I 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.