, e.g. Catholic war veterans.

    Model can be applied to “Sundays,” appeals, ministry recognitions, retirements etc.

    Events are optional, but allow more time & are easily accessible.

    “Come Early, Stay Late” events might counter the “arrive late, leave early” trend.

    Events can be placed in expansive theological framework of JPII Dies Domini for celebration of Lord’s Day.

  17. I too have been wrestling with this balance. At our Memorial Day celebration every year, the Boy Scouts raise the flag while Taps is played. This all happens right before the entrance procession. This year I stood there thinking that this was the highlight of the gathering and Eucharist just happened to follow. Maybe I am a little too negative about this, but everyone seemed to participate more, with gesture and song, than they did during the Eucharist. I have no trouble honoring those who have served, but we must be careful not to overshadow the Eucharist. I find this a real challenge. Thanks for the post as it has helped me further my reflection about my mixed feelings.

  18. Awhile ago a colleague told me about a bumper sticker he had seen which said “America, bless God.” Perhaps that’s a song that needs to be written for these kinds of days.

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