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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

 
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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.

 
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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 three daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • William Grogan

    Nice article. I myself like to see various persons in prayer or religious services. This police officer is no different. His gun is a part of his uniform and he can not leave it out of sight if he is going on or off duty. I’ve seen doctors and nurses with stethoscopes and white uniforms, military men and women, emts, and what have you. It’s nice to see them all come together for a common goal.
    A flag, whether it be American or any other nationality has never bothered me. A place of worship rises above all nationalities. The laws and boundaries of men are subservient to divine law anyway.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    The fundamental misunderstanding in some comments, I think, is a blurring of a question about religious behavior with ones of secular positions. There is nothing in the original post that suggests anything but appreciation and respect towards police officers and the nation itself. The single issue she raises, clearly and well, is whether symbols of national identity and symbols and tools of violent force, even if that force is aligned with good, are appropriate on sacred ground. I must say that when I read the post, while I saw her points, I didn’t think it was that big a deal, but after seeing these reactions, I am more inclined to agree with her, because I think it’s important for the Church to encourage people to see their role as Christians as something which transcends earthly powers. I specifically mention in my piece about family dinners with political differences, which was just rerun for Thanksgiving, that when we come together for our Church’s communal meal, the Eucharist, we are one family in Christ; we leave our differences and alignments with earthly powers at the door. Everything possible should be done to promote this understanding.

  • Megan

    Vanessa, thanks again for a thought-provoking piece. Unlike the previous poster, I DO find many of the responses hostile, but I am sad to find myself unsurprised by that hostility.

    The real issue at stake in the discussion here is the question, “who are we to be as a Christian people?” How one answers that question will determine how one responds to the issues you raise.

    A study of church history and theology will show that the Church has answered that question in many different ways throughout its 2,000 years. Shall we be Christian by sharing all that we have in common and giving the extra to the poor, as the early Christians did? Shall we be Christian by refusing to serve in the militaries of the empire, as did the conscientious objector St. Marcellus (“It is not proper for a Christian, who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in eartly military service”)? Shall we be Christian by engaging in violent, brutal Crusades against non-Christian faiths? Shall we be Christian by persecuting heretics with torture and fire? Shall we be Christian by choosing poverty, simplicity and non-violence, like St. Francis? All of these are answers to which the Church has given its approval.

    It is easy to see the disconnect, therefore, in the various responses to this article. The trouble is, we don’t really know who we are as Christians — at least, not as far as it pertains to the violence of nation-states and the violence of police/military. And the Church hasn’t given us terribly clear guidance on the issue.

    To conclude, there is plenty of good theology (and Scriptural support) behind the perspective of those of us who feel that there is a fundamental disconnect between the Jesus who told Peter to “lay down your sword” and the Eucharistic minister who serves at the Table of the Lord with a weapon strapped to his hip.

    And there is also plenty of Church teaching and history that supports the idea of a weapon of violence in the sanctuary of the Lord, or the flag of a nation-state displayed beside the tabernacle holding the Body of the One who died for All of Us (no boundaries and no exceptions).

    My question is, what kind of Christians are we?

  • Jim Luten

    Helen Lee -

    Unless you have read some additional comments on this matter than I have, I have seen no “hostility” in any of the responses. Certainly some readers have offered deep-seated, very differing points of view. I’m reminded of a notorious person who recently referred to members of the opposite political party as “the enemy.”

    If you want to dwell on “hostile” as those with differing points of view, let’s dwell on the scores of Catholic martyrs in Iraq who recently lost their lives as they were gunned down while attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at their church in their country. That is hostile.

    Ironically, as Ms. Kraft did, I too graduated from a Catholic college, the Benedictine Belmont Abbey College. I also taught religion in a Catholic school subsequent to graduating. However, during the forty (plus) years of my life since that time, I have had many experiences which have led me to who I am today and what my beliefs are. Ms. Kraft and I certainly have some very different perspectives on the surroundings of symbols and the attire of the faithful attending mass, all dealing with that which we both apparently hold so dearly: the practice of our Catholic faith.

    To couch the expressions of these differences as “hostile” is in my opinion, to use a term that I used previously in this discussion, “naïve.”

  • Helen Lee

    Vanessa,

    I just wanted to say that I’m shocked at the degree to which people misinterpreted your piece and the level of hostility of many of the comments.

    I always did find it disturbing that the American flag was kept so close to the sanctuary. I have nothing against the flag being present in the church, like off to the side or near the entrance, as every country belongs to God, and our citizenship here is a blessing (just as French citizenship is a blessing).

