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Patriotic Songs at Mass

Independence Day is only two days away. Do you think patriotic songs or hymns, such as America the Beautiful, should be sung at Mass? It seems wrong to me, but I'd love to hear what you think.



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If/when we use "America", I and the organist make sure to use the 4th verse:Our father's God, to thee,Author of liberty,To thee we sing;Long may our land be brightWith freedom's holy light;Protect us by thy might,Great God, our King.Most folks are amazed that there's more than one verse and far too many Catholics do not realize that hymns have more than two verses."America the Beautiful" not a very egomaniacal hymn. I mean, it does not have a "We're the new and final Jerusalem!" feel to it. My old principal, Sr. Bernarda, quoted the 2nd chorus all the time, "Confirm thy soul through self-control".I would only get fearful if someone wanted to use "God Bless the USA" by Lee Greenwood.Final thing: The one hymn that will get you grief around here is "Battle Hymn of the Republic", especially if suggested within South Carolina. It's a Yankee song, after all.

We sang "Battle Hymn of the Republic," here in Yankee country, for the recessional hymn at Mass yesterday. It's a twice a year occurrence, on the Sunday before Memorial Day and on the Sunday before Independence Day. It always seems a bit out of place, but then I remember the profound words of Abraham Lincoln, about the Union and the Confederacy, in his Second Inaugural Address:"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

I'm very much against this practice. I am of the mind that when we gather around the altar, we are taking our place within the entire Body of Christ, past, present, and future, and that at that moment the United States of America does not exist. They (and I mean "they") sang "America the Beautiful" at the Jesuit chapel at my alma mater this past weekend. A first for them, I think. I nearly walked out, as I did a couple years ago when my parish (at the time) broke into "God Bless America" in honor of the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. I would much rather the Church get serious about the feast we celebrate according to the Church's calendar on July 4th -- St Elizabeth of Portugal, the patron saint of peacemakers. Sadly, I have never heard that feast mentioned during liturgy on July 4th or the Sunday preceding it.

Agree with Michael and thanks for the top on St. Elizabeth.Though I have ancestors who fought in both the Revoution and Civil wars, I'm totally against it, since Catholicism is a global church, and I object to having an American flag near the altar.Episcopalians were much worse about this, though. "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" as the hymns around the 4th.

I should have added this to my earlier post:I allow patriotic hymns as an appeasement of sorts, but I also make sure that during the intercessions, we pray for all people of all nations and that we do everything we can through the gifts God gives us to help all people throughout the world live with the same degree of peace and prosperity we have here. The British version of the Divine Office has a beautifully phrased intercession concerning not limiting our concerns to within our national borders.

I don't have any problems singing a patriotic song like "America the Beautiful," or "My Country Tis of Thee," or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." What I do object to, however, is being overloaded with such hymns on such holidays as The Fourth. "America the Beautiful," as a recessional hymn seems a fine thing to do.

I wonder what is more offensive - a papal flag near the altar or a national flag near the altar?I can understand a reluctance to use patriotic music for liturgical reasons but not for political reasons and there is a certain way the Church can inculturate national sentiments and baptize them. The liturgy can shape our national culture and, given time, the patriotic music may reflect our religiosity. Consider the experience of Poland, for example.Even the famous Mexican hymn to Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds listeners that "she is Mexican" in her apparition there.The hymn, Our Lady of Knock, reminds singers that she is the Queen of Ireland.And the fact is that some of the patriotic hymns written by America's Protestant Christian ancestors have better theology than some of the "popular" music used in progressive parishes: "We are the light of the world ...."Maid

This has always bothered me. I think the real problem is not so much the actual words of the songs, as the danger of encouraging idolatry. The popular patriotic hymns are closely associated with American civil religion, which -- let's be open about it -- is a false religion. They are widely used in its rites and ceremonies, eclipsed only by the Star Spangled Banner. By bringing them into church we foster an attitude that Catholicism and American civil religion are compatible, which leads to a widespread syncretism where Catholicism ends up being one of the various denominations of American civil religion. (Have you ever seen miniature American flags as Christmas tree ornaments? I have.) I understand intellectually that there is no inherent contradiction between patriotism, properly understood, and Catholicism, I just think that the power of American civil religion is so overwhelming in our culture that very few people in the pews will be able to keep it in its proper place. We need to have a very defensive attitude against such a dangerous cultural force.

