America, the Beautiful

There’s a perennial debate among pastoral musicians about the appropriateness or not-appropriateness of singing patriotic music on the Sunday of a big national holiday. (Perhaps I should call it thrice-yearly, since it comes up Memorial Day, Labor Day, and of course, the Fourth.)

In the Catholic Church, the intent is for the readings, the prayers, the homily, and the music all to tie together to focus on a unified whole, and the readings never, ever lend themselves to American patriotism, because our allegiance is supposed to be to God.

Plus, a lot of people, myself included, look around at our country and can’t help seeing all the ways in which it is broken, how far it is from the Kingdom of God. The hysterical, fact-ignoring, inflammatory posturing coming from both sides of the aisle, the eagerness with which we follow suit, rarely (if ever) stopping to think through “what’s the rest of this story?” before hitting “share.” Police officers killing unarmed black men. People shooting up night clubs. Babies dying before they’re even born.

Frankly, we’re a mess.

For years, it has made me wince to sing patriotic songs at church. It’s felt like giving yourself a medal for, I don’t know, only kicking your little brother nine times instead of ten.

Last Wednesday, our choir, on a skeleton crew, put together “America the Beautiful” for the recessional at Mass, as directed. It was beautiful. We started in 4-part harmony a cappella, brought the piano in softly on verse 2, and built to a glorious end. I realized I knew all the words to every verse by heart. And as I sang/conducted them, it occurred to me:

This song is America as we believe she can be.

Souls confirmed in self-control. The heroes who love mercy more than life. Brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

This is what we are sometimes, and what we are meant to be always.

Yesterday morning, there were about 800 people at Mass, singing their hearts out on that song. For once, almost no one left. We sang four verses of a closing hymn, and everyone stayed to sing it.

And I realized: it’s okay to sing-pray these words over our assemblies. It’s okay to remind us of the vision of our best selves, of everything we’re called to be. Maybe it’s even part of what we need to make the real change happen.

Yes, God: mend our every flaw, till all success be nobleness and every gain divine.