Guest Columnist The past and the future of the United States of America

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles is quickly becoming one of the most persistently prophetic voices in the Church of the United States. He is as cheerful, amiable and accessible as any bishop in the country, but at the same time he is earning a reputation as a truth-telling boat-rocker, unafraid to call to mind inconvenient truths that many outside the Church and some inside would prefer to ignore. On no issue has he been more candid and challenging than that of immigration.

In a remarkable July 28 address entitled “Immigration and the ‘Next America’: Perspectives from our History” to Catholics in Napa, California, he described his frustration over the immigration debate. “It seems like most people have made up their minds already on this issue” and that “we are just talking round the edges of the real issues.” The real issues are more than just border security, green cards, and what to do with immigrants in our country illegally. It concerns what America is, has been and will become. “Both sides of the argument,” he recognized, “are inspired by a beautiful, patriotric idea of America’s history and values,” but lately he’s been “starting to wonder: What America are we really talking about?” If there’s a great divergence about what America’s true history and values are, not even “patriotism” will unite any longer.

“America is changing,” he noted forthrightly, “and it has been changing for a long time. The forces of globalization are changing our economy and forcing us to rethink the scope and purpose of our government. Threats from outside enemies are changing our sense of national sovereignty. America is changing on the inside, too. Our culture is changing. We have a legal structure that allows, and even pays for, the killing of babies in the womb. Our courts and legislatures are redefining the natural institutions of marriage and the family. We have an elite culture — in government, the media and academia — that is openly hostile to religious faith. America is becoming a fundamentally different country. It is time for all of us to recognize this — no matter what our position is on the political issue of immigration.”

Because of this vast disparity of opinion among Americans on the dignity owed every human person, the value of marriage and family, and whether religious faith is good or evil, there is an enormous division over what to do with immigrants here illegally. Do we view illegal immigrants as dehumanized “criminaliens” or as fellow human beings, even brothers and sisters, whom no caring sibling would ever push to have deported to a situation of deprivation? Do we seek to keep families together in a time of confusion or do we do as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency did in the 2007 Bianco raid in New Bedford, flying parents to holding cells in Texas while their soon-to-be-traumatized-and-practically-orphaned kids remained in school in New Bedford? Do we value the deep Christian faith and piety of the vast majority of immigrants or do we view it with hostility? “We have to bring a Catholic faith perspective to this debate about immigration,” Archbishop Gomez declared. “We cannot just think about this issue as Democrats or Republicans or as liberals or conservatives. That means we have to listen to the teachings of our Church on this issue.”

He also said that we have to acquire a deeper Catholic perspective on “America’s history and purposes” with regard to immigration. When we do, he said, we will recognize not only that “immigration is not a problem for America” but is the “key to our American renewal.”

“One of the problems we have today,” he said in the most provocative part of his talk, “is that we have lost the sense of America’s national ‘story.’ If our people know our history at all, what they know is incomplete. And when we don’t know the whole story, we end up with the wrong assumptions about American identity and culture. The American story that most of us know is set in New England. It’s the story of the pilgrims and the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving, and John Winthrop’s sermon about a ‘city upon a hill.’ It’s the story of great men like Washington, Jefferson and Madison. It’s the story of great documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It’s a beautiful story. It’s also true. Every American should know these characters and the ideals and principles they fought for. From this story we learn that our American identity and culture are rooted in essentially Christian beliefs about the dignity of the human person.”

“But,” he continued, “the story of the founding fathers and the truths they held to be self-evident is not the whole story about America. The rest of the story starts more than a century before the pilgrims. It starts in the 1520s in Florida and in the 1540s here in California. It is the story not of colonial settlement and political and economic opportunity. It’s the story of exploration and evangelization. This story is not Anglo-Protestant but Hispanic-Catholic. It is centered not in New England but in Nueva España — New Spain — at opposite corners of the continent. From this story we learn that before this land had a name its inhabitants were being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The people of this land were called Christians before they were called Americans. And they were called this name in the Spanish, French and English tongues. From this history, we learn that long before the Boston Tea Party, Catholic missionaries were celebrating the holy Mass on the soil of this continent. Catholics founded America’s oldest settlement, in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. Immigrant missionaries were naming this continent’s rivers and mountains and territories for saints, sacraments and articles of the faith.…  This is the missing piece of American history. And today more than ever, we need to know this heritage of holiness and service — especially as American Catholics.”

Archbishop Gomez was not trying to argue that Blessed Junipero Serra, Venerable Antonio Margil, Father Jacques Marquette and Mother Joseph should supplant Washington, Madison, Jefferson and Franklin in American history books, but rather he wanted to acknowledge — and get all Americans to acknowledge — that what the former did and established is crucial to understand not only how the nation we are today was formed but one of the factors that led it to become great. The genesis of the United States today was not constructed exclusively on the foundations of the thirteen colonies.

America was founded not on ethnicity or common territory but on a creed, a deeply Christian belief that all men and women are created equal, with God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Los Angeles prelate stressed. Our country has always been a “nation of nationalities,” made one out of many (e pluribus unum). When this American creed is taken for granted — as happened with the native Americans at the birth of the nation, with the Know-Nothings in the mid-1800s, and with the Japanese-American internments during World War II — and we begin to believe that the “‘real Americans’ are exclusively of some particular race, class, religion or ethnic background,” we damage our country. “That’s why it is essential that today we remember the missionary history of America — and rededicate ourselves to the vision of America’s founding ‘creed.’”

American Catholics, he said, have a “special duty today to be guardians of the truth about the American spirit and our national identity” as well as to be “witnesses to a new king of American patriotism,” one that challenges those who “would diminish or ‘downsize’ America’s true identity.” That American patriotic identity is expressed perhaps most forcefully and beautifully by Emma Lazarus’ unforgettable words chiseled at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The torch that Lady Liberty lifts high must continue to burn brightly for our country to be true to itself and to be renewed. Archbishop Gomez is prophetically calling on all Catholic Americans to join him in carrying that torch aloft. 

Printed with permission from The Anchor, newspaper for the Diocese of Fall River, Mass.

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