You are right. It's wrong.

"And the fact is that some of the patriotic hymns written by America's Protestant Christian ancestors have better theology than some of the "popular" music used in progressive parishes: "We are the light of the world ....""How are the beatitudes "bad theology?"

I think it's an outrage. We are one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church. It's enough that our Protestant brothers and sisters have come dangerously close to idolatry by fusing Christianity and nationalism, but we don't need to do it too. Priests I've spoken to are very unseasy about this kind of liturgical abuse (and let's call it what it is), but claim that the laity overwhelmingly demand it. Sounds like some sound catechesis is called for.For the record, he's probably too humble to mention it, but Michael Iafrate has written an excellent post on this issue at Vox Nova over memorial day.

I think "America the Beautiful" is entirely appropriate, as well as being a moving and prayerful hymn. As others have pointed out, it does not have the 'triumphalist' feel of some of the more militant ones, and is instead a prayerful appeal to God to bless the 'work in progress' that is the United States, while praising the natural beauty of His creation and thanking Him for the gift of it. Who can possibly object to the desire for God to 'mend our every flaw' and 'confirm our soul in self-control'? Or even further down in the verses, 'til selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free'? Do we not make these very petitions (or similar ones) in the Prayers of the Faithful routinely?It's manifestly not a 'patriotic' hymn in the negative sense, and 'walking out' in protest to it strikes me as plain silly and frankly rather shallow.On the other hand, I do think 'God Bless America' is not appropriate at all as a Mass Hymn, and 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' while undeniably stirring, is too firmly a product of it's time and not appropriate for today's sensibilities either.And I completely agree that Lee Greenwood is right out.RM

Robert -- Why "shallow"?Also, I think many people who do not object, overall, to patriotic songs at Mass actually pick and choose which ones are appropriate and which ones are not, like you do. What I find interesting about this is that people favor different songs rather than others. Robert, you approve of "America the Beautiful" but not "God Bless America" or "Battle Hymn." I have spoken with people who say "God Bless America" is the only one that should be allowed, and no others, because "it's just a prayer for our country." Just last week I was talking to a biblical scholar about patriotic songs in church, and he agreed that overall he doesn't like it, but that "Battle Hymn" was okay in his book because the words are "right out of Isaiah." (And he's Canadian!)As for Lee Greenwood, I find no real difference between his more popularized take on connecting God and America and his songwriting predecessors. And again, would still like to know why you think walking out on an idolatrous recessional hymn is "shallow."

Michael,I am unclear whether you are objecting to the practice of 'picking and chosing' which hymns one approves of? As I understand it you feel hymns should not be considered on their individual merits but rather lumped together under blanket categories and then banned or permitted as desired?Of course there are others who disagree with my approval of "America" and not "God Bless America". We each have our reasons for approving / disapproving and while I don't agree with theirs I'm certainly not going to walk out in protest. Because Michael you're not walking out on the hymn, you're walking out on the Mass.I have endured enough 'idolatrous hymns' of the much, much more prevalent pseudo-Protestant 'How Great We Art' variety, for the sake of being present at the Mass. I work for change within the structure of the Church and my parish, and perhaps someday it will bear fruit, or not. In the meantime, I and those like me grit our teeth and bear it for the sake of the unity of the parish.The great peril of idolatry facing our Church today is not nationalism but, I daresay, focus (especially in the more 'modern' liturgies) on ourselves, and the endless hymns about 'I" and 'me' concern me much more. Look it's largely a matter of taste, I understand you don't like 'patriotic' hymns and that's fine. But letting your objections to a hymn override your obligation to the Church and community to the fullness of the Mass, and perhaps not being willing to really look at such a hymn instead of simply lumping into the 'offensive' category of 'patriotic' -- that was what I meant by shallow. I apologize that I have not read your piece at Vox Nova yet, I shall do so and if you anticipate these points, my apologies in advance.RM

I suppose I could live with "America the Beautiful" as one of the humbler "yay us" types of patriotic songs. Just for fun, though, I think it would be interesting to have the "Maid" parse the theological merits of that song with one of the new hymns to show how "A the Beautiful" is more Catholic.

