Liturgical Expressions on the Hill

Catholics protesting inhumane treatment of immigrants at the US Capitol
Catholic demonstrators praying the rosary around a human cross in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate building. Photo credit: Catholic News Service, Tyler Orsburn.

It’s been quite a week for those interested in the relationship between liturgy and the public life in Washington DC. The Department of State hosted the 2nd annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that saw over 1000 international participants, not counting side events organized by NGOs and religious organizations. Alongside formal talks and round table discussions were occasions for expressions of solidarity for the persecuted through prayer in public spaces, many of which were particularly liturgical: on Monday, Archbishop Tanielian of Armenia delivered the opening prayer for the House; on Tuesday, Roman Catholic and Orthodox religious leaders sang hymns in the Rotunda of the Capitol for Christians in the Middle East; and on Thursday morning, as Bishop Nestor-Désiré Nongo-Aziagbia from the Central African Republic spoke at a multi-faith gathering on peacebuilding, Roman Catholics gathered in front of the Capitol to protest the inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers and immigration policies following an opening prayer by House Chaplain, Fr.  Pat Conroy.

Here, I interview Dr. Brian Flanagan about his experience as one of many who gathered on the front lawn of the Capitol with other Catholic religious leaders, lay and ordained, especially with regard to his reflections upon the use of ritual and liturgical expressions toward the pursuit of justice.

What made you go to the demonstration, and what did you expect at the event? Did it unfold the way you thought it would?

I was invited by a number of friends on Facebook, which shows just how much the same social media that divides us and demonizes others can be used in the service of the gospel of justice. I think so many of us have been trying in different ways to respond to what is being done in our name on the southern border, and I was grateful for the chance to respond in a public forum, as a citizen and as a Catholic – both for the sake of trying to change the minds and hearts of our leaders, and also to stand in solidarity with other religious communities, especially the Jewish community, who are equally outraged by the separation of children, by the incarceration of asylum seekers, and by the inhumane treatment of both, and who have been putting themselves out there in public in recent weeks.

The event was very well organized, and followed what I had expected – a prayer service that helped us call to mind the dangerous narrative of what is happening at our border, particularly to children, followed by our presence in the Russell Senate Office Building, at which some 70 demonstrators risked arrest for refusing to disperse in an act of civil disobedience to more sharply focus our leaders upon the crisis at the border.

I was following the #CatholicDayOfAction on Twitter and found the event to be remarkably liturgical. For instance, demonstrators sang liturgical responses like the ICEL setting of the Kyrie (on pitch, in sync and in unison – hear, hear, fellow musicians at NPM!) in response to read testimonies from children who had been detained. Were there other liturgically inspired acts?

Yes, the whole event was a liturgy, a public work, in a number of senses.

First of all, every protest has its own ritual logic. Particularly in the U.S. Congress, where protests happen regularly, the Capitol Police were, as usual, professional and efficient in their task of announcing, warning, and arresting those who were exercising their option for civil disobedience, and their warnings and the demonstrators’ response formed a kind of call-and-response.

But in terms of the liturgical forms that the demonstrators themselves used, the organizers allowed us to use the power of two major traditions: some of the now “traditional” protest traditions of the 1960s, as well as the deep traditions of the Catholic Church. In the first category, there were some of the “classics” of the 1960s and 1970s – singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” some of us putting their current and future security on the line by volunteering for arrest, holding our signs and placards, and responding, in an almost secularized litany, with the response “stop the inhumanity!” to our prayers for migrants and refugees, for our leaders, and for those whose hearts we hoped to change.

And, at the same time, the second tradition that the organizers helped us to tap into were some of the deepest traditions of our shared Catholic tradition. After speakers read the stories of incarcerated children in their own words, we sang the “Lord, have mercy” of the penitential rite familiar to all of us from Mass. As some of our number were arrested inside the rotunda, we prayed the rosary – that was the moment where I got choked up, seeing friends and members of religious communities in their matching t-shirts in some cases and their Franciscan and Dominican habits in others, being handcuffed and led away while still praying a decade of the rosary. And as the numbers dwindled – and those of us in the gallery who grew silent, since praying too loud would make us vulnerable to arrest as well – I heard some of the protestors spontaneously singing “One Bread, One Body” that made clear just how Eucharistic this moment was. Those choosing arrest were a sacrament of the Body of Christ for all of us in the crowd/audience/congregation, emptying themselves of their privilege and their freedom in solidarity with those whose humanity has been called into question by their treatment at the hands of our government.

In what ways have your own liturgical formation or prayer life influenced your participation in the event?

I know for a fact that the Catholics demonstrating today included cradle Catholics and new Catholics, but as a cradle Catholic who was in Catholic schools from kindergarten through my PhD, it was the moments that most tapped into the deep veins of my Catholic formation that most moved me. Thanks to the Sisters of Mercy who taught me in grade school, for me the rosary is still my go-to prayer – or more accurately, my “oh @#$@” prayer when things get real. So to join in the rosary as the images of the migrant children who have died in the custody of our government hung on the bodies of demonstrators or fell to the floor – that made it painfully real for me. It reminded me of the image of the rosaries taken from migrants at the border, some elaborate or expensive, or some the cheap plastic rosaries given away in the back of churches – or to the five- or six- year-old me by a sister who was a friend of my mom.

As one of the editors of the CTS 2017 publication of essays on Liturgy + Power, what are some theological reflections you’ve had about such public expressions of your faith?

Power runs all through this experience. And what I think about this moment as a liturgical experience is the topsy-turvy world of power and weakness in the light of the Gospel. The power of the Reign of God is a power in which our God is on the side of the weak, and those of us like me (a white man in America) who have a great deal of power and privilege in the obvious sense can only tap into that power by emptying ourselves of that power in solidarity with God’s beloved people. What I saw today was women and men, lay people and religious, a 90-year-old sister and, next to me, the young kids of one of the organizers, joining together in an act that was powerful precisely in its weakness. Those who were arrested were sacraments of the power of God, who showed power in weakness and strength in self-giving love, and who, lying on the floor in the shape of a cross, reminded us just what the costly discipleship of the crucified victim looks like.

Thanks for sharing your experience and insights with us at PrayTell, Brian!

Dr. Brian P. Flanagan is an Associate Professor of Theology/ Religious Studies at Marymount University and author of Stumbling into Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church (2018) published by Liturgical Press.

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