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!