Robert - I'm not opposed to "picking and choosing." We all do it. I just find it amusing how many different preferences there are. The only time I have ever walked out was when the song was sung as a recessional. Recessional songs aren't even mentioned in the rubrics of the sacramentary, so it's not really "walking out on the Mass."That said, in cases of extreme error (and I think patriotic songs at Mass is a good example), doing the painful thing and leaving the Eucharist might be the right thing to do. I would certainly struggle with walking out in the middle of Mass, but I would not stay there out of an "obligation" to do so. The obligation is to be a part of the Eucharistic assembly on Sunday, not to stay put at a particular Mass. I definitely agree that there are problems with some contemporary liturgical music as well. But I think the idolatries of singing to ourselves and singing to the nation-state are equally wrong. The latter probably more so if you understand it as a comparison of singing to ourselves as CHURCH and singing to ourselves as a NATION. I'm not sure that, as you suggest, one type of idolatry can be less of a problem than another. Just one final comment -- if I truly let my distaste for idolatrous patriotic music in church "override" my faithfulness to the Mass and the community, I would simply leave the Catholic Church and join another community that clearly rejects this sort of mixing of civil religion with the faith, such as the Mennonites or the Jehovah's Witnesses. But, like you, I choose to grit my teeth and bear it, hoping that the Catholic will learn from those churches that take these things a little more seriously.

I can also live with the most "humble" of patriotic offerings, but after Mass--as the closing hymn. "This is My Song," text by Stone, Harkness, and Leech would be quite palatable:"My country's skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine. But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.""And the fact is that some of the patriotic hymns written by America's Protestant Christian ancestors have better theology than some of the 'popular' music used in progressive parishes: 'We are the light of the world ....'"An interesting, popular, but largely unfounded premise, overlooking (in this particular case) Jesus' explicit affirmation in Matthew 5:14. I suppose the Kentish Maid would wince also at the numerous antiphons of the Roman Missal coming up this summer: "All generations will call me blessed ..." or "Father I pray ... may they be one in us ..." But I suppose if a priest or cantor took it upon him or herself to get up in front of the assembly and sing "I am the light of the world," yes, that might strike some as fairly offensive, even theologically speaking.Blessed Fourth to all.

A the B is a moreCatholic hymn than, say, GBA.Compared to the collects, it shows a similar (though weaker) tendency to ask God to make its motivations good, not to mention its actions.This is a very important part of Catholic prayer: God, change my heart so I want to pray and serve you.

Todd -- Yes, "This Is My Song" is one that I can live with. I heard that at Mass last year on the Sunday before the fourth and blogged about it here:

It is heartening to see so many Catholics concerned about the global nature of our faith and the need to erase any and all regional/national distinctions during Mass. I assume then, that we are all in agreement that the Mass should be spoken entirely in Latin. Right?

Is this really that big a problem? The only patriotic hymns I have heard in a mass have been America and BHoR - both a recessionals, and I have gone to military chapels most of my life.I wish people would get this animated about the horrid music and vapid St Louie Jesuit lyrics in the rest of the OCP hymnal.

Touche Alex

Alex -- Not at all. You have missed our point. But if you want to belittle our very real concern for the idolatry that is dangerously tolerated (and encouraged) in our parishes all for the sake of your little liturgical preference, go right ahead. St Louis Jesuits' lyrics, for the most part, are right out of scripture so I'm not sure what you see in them that is "vapid." They were, of course, written by different individuals and so each composer would have to be critiqued on his own merits. John Foley's stuff has been sadly underrated, in my opinion. Other folk hymns from that era -- written by others -- were, of course, lacking -- e.g. "Bloom Where You Are Planted," etc.

