One of the things I believe I haven’t mentioned on this blog is my training as a Navy chaplain. Although I don’t presently do anything with the Navy on a day-to-day basis, I am, in fact, a Naval reserve officer.
I also have a number of friends who are active duty military chaplains. About two weeks ago, one of them—a Jesuit priest from Boston—retired from active service after 23 years. I went to his retirement ceremony, which was held at Quantico, and it had several inspiring moments. Perhaps the most inspiring, though, was when my friend read the names of about 15 young sailors he served with who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. There was silence and stillness in the room. It was a respectful, sorrowful, and solemn silence—a silence of gratitude and admiration. Among military personnel, there is nothing more sacrosanct than honoring the fallen—those who have died in uniform.
Many people in my parish (a blue-collar, row-home community in Northeast Philly) have ties to the police and fire community, and I sense that the same is true for them. Just the mention of someone killed in the line of duty arouses a sense of solemnity. Three months ago, our city lost two firefighters in a tragic fire, which evoked strong & emotional public response. One of our own parishioners, police Officer John Pawlowski, was killed in 2009, and I daresay his loss is still fresh in the heart of our neighborhood.
What is it about these deaths that inspires us? Why are we moved by their stories? May I suggest we look to a patriotic hymn for the answer? Look at the third verse of America the Beautiful:
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
It’s the self-control of our military & police & fire communities that leads to self-gift. As the hymn says, they are “heroes,” “who more than self their country loved.” Jesus, Himself, once said something similar: “Greater love hath no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This is the extraordinary virtue that makes us respond with silence and stillness and solemnity. It’s fascinating and thrilling and inspiring. Why? Because, when people put the needs of others ahead of their own, they’re representing something much greater. They become, in fact, living images of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in an extraordinary gift of self, gave His very life so that we might become free. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, police officers, firefighters—and so many more—stand ready to offer the same gift: the gift of their very lives, in order that we might be free.
We would do a disservice to all those who have made a sacrifice of themselves if we were not to uphold and relish the freedoms we have been given. We are living in an age when some of our fundamental freedoms are being challenged and denied in many and various ways. As the bishops of our nation have reminded us through the Fortnight for Freedom observance, “To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other. Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory, and should instead be complementary.” Perhaps more than ever, we need to pray for our country. In particular, we need to pray that our freedoms will be secured, most particularly religious freedom, which is our first, most cherished liberty.
Religious freedom means more than the non-interference of government in the faith lives of citizens. It means the freedom of citizens to be governed first by their faith. Our religious freedom is all-important. Were it not for the freedom won for us on the Cross, no other freedom would matter. Our American freedom to witness publicly to the highest freedom, won for us by Christ, should never be challenged. Inspired by the example of all those who have given their lives so that we might be free, let’s offer prayers and sacrifices to God and ask Him to safeguard our country from the dangers around us.
God does, indeed, bless America. Let’s return the favor, and insist that we, as Americans, continue to be free to bless God as we so choose.
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!