Father Nick Smith celebrated his seventy-five birthday last week. Although retired, he, like many a good priest of sharp mind, blessed with deep faith and good health, never really fully retires. Father Nick still celebrates Mass a couple of times each weekend and is listed in our parish bulletin at Saint Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence as Senior Priest. Educated originally in the city of his birth, Dublin, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States while still a young priest. Thoughtful, kind and with a smile that would calm the savage beast, we are blessed to know him. The gentle lilt of his native brogue in his homilies brings to mind the poetry of the Irish soul. His passion clear, his authenticity doubtless.
This morning’s Mass was no exception to his well-regarded homilies and earned him enthusiastic applause, which, as most know, is not the norm for Catholic Masses, although at St. Pat’s with Father Nick and our pastor Father James Ruggieri is not an infrequent occurrence. Both are extraordinary priests and homilists. For this Fourth of July, I asked Father Nick for a copy of his homily, and with his permission, share it with you as a guest blogger today for our celebration of this anniversary of our country’s birth as an independent nation, now nearing a quarter of a millennium. Warts and all.
Independence Day, Father Nicholas Smith
In recent years the famous Tall Ships have been in New England, including Newport, and I understand will visit Boston next year. It’s quite amazing the thousands who come out to see them: the parade, the pageantry, and the color of it all. And well they might.
The country was discovered by a man on a ship! The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on a ship! Many of us wouldn’t be here if someone back in our family tree hadn’t come to this country by ship. Tall ships, small ships, passenger ships, cargo ships. All in a very unique way remind us of who we are and from whence we’ve come.
Tomorrow is the 240th birthday of the founding of our nation. Independence Day is the commemoration of what those peoples sought when they landed on these shores long ago. The first boat people, sailing away from slavery, persecution, famine to a new world of justice and equality and peace. So we don’t celebrate the land at this time nearly as much as we salute a people who came and fought and in many cases died for the privilege of being free. That’s the gift of the Founding Fathers right there in the historic Bill of Rights! That we are all free – free to come and go – free to worship – free to vote for those we want to lead us, and vote out those we don’t.
But we remember—with some reverence even—we remember that this freedom is both delicate and dangerous. It doesn’t mean that you can do what you want. It has its limitations. And the fundamental restriction is, of course, that your freedom cannot infringe on the freedom of another.
As an immigrant myself, I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating.
- No one would want to live in an America where you can be mugged or robbed or shot.
- No one would want to be a citizen here, and be at the mercy of the Ku Klux Klan or the hatred of the Nazi Party.
- No would want to live in an area where you’re threatened simply because you happen to be of a particular color or race or creed.
These are sad realities.
- We’re not free when people in some areas of cities have to put five locks on their doors for protection.
- We’re not free to walk down the street at night.
- We’re not free in so many ways.
Because America the Beautiful is also America the violent. The abuse of freedom—a warped sense of freedom—freedom gone wrong is rampant.
Nowhere is freedom more delicate than in the whole relationship of Church and State. They should be separate. We should be free to worship how and where we want. But when you get down to the individual person, you cannot split him up. You and I are both American Catholics. Not one or the other, but both.
So when the priest in the pulpit speaks out on the sacredness of life or against abortion for example, not only is he free to do so as an American, but it’s his duty and responsibility as an apostle of Jesus Christ. What we’re free to do is to accept God’s Laws or reject them. What we’re not free to do is to make them, or twist them around to suit our whims. Jesus gave us God’s Laws, and we are followers of Christ.
Rejection, incidentally, of Christ’s laws didn’t begin today or yesterday. It can be traced all the way back to scripture. “Come to me. Come after me,” is essentially what Jesus is saying in that beautiful gospel today. Clearly, a significant number didn’t then, and don’t now.
On this great weekend, however, we want to look at the positive! God knows we get enough of the other. So, if nothing more, recall the immortal words of President Kennedy, words which every American child should know like you know the Hail Mary. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
The only America we can pass on to the people of tomorrow is the one we create today and love today. If you’re not satisfied with it, stop sitting on the sidelines and complaining. Work at making it better—doing your bit to make it a country of high moral standards, a country of neighborliness and justice and charity. A country where the phrase “In God we trust” is more than just words on a coin.
So what are we celebrating today?
- We’re celebrating the past—the people of the ships—your forefathers, who sacrificed not only that we could be, but that we could be free.
- We celebrate the future—the hopes, the dreams, the ideals we have for our children—and theirs.
- But also, and most important in my opinion, we celebrate the present—one another—because all we’ve got is one another.
Let’s pray in this Mass that we can grasp anew something of the great gift of freedom—and the responsibility that flows from that gift.
Let’s pray that God’s kingdom
- A kingdom of love, not hate.
- Of hope, not despair.
- Of peace, and not war
That this kingdom of God may penetrate our very beings and sweep through this land from ‘sea to shining sea.’