By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, when we recall those who died in the service of our nation, we have the opportunity to reflect on true love of country.
A natural bond
One of the most beautiful of operatic arias is found in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” The central character, Aida, had been a princess in her native Ethiopia, but she had been taken as a prisoner to Egypt by the conquering Egyptian forces. In a very moving scene, Aida is alone looking out toward her native country and she sings the aria, “O Patria mia,” which can be translated as “O my native country,” or “O my fatherland.” In the midst of all her trials, it is her separation from her homeland that affects her the most.
Love of one’s country is something that is part of our nature. We feel connected in a special way to a country we call home, because of all its associations and bonds. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” reminds us that “certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him” (CCC, 1882).
In our own country, because of its unique nature, many people experience what we might call a “dual identity” when it comes to country: the first and primary identity must always be to our own country, the United States of America, but because we are, in so many ways, a “nation of immigrants,” many Americans also continue to experience a bond with the country from which they or their ancestors came. This is also praiseworthy and it adds to the variety and culture of our nation.
Since God has willed that we should exist within what we call a human society, that society, and the place where it is lived out for an inspanidual, even take on a somewhat sacred nature. On many memorials that have been erected to those who have given their lives in the service of their country, we find these words from Sacred Scripture often quoted: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
This is why we honor and remember those who have given their lives in the service of their country and this is the origin of our celebration of Memorial Day. In fact, this celebration is so attached to the idea of something sacred and unselfish, that it was originally called “Decoration Day” because it began as a day when faithful citizens decorated the graves of those who had died in the service of their country.
Always at the service of a higher good
It is important to remember that love of country is not an end in itself, but always exists within the confines of the natural law and the commandments of God. The century which has just passed, with all its tragedy and bloodshed, saw the rise of excessive nationalism, which equated love of country with a mindless obedience to an all-powerful state. That century saw the temporary triumph of what we call “totalitarian states,” which are those which hold that the inspanidual exists for the state, which becomes supreme in its demands and often ignores the laws of God while extolling the laws of man.
This experience reminds us that love of country does not mean a mindless acceptance of everything that our country does or stands for, nor does it mean a denial of its faults. In fact, true love of country should impel us to work for the eradication of whatever is not noble and virtuous in the country we love.
In January of 1999, Pope John Paul II made a Pastoral Visit to the Archdiocese of St. Louis while I was the Archbishop there. It was the only diocese in the United States that he visited on that journey and, of course, I remember all the details of it with great joy and gratitude. On his arrival in St. Louis, the Pope spoke about defending “the genuine truth and values of the American experience.”
In that context, he also spoke about the fact that most nations have periods in their history when the citizens of that country are put to a great test. It is for them, during those times, to call their country to its true greatness by working for what is good and virtuous rather than turning a blind eye to the country’s faults out of a misplaced sense of patriotism.
In the marvelous talk which Pope John Paul II gave as he spoke about “The Spirit of St. Louis,” he compared a historical challenge faced by our country 150 years earlier, with a current challenge placed before us in this moment of our history.
Here is what he said: “There are times of trial, tests of national character, in the history of every country. America has not been immune to them. One such time of trial is closely connected with St. Louis. Here, the famous Dred Scott case was heard. And in that case the Supreme Court of the United States subsequently declared an entire class of human beings – people of African descent – outside the boundaries of the national community and the Constitution’s protection. After untold suffering and with enormous effort, that situation has, at least in part, been reversed. America faces a similar time of trial today. Today, the conflict is between a culture that affirms, cherishes, and celebrates the gift of life, and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings – the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered ‘unuseful’ -to be outside the boundaries of legal protection. Because of the seriousness of the issues involved, and because of America’s great impact on the world as a whole, the resolution of this new time of testing will have profound consequences for the century whose threshold we are about to cross” (Address, Welcoming Ceremony in St. Louis, 26 January 1999).
When we look at the figures of history whom we honor, we often see that the very characteristics for which we honor them involved their courage in the face of what was being accepted by the majority. We honor their fearless proclamation of the truth in the midst of a society or country caught up in the emotional frenzy of what is harmful. However, while rightfully admiring inspaniduals such as these, we often fail to see the courage necessary in the face of the challenges of our own age. The fact that we live in an age of defining moments and historic crossroads should not fill us with anger or fear because of two principal facts:
First, we are not driven about by the wind in a state of hopeless confusion not knowing what to do. Over the course of the ages, beginning with the Chosen People, our ancestors in the Faith, and culminating in Jesus, the perfection of all Revelation, God has paid us the compliment of giving us clear guidance in how to live out our earthly life.
One of the longest Psalms (119) is that which extols the marvels of God’s Law. This is not because it is a set of rules, but because it is God’s compliment to His people, giving them clear guidance in what pleases Him and in what will be for their own benefit. Jesus promised His Spirit to complete the work of Revelation and to “lead us into all truth.” This Holy Spirit lives in the Church Jesus founded, so that we can be guided in the modern world, using eternal principles, guarded by the Spirit of Truth.
Secondly, we are given God’s grace, which is more powerful than our own weakness and which strengthens us for the pursuit of what is true and good. “My grace is sufficient for you,” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Jesus said to St. Paul when he was faced with fearful challenges, even those involving his own human weakness. He says the same to us.
The fact that we live in a country in which we enjoy great freedom has been a blessing to us in so many ways. However, it also presents us with tremendous responsibility. No one can absolve himself from this responsibility. Public leaders cannot separate their public stance on various issues from what they know to be right or wrong, and we cannot claim ignorance when faced with the defining moments of our own time in history.
Regardless of the age in which we live and the defining moments of history that are placed before us, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice” (2 Timothy 1:7). Just as He gave courage to those whom we honor so that they could die for their country, He gives that same courage to us, who are called to live out our own moment in history with that same courage and fidelity to God’s Law, which will always be a blessing for any country that upholds it.
20 May 2010
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