The U.S. failed to achieve at least one vision for independence this year. President Biden set an ambitious goal for vaccination against COVID-19: to administer first doses to 70% of eligible Americans by the Fourth of July. But that date came and went without success. And, despite scorching temperatures in the West and a nightmarish building collapse in Florida, many places around the country nonetheless celebrated Independence Day with fireworks, family barbecues, and maskless memories of what “normalcy” can look like.
The Delta variant proves why the global community surely needs to maintain vigilance, but we can and should praise local milestones in the worldwide effort to combat this still ongoing, still deadly, still mutating virus. By July 4, the U.S. as a whole managed to boast first dose vaccination rates well above 60%. Many individual states even surpassed the President’s 70% target! Collective efforts for the common good can be worthy of celebration even if independence remains allusive. There’s no need to win in order to throw a good party.
The Americanized obsession with winning (as opposed to “the good”) surely calls for its own sharp critique, but there might be a lesson for the Church hiding in a national refusal to be embarrassed by falling just short of a stated public goal. That’s because rebuilding and reopening cannot be achieved instantly or with total satisfaction this side of the end of time. Ecclesial and political leaders will continue to set ambitious benchmarks, and human communities will continue to fail to achieve them. But a pilgrim people walking together towards holiness is bound to stumble. Christians have been failing to reach ambitious goals since the very beginning. Pick up and read any of Saint Paul’s letters to the earliest church communities and you might find an inspired record of salacious scandals, doctrinal disagreements and leaders making (and learning from) mistakes. Our contemporary debates about how to dress and how close Christians should sit together at the liturgy or what sorts of politicians can be invited to eat at the Lord’s table are nothing new.
Conversations about eating together make sense for a religious tradition whose rituals enact a shared meal with meaning far beyond ordinary sustenance. For Catholics, the Eucharist is an encounter with a living God from whom we can never be independent. Shared meals can testify to the relationships that not only make a truly human life possible but actually worth living. Somewhat like the profound difference between the burgers I shared over the weekend with people I love and the many burgers I have eaten alone in my car, gathering to be present together taps into a mysterious beauty that evades easy description but that I so missed during the doldrums of lockdown. It’s like the invisible bubbly stuff that makes up what sociologist Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” It’s like the shimmering aura of “life” in a busy restaurant or a party. It’s like the unpolished splendor of a packed church loudly singing along to a hymn that everyone knows by heart.
A quote often attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo claims that “to sing is to pray twice.” I’m always tickled by my mixed reaction to “America the Beautiful” as a hymn for Mass near Independence Day. On the one hand, too much overt patriotism clashes with the transnational harmony of the universal Church. Baptism proclaims hope for common citizenship in the heavenly city, after all. But, on the other hand, the tune (composed by an Episcopal organist and choirmaster) makes for a dignified procession that is simply fun to sing. Katherine Lee Bates’ poetry offers a political theological aesthetic in an American idiom. We sing praise for God’s favor manifested across a creation teeming with glory, difference and life: majestic purple mountains preside over the waving amber grains, fruited harvests framed by shining seas. Strikingly, we sing about America’s experiment in human fraternity that adorns and “crowns” God’s handiwork: the beauty of the creation that God deems to be good.
The second verse of this patriotic song prayed as a Catholic hymn issues a challenge for how to steward that beauty. Our project becomes a new pilgrimage “across the wilderness” to “beat” a “thoroughfare for freedom.” But are there ways to envisage this liberating roadway with an integral ecology, one where we help others to walk together with the earth rather just upon it? Can Catholic models of freedom be extended so “self-control” no longer, as it surely did at residential schools for indigenous children taken from their families, treat whiteness as a means to “confirm” souls? Can we imagine laws that enhance freedom? The ideals of a revolutionary spirit of liberty and justice for all rarely found swift ratification in the legal system. Indeed, the failure to decide that political independence from monarchy should also include economic independence from the evils of chattel slavery reverberates until today. Our contemporary prayer must become supplication that admits the inability to succeed at this experiment if our aim remains radical independence. “America, America, God mend thine every flaw.”
Charles A. Gillespie is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.