Non Solum: Flags in Sanctuaries

Today’s question: Flags in Sanctuaries

The placement of flags (national and papal) in a church’s sanctuary has long caused me pause. Seeing a U.S. or Vatican City State flag so close to the altar seems inappropriate to me. These are symbols of secular power not religious. My preference would be to leave them out of the sanctuary.

Does your community have flags in its sanctuary? Why or why not?


Moderator’s note: “Non solum” is a feature at Pray Tell for our readership community to discuss practical liturgical issues. The title comes from article 11 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Therefore there is to be vigilance among holy pastors that in liturgical action not only are laws for valid and licit celebration to be observed, but that the faithful should participate knowingly, actively, and fruitfully.” (Ideo sacris pastoribus advigilandum est ut in actione liturgica non solum observentur leges ad validam et licitam celebrationem, sed ut fideles scienter, actuose et fructuose eandem participent.) May the series contribute to good liturgical practice – not only following the law, but especially grasping the spirit of the liturgy!


  1. We do not have flags in the sanctuary. Twenty years ago, it was huge issue for some of the veterans. But with constant and careful catechesis, it is no longer an issue. We pray for our soldiers and veterans every week and that seems to be enough for the veterans currently in our community.

  2. National flags at the table where there is “neither Jew nor Greek” are simply nonsensical. I know some put a lot of effort into coming up with excuses for them, but I think no excuse is sufficient.

  3. We also have no flags in the sanctuary or anywhere in the church. Each Classroom in the school has flags as they should. The church should be neutral,l universal, and not owing to any country or public power. The minute a flag appears, that disappears.

  4. I don’t have much of an issue with flags in the sanctuary. As long as proper protocol is followed. U.S. flag protocol requires that the flag be placed to the right of the clergyman as he faces the congregation. It should not be placed close to the altar, this is not good flag protocol or good church protocol.
    I think placing a flag in church shows a sign of respect for our government (Romans 13 and Titus specifically call for respect for governments) there are many ways to show respect other than displaying a flag of course but churches in the U.S. have a special relationship with our government, sharing charitable work and receiving funds for such, etc.
    Let’s not be hypocritical. If we wish to remain separate and neutral then maybe our special relationship with our national government should end and we should abandon our special status and pay taxes like everybody else.
    Just my opinion.

  5. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them. In the US, they are an artifact of the pre-assimilation world wars era when Catholics were keen to demonstrate patriotism. In the past generation, they’ve gradually been moved out of sanctuaries into vestibules and then faded away, at least in much of the Northeast.

  6. Like many we have had a major fight with veterans and the Legion who literally wanted them placed on each side of the Altar of Reserve (behind the main altar.) It really flared up when the Parish Council President was also the Legion President. Anything other than front and centre was not going to be acceptable.

    Fortunately the CCCB produced a document ( which helped a lot during what was many meetings of contested discussions.

    Currently the flags are placed on each side of the memorial plaques for the war dead which are at the church’s main entrance.

    I should also note that any time there has been a military funeral in the church the military dutifully remove the flag at the entrance, replacing it with the pall. The flag is returned atop the coffin as the remains exit the church. Unfortuntely the public does not normally see this taking place.

  7. This is unknown in the UK in Catholic churches. It would cause much adverse comment, possibly mirth too. Just wildly inappropriate.
    The situation is different for the Established Anglican Church where cathedrals and churches in towns with a military base will often have a side chapel dedicated to the local regiment complete with their flag and a memorial to the fallen. But even so, not in the main sanctuary and not adorning the altar.

  8. We have them, and why we have them is unclear to me, but they are off to the side, and not directly involved in any part of the liturgy. I think Dale’s comment #4 makes a legitimate point.

    I also agree with and understand those who argue against them. In the last 30 years of my life I have consistently been involved in decision making and I do not recall any arguments with veterans as an impetus in deciding to do it. When I think back to my childhood, I do not recall ever seeing a flag in church. I am not even sure when it happened, but I will say that in the SE United States it is currently so common that I rarely think about it.

    On balance, it is probably better not to have them. But, if problems are viewed as either boulders, large stones or pebbles, this problem is in the pebble category, and probably doesn’t merit alienating groups or expending large amounts of energy. Spend your energy on the boulders and large rocks.

  9. Strong feelings about flags and displays of patriotism seem to be a generational issue. In my experience, people of the WW2 generation are most in favor of patriotic displays in church, while younger generations are neutral or even opposed to this idea.

    My parish does have the U.S. and papal flags in church, located unobtrusively in the rear corners. Periodically someone makes a plea to move them to the sanctuary, but we have managed to hold the line on this issue. On Scout Sunday, it’s customary to process in with the U.S. and scout flags which are then placed by the ambo, a practice which I have not yet taken on to reform.

    In 2012, Pentecost Sunday fell on the same weekend as Memorial Day. I chose not to schedule a patriotic hymn for the recessional as is our usual practice on secular holidays. This did not go unnoticed–an older gentleman chewed me up one side and down the other for “not honoring our nation.”