"But if you want to belittle our very real concern for the idolatry that is dangerously tolerated (and encouraged) in our parishes all for the sake of your little liturgical preference, go right ahead."And this concern is based on what? You're own personal observations and mind-reading skills as to the thoughts of your fellow parishioners? The fact that some of them like having a patriotic recessional hymn? Methinks thou doth protest too much. But nice attempt at side-stepping my point.

Ugh. I mean "your" not "you're"Time to get an end-o-the-day drink. :)

Alex - I wasn't side-stepping your point. I understand that some people "like" to have patriotic songs at Mass. Some people "like" to sing "Country Roads, Take Me Home" at Mass, and that too is wrong. I understand what you are getting at with your Latin comment, but sadly, the exclusive use of Latin is a related sort of exclusivity that I object to. The use of the vernacular has nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism but a pastoral choice that increases the intelligibility of the Mass. There is no theological reason to prohibit the use of the vernacular or to prefer one language to another. Use of patriotic songs is something else entirely.

Well, I don't think honoring the country in which one resides, and which provides the blanket of protection that allows one to worship as he/she sees fit is the same as playing a country song during Mass. I am surprised you fail to appreciate this distinction.Moreover, that you "object" to "the exclusive use of Latin" is really not the question. What most folks in this thread have stated is that Catholics need to erase regional/national distinctions during Mass, and that we need to worship as one. Returning to the universal use of Latin during Mass will help accomplish this purpose. But it would seem that you are all too willing to jettison such worthy goals when they can be accomplished through a means to which you personally object. I think that's unfortunate.

Alex -- I do not "personally object" to the universal use of Latin at liturgy. In fact, my preference is the current practice of the universal Church. I am not arguing against patriotic songs merely because of some kind of preference for a culturally "neutral" Mass. No such thing exists... we are embodied individuals, and our communities embodied in cultures. I object to patriotic songs because they go past this natural embodiment into an area of glorifying the nation-state to the point of idolatry. Sadly, your solution of the universal use of Latin in the liturgy, rather than "erasing regional/national distinctions," would take the Church back to a time when "universal" was understood as the expansion of political borders, a false understanding of what "Catholic" truly means. It would put the Church right back into the sort of political exclusivity and domination that is at the heart of many people's opposition to patriotic songs at Mass.

Vapid?Their #1 hit - Here I am LordSounds like a smarmy and slow version of the Brady Bunch Theme - He was living with three boys of his own - I can hear you calling in the night - Try it, there may be a copyright violation in there.The voice of the lyrics change from God to me (or is it Me) to God to me and back again like a theological ping pong match.

Sean - "Here I Am Lord" is indeed an exception to what I think is overall a great body of work. The song song has its problems. But "vapid?" Again, the words are scriptural. Of course, the tired rants about "how bad the St Louis Jesuits are" is not the main point of this post.

I'm afraid I have seldom enjoyed or found meaning in "patriotic songs -- Va pensiero?" except at Mass, specificially America the Beautiful and God Bless America (but then I'm a big Irving Berlin fan). Frankly we could all use a little guidance from the light from above right now. Most of the time when I heard those hymns as recessionals at mass I have been at least to some extent moved; typically I find "patriotic" songs in most other contexts cringe-inducing, perhaps because I can generally trust the congregation at Mass to bring the humility that is so often lacking elsewhere in American patriotic exercises. While both songs are typically American, it seems to me that both proclaim values that can be easily universalized.I remember the two Sundays after 9-11; on the first we were at mass in a fairly remote rural area full of retired military (mostly AF), and I remember being vividly moved singing such songs with a congregation very different from my family. The following weeked we were in a liberal parish next to a college campus, and the rather remarkable sermon asked whether when we say "God bless America" which is the operative word. Again a very moving service, and quite complementary to the other. How much we have lost in six years.May I defend "Here I am Lord," at least to the extent that it focuses the hearers/singers on a vital repeated pattern in scripture that has traditionally not been emphasized enough. I actually found it somewhat helpful in catechesis.