    As for the police officer serving as an EMHC, I can definitely sympathize with how you felt. The idea of an armed individual giving me the body of Christ is rather jarring. I definitely understand your concern for undocumented attendees of the Mass. If this man is off-duty (which I assume he is, since he is at Mass distributing communion), there is no reason why he needs to be armed.

    I often find that priests rely on EMHCs when it isn’t really necessary to do so. They are called EXTRAORDINARY Ministers of Holy Communion because they are to be used in extraordinary circumstances when there are literally so many people present that the priest himself cannot accommodate all of them (and he has no deacon or altar server). Obviously I wasn’t present at this Mass, but I find it hard to believe that a daily Mass had so many attendees that the priest actually needed to rely on an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion in accordance with the stipulations in the rubrics. If there were that many people there, God bless them!

    I guess my point is that people should be humbling themselves (myself included). It is a blessing that civil servants are attending Mass, but if they don’t need to be armed, they shouldn’t be. If there’s any way they can conceive of not bringing a weapon into God’s house (perhaps by locking it in a safe box in their trunk, or by putting it in a locker in the rectory), they should go out of their way to do so. I cannot imagine a soldier with a rifle strapped to his back giving me communion, and I imagine most men or women in that position might feel uncomfortable distributing communion in that state. It seems that it would be very graced of them to put the needs of the congregation before their own desires to serve and be willing to say, no, maybe I shouldn’t be the person distributing communion (especially since there probably aren’t enough people to require an EMHC anyway).

  • Jamison Luten

    I’m an EMT for a Catholic ambulance company. We pray every day and have crucifixes in every ambulance. I myself am often an Extraordinary Minister in uniform, as I go to daily mass at my parish before work. I don’t have a gun but I have scissors, a flashlight, and a knife. In the same pouch I carry a scapular to place on dying patients as I do CPR (if they are Catholic), a St. Benedict medal, and the Holy Rosary so I can pray the divine mercy chaplet while driving lights and sirens with my partner and patient in the back. Jesus knows why I have these things on me, so I can do my job as His instrument in the streets. It is the same for the police officer mentioned here. If he had to cuff someone or had to fire his weapon, I KNOW he would be doing it in the Lord’s service. Jesus Himself walks the streets using the feet of that officer. If I needed police assistance, I would want him!

    You have no justification to ask that God be kept in American schools, courtrooms, or Constitution, unless you are FIRST flying America’s flag in God’s house.

  • Jim Luten

    I go to daily mass frequently. I see nurses that have just come in off their night shift in their scrubs and stethoscopes hanging around their necks; I see uniformed members of the “armed services” going to mass before reporting for duty (I was occasionally one of those.); I see many, many professionals in their work dress taking in the Goodness of the Lord and probably praying for guidance in their daily work or for His intervention for that dying patient that is on the brink (my wife is a VA nurse.) For a police officer to be at mass in his uniform should be no different. It seems that the author should focus on this situation from that perspective and should get to know, understand, and respect the good and brave people that serve and protect us.
    Immediate access to radio, cell phone, cuffs, and weapon, etc. are all part of what it takes to do that job.

    I guess having been fortunate during trying times to be able to attend mass on the hangar deck of an underway aircraft carrier where you have to look over, around, or under a parked warplane makes these concerns about an armed law enforcement officer attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass seems to me a bit naive.

    And to see our country’s flag displayed in a church always gives me the proud feeling of living in a country where we are all free to worship. Many people have given their lives just for this honor.

    But this is just me, having retired from both the US Navy and from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement! I would love for you to share my perspective on these matters with the youngsters in your religion classes. Have you asked them how they feel about these things?

  • wayward

    Vanessa, I’d assume that there are some rules about the cop carrying his gun, and it’s possible that if he put it down or left it in his car and something happened, that could be a career-ending mistake for him.

    The idea of displaying a country’s flag inside a church always seemed a bit odd to me. I guess it appeals to some people, though. Not much skin off my nose since I never go to church anyhow.

