The editorial of the month

The editorial of the month by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

On a recent trip to visit my family in Maine I was welcomed, as is usual, by a small bundle of things in the room I claim while there. The contents typically include the few pieces of mail still addressed to me, such as my college alumni magazine, and whatever books, pictures, or bric-a-brac my mother has unearthed on her ceaseless mission to declutter the house. On this occasion, Mom had dug up the evidence of my earliest brush with fame: when I won a 1993 statewide essay contest on “What the American Flag Means to Me.”

Open to every Maine sixth-grader, the contest was sponsored by the Elks Club (officially and grandiloquently known as The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America). Out of more than 700 submissions, I was one of six winners, meriting a take-home of one hundred dollars, an elegant plaque with the essay printed on it, and the obligation to read it aloud at the Elks’ state convention and our local Flag Day ceremony on June 14. In its small-town desperation for content, our local paper even featured a short writeup about me—including a picture corroborating my mother’s quip that I was “all teeth and glasses.”

The essay did not display any remarkable erudition or lofty theology, just simple gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy—the freedom of religion being my first example. I then added: “The flag makes me thankful for the many people that sacrificed their lives to help make this a better country. The flag makes me thankful for the people who helped build this country. Some famous people like Washington and Lincoln helped make this a better country, but some people who never became famous also helped make this country great. My great-grandparents came to America from Lebanon for freedom and a good life.” The essay concluded with the quotable, if predictable, “I’m proud of the stars and stripes of the United States of America.”

Natural piety

I repeat this story not merely to keep riding a wave of grade-school glory. Admittedly, Flag Day is not a major federal holiday, and I’ll bet many Americans don’t even know when it is. But with French and Lebanese ancestry and two grandfathers who served in the military—one in the Navy in World War II, the other in the Army in Korea—I learned from a young age to appreciate the hard work, sacrifices, and courage that ordinary, unfamous men and women have made for my sake. And I remain grateful to those who continue to do so.

There is in fact a virtue that forms us to respect, serve, and show gratitude for our nation. It is called, perhaps surprisingly, piety, and is part of the virtue of justice, which is the disposition to give to others their due. The virtue of religion is another such example of justice: it is the virtue by which we offer to God the worship that is owed, or due, to him. And he, as Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches, “holds first place, for he is supremely excellent.” Next, however, “man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country.” Why? Because after the Creator and First Principle of All, “the principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Thus, just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give homage to one’s parents and one’s country.” To put it informally, none of us was dropped off by a stork or raised on the moon, so our parents and our country ordinarily have a natural claim to our respect and obedience. How appropriate, then, that we have a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day on the calendar as well!

Spiritual heritage

In the ten verses of the Second Letter to the Corinthians that we’ll hear at Mass on Flag Day this month, Saint Paul describes the lengths he and his companions went to in order to pass on the faith: namely, much endurance, in afflictions, hardships, constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness at the right and at the left; through glory and dishonor, insult and praise. That’s a long list, and it reveals how deeply Saint Paul’s faith shaped his earthly life and activity. A Roman citizen, he trotted all over the empire preaching the Gospel. He spoke of paying taxes and respecting lawful authority (Rom 13:1-6), while maintaining that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). He knew that the years allotted to him on this earth had to be spent advancing in the knowledge and love of God and bringing that knowledge and love to others. We share in that same mission, in a new land and within the circumstances of our own life and vocation.

Flying the flag of Christ’s love

Flag Day will soon be upon us again. Though it has no liturgical significance in itself, allow me to note that, this year, it falls right after the solemnities of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart. Perhaps on Flag Day then you would join me in offering the beautiful prayer often said at the end of Benediction that ties those two mysteries together, asking that they be revered in every nation: May the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even to the end of time. Amen.