14th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 4, 2021
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
On July 4th 1776, our nation’s founding fathers signed
one of the most important and impactful documents in history,
beginning with the words,
“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America…”
In these words, particularly the words “unanimous” and “united,”
they set out the basic ideal of our nation: unity, or union.
Unity is American’s foundational ideal;
a blessing, surely, but as an ideal
it always remains a challenge that is not quite completely attained,
calling Americans to a constant diligent striving to reach its perfection.
You see, the founders had a problem.
Recognizing that Unity was absolutely necessary to forge
a prosperous, peaceful and happy nation,
they also faced the seemingly contradictory ideal of liberty.
Or to put it a little differently, the problem of achieving unity
while maintaining the sovereignty
of each of the millions of individual citizens.
The idea that each person is, in effect, sort of a king to himself.
But how do you have union when every man is his own king?
So although it begins by declaring unity,
the Declaration of Independence immediately goes on
to recognize the fundamental principles
that must be recognized to preserve that unity.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ they wrote,
“that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
[And] That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In other words, there are objective knowable truths.
And they come from God, and, by the way, there is a God.
And among those truths are the equality of all human beings,
and that they all have absolute undeniable rights,
and those individual rights are higher than the government,
and that governments exist only to protect & secure those individual rights.
This is magnificent and phenomenal!
But you can see how this would create tremendous problems as well:
a blessing and a challenge.
So that after the Revolution and a decade of floundering as a new nation,
in 1789 the 13 states enacted a new Constitution
that began by restating the same ideal of “Union” as the Declaration,
but also making a telling clarification:
“We the People of the United States,
in Order to form a more perfect Union…”
Think of that: “To form a more perfect union.”
In my opinion, America is the greatest nation on earth.
But America has never been perfect.
Even so, right from the beginning and for over 245 years
it has not only striven to make itself more and “more perfect”,
but it has also had the principles necessary to make that happen.
And by a “more Perfect Union” we don’t mean a nation where we all walk lock step.
Actually, the opposite is true.
The American ideal of a more perfect union
is one that strives to balance as perfectly as possible
both unity and respect for rights.
Again, this is a great challenge, and we have not always been perfect.
After all, if America is a union of individuals,
how could our union be perfect, since no individual is perfect?
We see this in innumerable small ways throughout our history.
And we see it documented in some tragic and dramatic examples.
For example, we see that lack of perfection of unity
during and after the Revolutionary War,
as we operated for two decades under the Articles of Confederation,
as there was no real nation, no centralized government or law,
just 13 states trying to live together, but independent of each other.
And of course, in the Civil War: the ultimate example of America’s imperfect unity.
And we see the lack of perfect respect for rights and liberties,
for example, in the many ways
we’ve trampled on the rights and liberties of so many blacks:
at first through slavery,
and then later by wide-spread discrimination.
But we also see it in discrimination against any minority:
but also against anyone who spoke with a foreign accent:
the Germans, Irish, Italians, Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese.
And also anyone who didn’t hold the same Protestant faith as most Americans:
like Catholics and Jews.
No, we have not always been perfect.
But for 245 years we have continued to strive to perfect our union,
like no other nation on earth.
Think about that.
White Americans went to war in 1861 to free Black Americans from slavery,
sacrificing the lives of roughly 600,000 men,
1 in 10 white males over the age of 18.
What other nation on earth has ever done anything like that?
We have a Constitution that was written
almost entirely by Protestants living in an almost entirely Protestant nation,
but it guarantees, right from the beginning, the religious liberty of Catholics.
Without any kind of war to force their hands.
That same Protestant-majority country elected a Catholic president in 1960,
and that same white-majority country elected a Black president
in 2008 and 2012.
What other nation has ever done anything like that?
Today we do continue to face imperfections in our Union.
There is still some racial discrimination.
And all of us are aware of the resurgence of religious discrimination in our country.
And of course, we savagely oppress the weakest among us
as we deny the God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
to unborn babies.
And perhaps most amazingly, we see the imperfections of our Union
in the effort by so many to reject the principles of our founding,
by directly attacking unity
as they embrace Marxist tactics that set groups against each other
while also trampling the rights and freedoms of individuals
laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
But perhaps worst of all,
there is the growing rejection of the fundamental belief in God,
who gives the rights and liberties that the Constitution protects.
And if God doesn’t’ give us our rights, who does—government?
In which case, the individual will inevitably lose his sovereignty to the State.
Today, as Americans and as Catholics, white, brown, black,
we celebrate the founding of our beloved nation
because this is the greatest nation on earth.
Of course we don’t celebrate our imperfections and failures,
much less any injustice they have led to.
But we do celebrate our union.
And we celebrate the founding principles that make that union possible,
while still respecting the sovereign rights and liberties of “We the People.”
And we celebrate the fact that for 245 years we have striven,
and can and will keep striving,
for the perfect union our forefathers envisioned, and we long for.
Today’s Gospel tells us that
Jesus’s neighbors in Nazareth were “astonished” at his teaching, saying,
“Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?”
Many of our founders believed that God had taken a direct hand
in establishing America.
As the Father of our Nation, George Washington,
said in his In his First Inaugural Address,
“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore
the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men
more than the people of the United States.
Every step by which they have advanced
to the character of an independent nation
seems to have been distinguished
by some token of providential agency…”
Washington believed it, and I believe it too.
I look at the Declaration and Constitution
and I can’t help but paraphrase the words of the Gospel,
“What kind of wisdom has been given to [us]?”
I know many Americans, especially Catholics
are confused or discouraged by our national imperfections.
But to them I point to the words of St. Paul in today’s second reading.
“That I…might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations [I have received]
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Apparently, in spite of all the divine gifts Jesus had given him,
St. Paul still had some sort of weakness or sin or temptation,
that God had given him to keep him humble
and aware that everything he had was a gift from God.
But also, to call him to trust in God’s love and grace even in the midst of troubles.
And so St. Paul goes on to right,
“Three times I begged the Lord ….that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you…..”
Perhaps that helps explain why America is still imperfect,
even after all our best human efforts.
First of all, to keep us humbly aware that all the good things we have as a nation,
including our founding ideals and principles of union and rights,
are, in fact, God given.
And to remind us that God alone is perfect,
but that it is possible for us to share in that perfection.
As Jesus tells us elsewhere in the Gospel:
“So, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
If we are open to the fact that his “grace is sufficient for” us.
So that even in the midst of all the terrible struggles we see assaulting our nation,
we can say with St. Paul, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Today we celebrate July 4th 1776, and its legacy.
And we can’t do that without first and foremost thanking God
for his great and enduring gifts to our nation.
And remembering we must also pray for His continuing divine intervention
in American life and government, and in the lives of each one of us.
But let us also unanimously resolve, as our forefathers did in 1776,
and with the grace of Jesus,
to defend and protect the God-given equality and rights and liberties
of all Americans.
So that “We the People of the United States”
may always strive, with the grace of Jesus,
to truly “form a more perfect Union.”