As I sat in the St. Thomas More Newman Center last Sunday evening, I quickly calculated that I’ve spent somewhere near 60 days of my life in Mass.
Hours I spent listening to priests, scriptures, hymnals, reciting creeds, prayers and receiving communion have seemed foreign at times. I am a religious man, a man whose belief is based in the fact that there is something greater than mankind. A God we owe, a set of rights given by God and a set of laws given by God – a religion I was born into, for reasons I do not question. My faith – now buoyed by my mother and sisters – was, in my youth, created by two men.
These two priests – nationalized Americans – were led by faith in God from Ireland to San Antonio. Far from their families, they spoke each Sunday from a faith which none could touch, a faith, which in history, seems matched only by our greatest leaders, echoed only by our darkest hours. They were men of principal, men of standards, men as solid a rock as St. Peter himself. The faith in God these two men had created dictated their loyalty to this country’s founding ideals. Their very religion was found in this country’s Constitution.
I was just a child when the elder of the two passed. I wept and wept and wept, sitting in those pews he had so often made home for me, as we parted ways with one of two men who were my connection to God, who were the rock of my faith. And at his funeral, there stood two flags aside the alter: the flag of the Vatican and the American flag.
In the days after Sept. 11, the remaining priest took two large American flags and draped them upon the wall, flanking the large crucifix affront the church. The image is one of the clearest notions of what it means to be an American, which forever sits within my mind. And as we said the Pledge of Allegiance those Sunday mornings following the attacks, there was the ever-present reminder of the men and women that would soon leave us to fight overseas.
Those members of a military parish would soon be in harm’s way, but our strength flowed from that Crucifix as we pledged our allegiance to this country in the presence of God, a country born of a faith in the tenants of that Crucifix’s ideals. Our faith in that Crucifix was strengthened by our faith in those American flags.
As priests became mistaken for pedophiles, Muslims for terrorists, and – against belief – Jews for greedy bankers, we moved away from faith in a country that is bound to the morals and ethics that come with a belief in something higher than man and moved toward a society which sees religion as unfit for civil discourse.
We are a nation founded not on hope, but on faith, a nation built on the belief that faith in God and our work will bring better days. As faith in something greater than man is pushed from the public sphere, we are not only pushing our faith in one another, our faith in democracy, our faith in man’s goodness from the public sphere; we are pushing America from the public sphere.