Do we really have to turn this into some kind of big deal as if teachings of the Church were at stake?This isn't even at the level of a liturgical squabble.It's really a matter of taste, and in my opinion, a song about a nation doesn't belong where a song about Jesus or God normally goes. However, if, as Alexham suggests, it's right and good to honor the place that lets you worship as you wish, why not "Dixie"? Or "Chicago (Is My Kind of Town)"? Or "New York, New York"? Or "Surfin' USA"?

I cringe and remain silent.

My point was that there are far more problems with the liturgy and liturgical music in the US than singing America as a recessional one or twice a year.

Sean, I don't understand why a general malaise would keep us from focussing on particular questions. In fact, I'm pretty well convinced that the particular questions are the only useful ones,when it comes to liturgical

Sorry, Sean, but it looked to me like your point was to use this issue (as you seem to use all issues) to show how so many of us are pick-and-choose Catholics full of inconsistencies and error. Hence your "touche" to Alexham's comment:"It is heartening to see so many Catholics concerned about the global nature of our faith and the need to erase any and all regional/national distinctions during Mass. I assume then, that we are all in agreement that the Mass should be spoken entirely in Latin. Right?"

If one is TRULY concerned about the "it's all about us" mentality that plagues some liturgical music, I'm really confused as to how you can defend the use of self-congratulatory patriotic "hymns" at Mass. Am I missing something?

I would certainly cringe at "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty" or "Thus be it ever when free men shall stand 'midst the foes' desolation" (and why in the world is that our national anthem?), but it escapes me how America the Beautiful or God Bless America, particular given the history of the latter, can be written off as "self-congratulatory."And I hesitate to disagree with Jean Raber on anything, but while this is a major church teaching (neither is gay sex, as I recall) it does raise serious issues of welcoming and inclusion, cutting in both directions, and hence should be worthy of (civil) discussion.

I agree with Todd. "This is My Song" or "Finlandia" as it is also known, is at least universal in its approach.Why a communal celebration of the Eucharist is any place for subtle or rampant jingoism is beyond me.

Gene - Not sure how you can miss the self-congratulatory tone in "America the Beautiful." The very fact that the song is directed to America, and not God, should be of some concern. Also the eschatological verse that replaces the city of God with the eternal empire: O beautiful for patriot dreamThat sees beyond the yearsThine alabaster cities gleamUndimmed by human tears! "God Bless America" speaks of swearing allegiance to America... Our one allegiance is to Christ and to his church.

Jean,Perhaps I have little patience for this topic. First, because the supposed reason for the objection - promoting unity - is nonsense. There is nothing in Church teaching or in common sense that leads to the conclusion that patriotism is, in and of itself, wrong or sinful. Can it lead to wrong and sinful acts and thoughts, of course it can, but so can just about anything else. I will say it perhaps too bluntly, but I think a lot of this criticism is about not liking America than it is about promoting a universal Church. Some of the same people here who are criticizing a once or twice a year happening in the US as destructive to the "universal" nature of the Church are the first to call for the US bishops to resist any Vatican "over reaching" on other liturgical issues.Michael - read your cathechism - we may in fact bear allegiance to our country - in fact we are encouraged to. As I said, this has more to do with what people are against than what they are for.

Gene, I'm sorry, but "Surfin' USA," with it's diversity references (huarache sandals and wahines) and the laid-back ho-daddy lifestyle in which we're all at peace in search of the perfect wave from LaJolla to Pacific Palisades sounds a lot nicer to me than God grinding out the grapes of wrath and mowing people down with swords.You could do a whole surfer-theme Mass: Driftwood altar, wiki torches, ukuleles and bongos for the hymns.OK, I'm getting too stupid to even amuse myself right now, so let me leave this argument by celebrating our right to wage it!Our right to convert to Catholicism!Our right to attend Mass unmolested by the cops!Our right not to have to pay a tax to support a state church!Our right to have BVMs in our front yards, saints in our picture windows and crucifixes on our walls!Our right to read Commonweal!The right for Commonweal to exist!May God grant us gratitude for these rights and give us the discernment to keep them!

