It is a day to celebrate, to be with loved ones, and to pray for our nation. Let it also be a day to reflect on who we are, and who are called to be!
What is our mission as Catholics in the US? And what does it mean to talk about our mission as a nation?
On this our national Independence Day, I’ll offer two thoughts towards thinking about that two-fold question. One, that a unique part of being an American – which I think is currently getting lost – is being a both/and personality. And second, that our mission as Catholics – and consequently the antidote to much of our current struggles and suffering as a nation – lies in our personal attachment to God, which includes how God is or isn’t a part of every aspect of life from our relationships to our economics, from the way we relate to ideas to the way we relate to the environment, politics, etc. The fact that we have lost this attachment lies at the root of the problems, and pursuing a life rooted in Him in such a way that it permeates our families, communities and nations is at the heart of our mission.
The American: “Both/And”
It is possible to be both Catholic and American? Is it possible to both Mexican and American? Black and American? Cherokee and American? Middle Eastern and American?
Fr Joseph Kentenich* was a German priest who spent considerable time in the US after the second World War and again during the Cold War. You might imagine that especially post WWII, German people and German immigrants weren’t looked upon very favorably. In this atmosphere and ministering to the German immigrants, Fr Kentenich was able to make some stunning and insightful observations about the American character during those times, which remind us of our identity (and mission) to be people of a “both/and” personality, as opposed to an “either/or” personality.
“A favorite description of America and its typical rhythm of life is the melting pot. I do not like to use the word. It is the calling card of an intellectual current which has many adherents. It befogs heart and mind, prevents a clear vision, and leads the nation into the abyss. It causes confusion whenever it is used because an aberration is presented as the ideal and a defective development as the normal situation. Every analogy has its limits and this one is no exception. It has room for a number of interpretations which gain color and form through usage and publicity.
Those who call America a melting pot want to say that this odd country dissolves, crushes, breaks up and annihilates each and every foreign national character as in a melting oven. Nothing can remain unchanged; everything unique and individual must cease. In its place comes a factory product that is called the “American character” but which no one can precisely or even approximately define. One cannot help but think of the saying, “if it can’t be defined, call it Americanism.” (1)
Thinking of the American personality as a melting pot is a bit like either/or thinking. Either you adopt our way of life without question, or you won’t be accepted. Either you relinquish all national characteristics of the country you came from, or you won’t be considered American. Is that really who we are? Fr Kentenich offers us another analogy – one that rings true of the American values at the heart of our nation, of who we really are, not who fear and anxiety dictate that we become:
“It belongs to the essence of the American character that is has never been rooted in a [single] common people or national character, but rather represents a confluence of every national character present here – coupled of course with the common inclinations rooted in history and geography.
If the vital character of each ethnic group is not maintained, the result will be a bland, characterless mass. Who wants to suggest that that is the America idea? If the [national] characters do not open themselves to one another, they will not integrate to form a single people. Inter-marriage across ethnic lines is already leading to a certain mixture. But for the education and formation of a nation which is a world power it is extremely beneficial, and to a certain degree necessary, that one not only be guided by spontaneous and instinctive motives, but also by a constant goal flowing from the natural disposition – as the conscious will of God and a clearly defined mission.” (1), emphasis mine.
[…] I prefer to use another image [as opposed to the melting pot] which isn’t so laden with difficult connotations. The American character, as it is willed by God and befits this nation, can be looked upon as a bell that is cast from a mixture of different valuable minerals, but which is not yet finished and therefore does not yet give forth its full ring. If this ring is to become pure, each substance in the alloy must remain true to its nature, be carefully cultivated, and unite with the valuable characteristics of the other nationalities. The organism that results is the unique American national soul which cannot be seen as merely an addition or multiplication of individual natural characteristics, but as something new. (2)
In America: A disease and a remedy
My hope is to inspire you towards the heights of what our mission is today, and to invite you to take it upon once again in the spirit of July 4th. But in order to do that, I can think we need to take a realistic look at the heart of the problem. Why is daily life so anxious today? Why are so many families split apart? What contributes to such confusion and division about the nature human beings and human relationships? What fuels such irresponsibility in our culture, or communities, our politics…an irresponsibility which is linked to a dangerous inability to make difficult but necessary long-term decisions at the expense of short term pay-offs?
On a broad level in Western society, Fr Kentenich saw that the root of many of our struggles and problems today, flowing from the huge cultural shifts and trends in modern history, was the separation of God from every day life. He saw this as having dramatic consequences for the individual soul and for society as a whole.
“A good doctor will always probe until he finds the core cause of the disease. That is where healing must begin. It would be quackery to simply treat individual symptoms. In the case at hand, the core cause is the revolution against the spiritual order [ie, the spiritual dimension in man]. Modern man is de-personalized and de-moralized, de-souled and divided, because he is de-divinized and de-christianized. […] The ultimately decisive question is this: Where do culture and humanity stand today with regard to the personal God, the revealed God, the Christian God?” (3)
How as Catholics can we give an answer to the situation in our country today? Do I see God as having to do with these modern cultural and social problems? Do I see God as having to do with the problems in my family, in my marriage, in my community?
The American Catholic
I think we have to ask ourselves these questions today – and to ask them not in fear-driven way, but in an earnest and searching way. How do I make God a part of my every day life, a part of my relationships? How do I allow God in my inner life to transform and impact my whole reality – my whole personality? Is the supernatural reality allowed to inform my studies? My job? My involvement in civic life? Because in the manner that each of us is able to consider these questions and give an answer to them with our daily life, is the manner in which we will transform our families and transform our world.
“For the Catholic personality God is the center of the world, the measure of all things, the vital attachment in the objective order which unites all things. There is therefore no question in his mind that his entire life must revolve around God as his living, sustaining, life-
giving focus. Because this has been forgotten today, because for the most part life has been separated from God, life has become so disconsolate and difficult. Those who speak of a ‘cosmic and anthropological coldness’ are therefore in the right (look at the frozen faces of so many people). Another consequence is the inability to cope with suffering because man does not see himself in union with God and as a gift of God’s love. Our prime task must therefore be to once more see, seek and find the God of life – not the God of ascetical books. We who have been so battered by life, who path through life has brought us so much suffering, must reestablish a living contact with the God of Life.
We need to discover him everywhere on the pinnacles of life, at the top of all things and events. Everywhere we must set up the ‘ladder’ for our minds – so we can embrace him with living faith – and for our hearts – so we can smother him with loving affection. Our task today: “to seek, find and love God in all things and all men” [attributed to St Ignatius]. Such a permeation of life by the divine, such an attachment to God is the key to the recuperation and healing of modern man.” (4)
This is a great task. But the greater the task, the smaller we must become. The greater the responsibility, the more we must turn to our Heavenly Father with the confidence of children to ask for the grace we need each day. Fr Kentenich also saw that there was a certain innate childlikeness in the American character, which is perhaps the greatest asset for anyone who wants to climb to the heights of the spiritual life and really be a transformative force in the world. And the one who can show us the way to this spiritual childlikeness, which also implies the corresponding inner strength and confidence to carry out so great a mission, is our Blessed Mother. Mary as the Immaculate Conception is our great patroness, who will faithfully guide us to the fulfillment of our mission by educating us every step of the way.
Today, let us consecrate our hearts, our families and communities, indeed our entire nation to her, and entrust it to her care, that we might strive each day to be “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
(1) Visit to America, Fr John Niehaus (featuring excerpts from Fr Kentenich’s “America Report”); page 173
(2) Ibid, page 172-176
(3) Ibid, page 202
(4) Ibid, page 212