Allegiance

Most of us are proud and grateful to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands… Though we only know a fragment of the sacrifices made by our forebears and are, on the flipside, unaware of the extent of cruelty that others doled out in the massacres of Natives, slavery of Africans, or prejudice toward Immigrants, our pledge is also made toward creating a better society.  Unlike many of the founders of this great land, most of us are not nationalists.  Nationalism implies putting the nation first, ahead of all else—God, family, livelihood, peace, the common good—and even die for it.  Judging from the thousands of funerals I have presided over or attended, family and faith rank highest in humanity’s allegiance, even among soldiers and public office holders.

For Christians, standing before or gazing upon a crucifix manifests a similar allegiance.  Unfortunately, just as many people disrespect the flag, so does there exist numerous critics of religious signs and symbols.  In fairness, most Americans do not hate America, but they do despise political idealogues who lack compassion for victims of suffering due to particular ingrained attitudes or policies, or because they view leaders as pledging allegiance to a political party rather than to the country.  Similarly, few Catholics hate God, but many are deeply troubled by ecclesial leaders who cannot empathize with those who are victimized by church attitudes or policies, or those who pledge allegiance to the church rather than to God. 

As July turns to August, the church honors a few priest-saints who might help us in our allegiances.  One is Ignatius of Loyola (July 31), a sixteenth-century Spanish soldier who was wounded in battle and shifted from chasing earthly heroes and romance to chasing heavenly goals.  Another is Alphonsus Liguori (August 1), an eighteenth-century Italian moralist who founded the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, battling rigidity and pomposity with simplicity and kindness.  A third is John Vianney (August 4), a nineteenth-century Frenchman commonly known as the Cure of Ars; he was not book-smart but dedicated himself to helping people grow closer to the Lord in little and practical ways.  Their allegiance was clearly to Christ.  Ignatius, who founded the Society of Jesus during the Protestant Reformation, helped save the church by shifting her focus from ecclesiastical worries to advancing Christ’s Gospel by promoting personal spiritual development and missionary zeal.  Similarly, Alphonsus’ Redemptorist Order focused allegiance on Jesus rather than institutional trappings.  Church insiders sometimes joke that John Vianney was one of the few diocesan priests ever to be canonized; most priests who were made saints did something unusual: founded an institute, reformed an order, became a bishop…but he simply led parishioners to God.  Some say he was not smart enough to know the workings of the church, but so in love with the Lord that he reflected that love to others.

When diocesan priests are ordained or assigned as pastor, they take an Oath of Fidelity to the church, its leaders and structures.  Like nationalism does for a nation, it puts the church as most important in one’s life.  But as Ignatius, Alphonsus, and John Vianney show us, God should be the focus of our allegiance.  Similarly, politicians should never make the democrat or republican party the center of allegiance; their fidelity belongs to the one nation under God.   As we stand before the flag as Americans or before the crucifix as Catholics, we should do so with deep gratitude for all those who have sacrificed for us and left behind magnificent examples of fidelity, pointing us to the Lord and to our true homeland in heaven.

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