Sean -- I have read it, thanks. But you are right - this IS about "what we are against," and what we are against is idolatry.

I report to you now that at the 9am Mass today, I didn't ask have hymns. We prayed for our country, we prayed that we have the courage to share what we have received with all people, we prayed for the people who do not like in freedom, and for the conversion of oppressors.I thank Michael for his comments. I found out that the small amount of people at the Mass did not know much about St. Elizabeth of Portugal, so they were glad to hear about her. Also, her desire to be a peacemaker was a good catalyst for talking about the animosity that has existed between the children of Abraham -- mentioned in this morning's first reading.We might not have had anything on the level of some churches' super-patriotic festivals, but there was true thanksgiving to God for what He has given us.

Mr. Iafrate --I think you're misreading the stanza you quote part, as well as being very unfair to Katherine Lee Bates, who was certainly not a prophet of empire.What she is saying is not that the eschatological reality is the future city of American sky scrapers, she is saying that the eschatological reality (which certainly overworks "patriot dream") is that the white city (for what it's worth the poem dates from the same year as the World's Columbian Exhibition, subject of the book of that name) will some day -- in our dreams, with the grace of God -- be free from the human tears with which we mar our prosperity and the gifts of God. Rather as she continues in the later part of the poem:"Til selfish gain no longer stainthe banner of the free."This isn't triumphalism or idolatry, it's a call to match the beauty of our land our wealth with brotherhood, compassion, mercy, self-control and other virtues that come only from the grace of God.If we can't tolerate that level of patriotism a couple of times a year we run the risk of leaving patriotism to a rather unsavory bunch.

It's amazing to me that a lovely and sweet song like America the Beautiful generates such bile and hand wringing. Only in Commonweal. Jimmy Mac calls it jingoism; Jimmy: ever think of switching to decaf?

One phrase within my last post should be "do not live in freedom".

Bob Schwartz, loveliness and sweetness are hardly sufficient criteria for including a hymn at a Catholic Mass.

Read this and you will probably sing patriotic hymns with me on occasion: guess some sectors of Islam do not share the strict Christian moral code nor our natural law tradition.

Personally I find America the Beautiful insipid. The Battle Hymn of the Republic I find very, very moving. And of course the Marseillaise is very stirring. But I would not care to sing any of these in church. Not even the Marseillaise on July 14!

Allow me to stray from the topic very briefly. I promise there is a connection.Several times this year at my church, one of the petitions has been, "For the safety of our troops abroad who are fighting and dying to protect our freedoms, Lord, hear our prayer!"While I have no problem praying for the safe return of our troops, I object to the idea that they are fighting to protect my freedoms! The attitude that everything MY country does is right, good, and virtuous is certainly an idolatrous one.That's the reason singing patriotic songs at Mass makes me queasy. Are we asking God to enlighten and guide the country that we love? Or are we uncritically praising everything about the "good ol' USA"?Seems to me that the motivation for singing the songs , even more than the actual words, might be the crucial factor.

Bob Schwartz:I refrained from addressing this to BS ....I participate in Mass to worship my God Incarnate. Period. If I want to worship the US I can do it elsewhere, like the Super Bowl, American Idol, the Wall Street Journal or the Republican party.

Jimmy Mac:I stand corrected. I had not realized that singing ATB amounts to worshipping the U.S. And it's all right to refer to me as BS; I don't mind, and I'm sure Grant Gallicho doesn't mind either. (That's a subtle inside joke, Jimmy.)

On the perhaps dubious assumption that these conversations never die, I'd like to assert the nihil obstat privilege on America the Beautiful. My goal was to assert that it was free of doctrinal error (i.e., imperialism and idolatry) not that it rose above insipid, a judgement that considering the rhymes may not be unfair.On the other hand, and perhaps I'm influenced by my grandmother here, I do like the fact that it is very visual and descriptive, as opposed to the typical patriotic song that has a lot of abstracts like liberty and freedom.

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