  • ck

    Vanessa – thank you for the open discussion but I respectfully disagree. I have been to churches where the flag is present (on the alter) and I doesn’t bother me. I live in the United States and I expect to see it in the various places I visit. Why not look at it from another direction? The flag can remind us that this great country IS under God. Also, it can serve as a reminder of our duty as practicing Catholics to be engaged in the public square. “…responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation…” Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship, no. 13. However, I think the real heart of this issue is the fact that PC police (no pun intended) have gone amuck in this country. People feel frustrated and common sense seems to be absent too often. For example, one person who complains about the flag can have it removed even though many others may actually appreciate it being there. So maybe we should all try to step back and look at both sides of the coin. As for the police officer… society would like us to keep our faith to ourselves and in the privacy of our homes. Too often we all buy into this thinking. Frankly, the police officer reminds me that we Christians truly are in all facets of society. Last, I had the opportunity to travel to Cabezas, Bolivia in 2006. While there I witnessed the military show up and lead the procession of Our Lady of the Mount Carmel. This is where they carry a large statue of Our Lady around the town square. I’m just saying! -peace

  • Brandon

    I think the author edified the officer for his faith on his attendance at daily Mass, but tried to comment more on his role as a minister of the Church while wearing the uniform.

    The alb, the all-white garment that the priest puts on first for any liturgical service or that many altar servers wear, is a reminder of our common baptism and our common identity as a child of God. It is a physical way to reduce the individual identity of the minister and promote that this person is simply a minister of God. In a sense, it is the common uniform of all ministers, but granted, I don’t know of a diocese that asks their Eucharistic Ministers or lectors to wear them (although norms say that the local conference of bishops can adopt liturgical garb for these ministers).

    The uniform of a police officer similarly provides the same purpose. It reduces the individual identity of the officer wearing it and promotes their common identity as an officer of the law. As a member of the congregation, we are all what we are outside of the Church. Lawyers, doctors, police officers, business folks, blue-collar workers and we aren’t asked to strip ourselves of that at the entrance of the church. We come as we can, ideally trying to put our best foot forward for the Lord, but more importantly, coming forward to the Lord.

    I think the issue is that the officer wearing the uniform of a law enforcement officer while serving, not in that capacity, but as a minister of the Church. Who knows—maybe the officer was asked at the last minute to serve as a minister or was called in at the last minute to work and this was the only way for him to do both. Not saying that he’s “wrong” or “bad” for doing it, as who knows what the actual circumstances are, but nevertheless, it is still something that is not aligned with the notion that, while serving at the table of the Lord, our primary identity is as a servant of the Lord, not as an individual or as a servant of another laudable purpose.

    My father was a Vietnam vet serving 20+ years in the military. When he passed away, we were blessed to have full military honors at his funeral. At the entrance of the Church, however, the flag was removed from atop the casket and replaced with the white pall (a large cloth covering the casket). Was this a sign of disrespect for the life my dad led serving his country? No, but a reminder that in the eyes of God, we have a more primal identity than as a countryman, but as a child of God.

    For me, this makes me appreciate and, honestly, agree with the author in not having a flag at the altar. At the entrance of the church? Outside on the flagpole? Zero problem with that, for as another commenter said, it displays that our faith and our citizen are compatible. But, like my father at his funeral, when we’re at the table of the Lord, we are exercising a citizen more basic to our reality than one of any country, military, or organization, which is the citizen of Heaven.

  • Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft

    I do not believe that I wrote anything disrespectful to the flag or disrespectful to the different people that serve our country, whether that be soldiers or police. But, I can see how someone might misinterpret the timing of the article being posted on Veteran’s Day. To be honest, I didn’t make the connection between this posting and Veteran’s Day as it was written in advance. I had the realization when we were on our way to take my daughter to a Veteran’s Day parade.

    In regards to the police officer in my story, I specifically said that when I first saw the policeman in uniform at Mass I was struck by the faith this man must have coming before, after, or during duty. I think it is wonderful to have such faithful servants of the Church in the police force and would be happy to see others in uniform at Mass. But serving as a minister of the Church, like as an EM, and being in uniform, that’s where I think it gets sticky. I just can’t help but wonder if someone in the congregation were undocumented, how uncomfortable they would feel receiving Communion from a person that could turn them over to ICE for deportation.

    Again, I have no problem with an American flag in a church but I do think that its placement next to the tabernacle (or in the Sanctuary) is inappropriate. I hope it is clear that I do value and appreciate what the American flag stands for and that’s why I think that its placement should be very purposeful.

    Coming from a family where many people served in the military, including my father, and my father-in-law was a career airman, I do appreciate the service of those who risk their lives and sacrifice a lot to protect us.

  • Paul

    Wow, I feel that I am not alone anymore. As a foreigner in NYC, I love to tour churches and see the possibility of going for mass!
    Keep on writing Ms. Gonzalez Kraft!

