This weekend the church celebrates the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time and Americans celebrate Independence Day. When you enter the church should you see green, the liturgical color for Ordinary Time or the red, white and blue of our American flag? Should the flag be displayed in church? In most other countries, national flags are not displayed in churches except for some that are war trophies, such as those hanging in Notre Dame Cathedral from when Marshal of France won a battle over William of Orange. In the United States the practice of putting our national flag in churches began with the Episcopalians of New York during the time of the Civil War.
The pope and the council of Bishops surprisingly have no formal regulations of any kind governing the display of flags in Roman Catholic churches. Neither the code of canon law, nor the liturgical books of the Roman rite comment on this practice. It is left to the discretion of local bishops who delegate the decision making to their priests. The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy however encourages pastors not to place the flag in the sanctuary, so that space may be reserved for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. They suggest that national flags be placed outside the sanctuary, perhaps in the vestibule.
Is this to say that the pope and bishops are unpatriotic? Hardly. They are reminding us that the Roman Catholic Church is a universal church where everyone is welcome. The cross of Jesus, not any particular flag, is the standard of the Catholic Church. The cross is present in all Catholic churches, linking us one to the other across national, linguistic and cultural boundaries.
Richard Rohr, OFM, and Joseph Martos wrote a wonderful article, “Eight Good Reasons for being Catholic,” which can give us some insight of our role as citizens of God’s kingdom. They state that our church is one of unity and diversity, one of the few international institutions in the world today. Within our walls, people of every race and culture are to be embraced. We cannot have an attitude of individualism and self-centeredness. We are a community of believers; as St. Paul says we are the “Body of Christ.”
The church has a history surpassing any civil government. In its 2,000 years, the church has lived under kings and emperors, in democracies and dictatorships, under capitalism and communism, so this 4th of July appreciate our American flag, be it in your church, flying at your own home or seen rustling in a parade. Better yet, begin your Independence Day celebration by attending Mass, because as Catholics our entire heritage is pointless unless it is rooted in Christ and the living out of the Gospel.
Zahorik is director of worship at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Oshkosh. She has a master’s degree in liturgical studies.