Busted Halo

Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft tries to balance her traditional Mexican-American cultural heritage and Catholic identity, personified by her grandmother La Lupe, with her roles as a young wife and mother.

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November 11th, 2010

Separation of Flag and Faith


lalupe-flag&church-flashI love churches.  I really do.  Back before we had Olivia, Brandon and I would take regular trips around Austin and its surrounding cities to visit churches we had never been in before.  I love the art, stained glass windows, smell, architecture, everything.  Kinda dorky, but it’s one of our favorite things to do together.

One time I visited this particular church and decided to stay for daily Mass.  There was a small group of people there and one of them was a policeman in complete uniform: gun, walkie talkie, baton and all.  This really struck me.  I thought how much faith this man must have to still attend daily Mass when, I could only assume, he was on duty or about to go on duty.  Mass continued and it was during the Lamb of God that the Eucharistic ministers (EMs) came forward.  One of the EMs was this very same policeman.  I am sure that my mouth dropped because of how shocked I was.

All sorts of questions were flying through my head.  Was I going to feel uneasy receiving Communion from a policeman in full uniform?  Should I?  Is this man going to write me a ticket for that right turn I took on a red on my way over?  What about that safety cone that I stole in college?  My car is 3 inches into a no parking zone.  Did he notice?  What if someone here has a warrant for his/her arrest?  What if someone is undocumented?  What’s going through the heads of everyone else?

I haven’t had any run-ins with the law and, yet, walking up to this man with a gun at his hip to receive the Body of Christ, I was uneasy.

It was after this event that I really became aware of things during Mass that might make people feel excluded or on the outside.

One trend that I have found unsettling since the first time I noticed it is the presence of an American flag in the main part of the church near the tabernacle.  I have thought about this a lot and have found no theological argument for its placement there.  Here in Texas, I have seen this present in the majority of Catholic churches that I enter.

I have no problem with an American flag in a church but I think that it needs to be kept in the parish hall or in the atrium or narthex.  To have it in the sanctuary of the church seems opposed to what the church stands for, a place for all people, no exceptions.

As Christians, I do believe that we are called to be patriotic and to perform our civic duty.  I see nothing incompatible with a patriotic Catholic who has pride in his/her country.  But in the physical space of the Mass, in that sacred place, our country is heaven and our allegiance is to God.  There are no divisions of citizenship.  I have often wondered if someone who is not American feels somewhat excluded when they are in Mass and see a flag up there by the tabernacle.

I believe that it is important to make sure the symbolism of things that we have in a church are not going to ostracize anyone.  Having the American flag right next to Jesus seems like a symbol of division.  The message of Jesus was that all were welcome to come to God regardless of sins committed, socioeconomic status, past history, race, ethnicity, etc.  Having a flag there changes this message.

In our time here in Austin, my husband and I have had the opportunity to get to know the Paulist community.  The vision of Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, was that being American could make you a better Catholic and being Catholic could make you a better American.  Even with this vision though, the Paulist churches here in Austin that we’ve been to do not have an American flag in the sanctuary of the church.  I bring this up because these churches obviously value being American but I don’t think it is an accident that they have chosen to place the American flag in other places outside of the main church.

Just like this policeman in uniform that was a Eucharistic Minister, I think having an American flag near the tabernacle might make some people feel excluded or reluctant to come to Jesus.  And as the Church, we want to get rid of any barriers that might prevent people from coming to Jesus.  I believe when it comes to the Body of Christ, there should be a separation of flag and faith.

The Author : Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft
Vanessa, a Notre Dame grad, loves the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic education, and overbearing Mexican mothers, which she may or may not be. She lives in Austin with her husband and five daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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  • Gage Blackwood

    It is interesting on how many folks are defending the police officer’s presence at Mass since that was never an issue.

    Whether or not Vanessa is right on the issue of the cop serving as an EM in full uniform, I think it is a very valid discussion and not just the PC police run amok.

    I think anyone who is ministering should think about how his/her appearance, speech, etc could come across to others and just be aware of that. Maybe you decide to wear something else or not, but good to think about this stuff when presenting yourself as a minister.

  • Barry Hart

    I must say,I think Vanessa has called attention to a very intriguing & important set of issues/problems.Speaking for myself,I attended a memorial Mass for my mother(along with other deceased people)at St. Luke’s in Belmont,MA,a couple of weeks ago.When I entered the church,I immediately noticed a large U.S. flag hanging over the entryway to the central aisle.This fat man may be way off-base here,but it seems to him that in a house of God,a building dedicated to the omnipotent & transcendant Creator of all things,displaying a national flag is gauche & inappropriate.A church(or any other house of worship)should be a sanctuary from such earthly & potentially divisive symbols.As Ali pointed out,flags have often served destructive & bellicose ends,providing justification for atrocities.

  • ali

    I must say that I agree with Vanessa and perhaps I am out of touch as I have not attended mass for quite awhile now but I still think of church as a “house of peace” and therefore not appropriate to bring a weapon that no matter how you look at it, whether to defend the innocent,protect or assault,ultimately hurts, maims or kills.

    As for flags, well again, I must respectfully share that I am not a big fan of them. Many atrocities have been performed in the name of God and country. Flags are often used as symbols that divide. Again,I see no place for them in the house where we are remind ourselves that we are all one.

  • Michelle

    I agree with Brandon; I think that some are missing a point that Vanessa has made. Obviously, a policeman in full uniform, a nurse or doctor with stethoscopes…ALL are welcome to the Mass. That is not debatable, and I know Vanessa is not suggesting this. The question is should they be serving as a representative of Christ when their outward appearance is so clearly representing what is secular? This is something very different.

    Also, if we are assuming that during the Mass, everyone drops their other affiliations and is simply a “servant of the Lord”, then I would hope the policeman would not be so bold as to give someone a ticket or turn them into ICE! In this space, he has no authority over the person standing next to him. As we are welcoming to him in his uniform, so should he be to anyone else around him.

  • Deacon Tom Evrard

    WOW! It seems that Vanessa has something here!! Being an old Marine, schooled in a HS seminary and Benedictine college, as well as a NYC Sales rep who has visited hundreds of churches for daily Mass, I have witnessed many different cultural and some would say, secular displays in Churches. So, I think this is a great subject for discussion. Yet, I can’t help feeling that Jesus would find the debate respectfully amusing.
    My take on it is that these are all Church communities with a Pastor who does have the last word about how the Church can be decorated. There ARE liturgical norms and essentials, of course, the flag is not one of them. Most Churches that have a National flag also have the the Vatican Flag to show unity. If there were a diocesan flag, (e.g.the bishop’s coat-of-arms–some have banners displayed) they might have that too.
    The policeman is a member of the faithful. I feel that he’s wearing his “work-suit”. I attended a beach Mass where the lifeguard chair was right next to the sand altar. At communion time, the guards came down from their chair in swimsuits with sweatshirts their whistles dangling around their neck. They were welcomed to the table of the Lord with joy.
    The responses are reflections of personal perspective and clearly manifest deep spiritual concern for the Eucharist. Vanessa only raised the concerns. The responses show individual opinions. We all love the Lord. How it is expressed is only the discussion.
    These are small Christian communities expressing their worship of Jesus and respectfully receiving their Lord in faith……nothing more.

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