  • Carolyn Martone

    I think this was brave work, Vanessa, and I really enjoyed reading this as well as your last blog. Thank you for writing it.

  • Mike Hayes

    Anyone know if other countries have their flag out at
    Mass? I know in many Canadian churches it is present. I felt like it was a reminder to me of where I was and that God was in this place as well as in my own country, so for me it’s actually a symbol of unity, of showing that all countries are part of the universal church.

  • Mike Hayes

    We have a Buffalo cop who attends mass every day at our place in full uniform and I don’t think it bothers anyone,but I see what you mean. Most cops never have to discharge their weapon, and they need the gun to protect themselves and us. I find it ok for him to be up there with his gun unbrandished of course, unlike the priest who held up his gun and pointed it at the congregation after a parish robbery.

  • guillaume

    Dear Vanessa,
    I think you might be a bit over-sensitive on these issues. I’m not American and when I have the good fortune of going abroad I don’t feel excluded by local customs, including in churches. As Catholics we expect local customs to color churches and mass : be they flags, statues of Joan of Arc carrying dead WWI French soldiers off to heaven (we have those in France). As for uniforms, considering how empty many of our churches are in France I’m just glad if I’m not alone : I’ll take cops in uniform, punks with spiked hair, you name it as long as they’re there to pray respectfully. People “reluctant to come to Jesus” because of a flag might want to question their faith and lighten up rather than blame mean Americans.

  • Michael

    Fascinating article! I wonder what the police officer is thinking: is it a conscious choice to wear his uniform to church, or is it simply what he was wearing because he was about to start his shift? The uniforms we wear and the times and places that we choose to wear them have great meaning. Perhaps next time you could ask and find out more.

    My first impression (and I’m a typical Canadian) is that it would be inappropriate. I cannot imagine a soldier coming to church with not only his uniform, but his full kit, including assault rifle. Soldiers are often in public with their uniform and you would see this in church, but the gun would be unthinkable, especially in our society. Would they need to bring their gun to be with the Lord?

  • andrew

    to the author: i love touring churches too and have made quite a habit / obsession of it. i’m sure i have been in many that have had flags on the altars, i really don’t think i ever noticed them, probably just ignored them as they don’t mean that much to me. but i think it says something about who you are, and why you noticed. i don’t think you were trying to poke fun of anyone or be disrespectful at all. to me it seems like you really love your country AND your Church. i’m glad you wrote this piece. it brings up a great discussion point, at least for me ‚Äî what do i associate more strongly with, my country or my faith? we are all citizens of heaven, but down here, symbols like flags often can separate us from one another. and no flag will never be as strong as the cross. the cross never fails. but i’m sure many a flag have, and will.

  • Jennifer M

    What is your fixation on his gun? He uses it to DEFEND THE INNOCENT. If you felt excluded by him, then you do not understand cops AT ALL. Why don’t you go actually talk to a few. Actually, why don’t you go talk to HIM. Ask him about his motivations, and I am sure that you will find that they come directly from his faith. He has no greater desire than to serve his whole career without ever having to use that gun. He has it because he must protect himself and the innocent he defends from the violent evils brought into his community by violent drug gangs, human smugglers, and petty criminals. As to the flag, here’s your theological argument in favor of it – cultural components are allowed to be added into Mass as long as they don’t compromise the required structure of the Mass. The flag of our country is a cultural representation. As I read this post, all I could think was, “Dear God, the things this woman CHOOSES to feel excluded by!” By the way, happy Veteran’s Day, thanks for posting this on a day we honor our flag and our soldiers. And know what, cops are just municipal soldiers… and many of them are military too. Did you not look at the calendar when you posted this? Or did you do this on purpose just to poke those of us who love and value the flag, cops, and soldiers, in the eye?

  • Stan H.

    first of all I love touring churches too. I have often seen uniformed officers but ture never serving at mass. Being a lawful man I would have no worries but I do se your point. The idea the the tool on his belt may have or may one day take a life would be unsettling. As for the flag in my diocese we do not allow the flag on the sanctuary any more but as a child we would have both the Vatican flag and the American flag up there. For me it is fine. We are ‘one nation unser God’. Those words did not come with the original pledge. They were added by the hard work of many groups, lead by our very own Knights of Columbus. So the very pledge we take as Americans is rooted in our faith. Someone visiting America would not understand that, and many Americans do not know. But I think we should take oppertunities to let people know. And I think showing the unity between God and country is wonderful. The seporation is to protect the church from the rule of government. God bless america and God bess our Veterans!

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