  10. From the USCCB Internet site

    Display of Flags in Catholic Churches

    Surprisingly to many, there are no regulations of any kind governing the display of flags in Roman Catholic Churches. Neither the Code of Canon law, nor the liturgical books of the Roman rite comment on this practice. As a result, the question of whether and how to display the American flag in a Catholic Church is left up to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, who in turn often delegates this to the discretion of the pastor.

    The origin of the display of the American flag in many parishes in the United States appears have its origins in the offering of prayers for those who served during the Second World War (1941-1945). At that time, many bishops and pastors provided a book of remembrance near the American flag, requesting prayers for loved ones – especially those serving their country in the armed forces – as a way of keeping before the attention of the faithful the needs of military families. This practice has since been confirmed in many places during the Korean, Viet Nam and Iraqi conflicts.

    The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the Church together with a book of prayer requests. It remains, however, for the diocesan bishop to determine regulations in this matter.

  11. If I were to take a guess I think that flags were placed in church beginning during WWII to honor those who were fighting rather than a more nationalistic need. Never before was there such a major conflagration as this war and the prevailing thought that we were fighting an evil as well as an enemy (concentration camps, the SS wafen breaking the arms of crucifixes and herding civilians from Normandy into churches then burning them down, etc). After WWII the flag was a reminder of the sacrifices made and gratitude to those who served. One can only shudder to think if the outcome of WWII had been different.
    I don’t mind the flag in the sanctuary if it is done tastefully. Personally, I prefer a special place in the narthex w/ possibly a book of remembrances of those sons and daughters who didn’t return. It’s a cliché but freedom isn’t free including the right to worship as one pleases.

    At my father’s funeral the flag was removed from his casket at the entrance of the church and replaced w/ a pall, after the funeral Mass the flag was respectfully draped over his casket at the end of the nave after the pall was removed.
    Things can be done respectfully and reasonably without creating lots of hostility.

  12. In my view, national flags are not “symbols of secular power”, not symbols of a government, but rather symbols of a people, a people with a history. They are reminders that there is more to “us” than just those immediately around us, that as a human community we share a history of joys, sorrows, successes, struggles with many others. The flag in church asks God to bless this human community, as well as symbolizing the human community blessing God.
    As with any good thing, though, the flag can be misused and used to turn the liturgy into a pep rally, but all in all it is a good thing to have in church, compelling us to be good citizens of this land while not mistaking this land for home.

  13. As a veteran, I am grateful to live in such a free country as America. however, any flag (US, Vatican, etc) should have no place inside the nave/sanctuary of a church. As mentioned in another post, the Stars & Stripes are removed from a coffin upon entering the church and replaced with a pall. This is the key to this issue: the pall represents our baptismal gown, our oneness with Christ in his Church; that in Christ we are all equal without rank.
    The best place for flags inside of a church would be the narthex/gathering space which is quite popular.
    I do not like seeing any flag carried in an entrance procession for any reason. We host the annual Scout Sunday mass and even the scouts understood the reason to leave the flags at the door.
    Mixing Faith with Patroitism/Nationalism can be very dangerous. An extreme example of this was in Nazi Germany.
    Let us honor America by flying the flag outside of our parish buildings but not in our worship space. let us honor our veterans with a blessing during Mass and our deepest respect and gratitude.

  14. In my natal parish the flags were (and still are) on the far edges of the sanctuary, just inside the rails to the outsides of the two side altars. I remember them being carried on Easter morning in the procession around the church before the very early morning Resurrection Mass, as well as in the Corpus Christi procession, and the procession at the end of 40 Hours, always along with the parish society banners. It seems to me, at least in ethnic parishes, flags were always present (and included in a lot of group photos), it being important to show that the people, whatever the group, were Americans now and were displaying love for their adopted country. All this quite pre-dates WWI and WWII when a more patriotic and “support/prayer” use was established. Bravo to comment #4 as well.

  15. Why honour your country in church? Surely it is God who is honoured. Human institutions should be prayed for. “There is neither Jew nor Greek.”

  16. My grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who began his ordained ministry in the middle of the Depression, first in Wyoming and then in Nebraska. Each of these parishes worshiped in German.

    By the time he arrived in Nebraska, the tensions in Europe were growing, and old resentments from WWI simmered in his part of Nebraska. It got to the point that he and his parish received threats of violence, and a neighboring German-speaking Lutheran parish had their sanctuary burned to the ground. Part of the solution they arrived at was to prominently display an American flag, as a sign that “we are Americans, just like you.” The anti-German hysteria died down around his town shortly after the flag appeared, but how much of this was due to the flag, no one knew.

    Thus did American flags enter many a Lutheran parish, and once WWII was over, they continued to be displayed in many places as a sign of honor and respect as described above. The practice is slowly disappearing, but still remains in many places.

  17. Here in Malaysia, church altars do not have any flags displayed as it is deemed inappropriate to have them so close to a spiritual place of sanctity. Flags are usually flown outside of church (if any). Only Malaysian and state flags are flown, no papal flags.

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