Here’s a Challenge for Catholics on the Fourth of July

COMMENTARY: Celebrate this Independence Day with both gusto and solemnity.

Independence Day was always a special day in our family.
Independence Day was always a special day in our family. (photo: Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock)

I love the Fourth of July. It’s a day of great celebration in this country but without many of the attendant family or liturgical obligations that characterize other holidays.  

It’s summertime, school’s out, families and individuals are on vacation, and roughly one-quarter of our military population are moving on to their next duty stations, be it to Japan, Italy, Texas, Hawaii or Grand Forks, North Dakota, which was my first duty station.  

Independence Day was always a special day in our family. Not only because my parents loved this country, but also because my father’s birthday was July 3. His birthday was considered a movable feast in our house, meaning we usually co-celebrated it on July 4. The candles and cake-cutting were done after the town parade and cookout, but before the evening sparklers and fireworks display. When my dad was a kid, his birthday must have seemed to him like the “Trooping of the Colour” in England, which includes much pomp and circumstance to mark the monarch’s birthday. 

I remember the great Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. That summer I was 10 years old. I couldn’t quite figure out why that Fourth of July was any more special than the one the year before. When you’re 10 years old, 200 years is indistinguishable from two weeks. Both are “a really long time ago.”  

As we approach our nation’s Semiquincentennial in 2026, to me, weeks and even years now have a way of flying by too fast. Strange how that happens. 

The Fourth of July has another significant meaning to me, for it was on that day back in 2000 that I reported to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, to go through officer training and become a chaplain in the United States Air Force. It seems like a lifetime ago. Yet, it seems like yesterday.  

Since joining the Air Force, I have had four combat deployments to the Middle East and one full year of “armistice” on the Korean peninsula. Of my four Middle East deployments, three of them started in the fall and ended in the spring of the following year. Those were the “Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year” deployments.  

While I missed being around my family or friends at those times, I certainly felt like I was at the right place and at the right time for my fellow servicemembers, who were likewise away from their families — many for the first time, and many who had spouses and young children missing them at home.  

My fourth and final deployment was from the spring until the fall of 2008 and it was to Afghanistan. That was the “Easter, Fourth of July, Labor Day” deployment. On the Fourth of July, while the cooks in the dining tents served the traditional menu of hot dogs, hamburgers and corn on the cob, it was the Taliban who provided the “rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air” that night. It was a pretty scary time. I presume our nation’s founders felt the same way back in their day. 

That was the deployment where my mission was to cover 15 smaller outposts spread across a vast, ungoverned area. To get to each location I had to fly by helicopter, but only when it was safe from bad weather or enemy fire. I would often get stuck at a base for a week at a time because the copters weren’t able to get back to my location.  

When I finally made it out to one particular base in the hinterlands, a soldier met me at the landing zone and said to me, “Father, I’m sure glad to see you. We haven’t had a priest here in three months.” But I knew what he really meant was, “We haven’t received the Eucharist or confession in three months.” While I was there, I heard numerous confessions and we celebrated some of the most meaningful Masses of my life. I presume those soldiers felt the same way. 

I encourage you to celebrate this Independence Day with both gusto and solemnity. You might even go to Mass. After all, it is an optional memorial in the U.S. Plus, you may want to give thanks to God that you can do so freely in our country, and that your priest doesn’t just come around once every three months. 

But I will also leave you with this challenge: If you have a relative serving in the armed forces, politely write your bishop and ask him if he is willing to release “just one priest,” or perhaps, “just one more priest” to minister in the military so that your son or daughter, your brother or sister, who’s in a remote and possibly dangerous location, won’t have to wait three months in between Masses.  

From the opening prayer for Mass on Independence Day, we read: 

“Father of all nations and ages, we recall the day when our country claimed its place among the family of nations; for what has been achieved we give you thanks, for the work that still remains we ask your help, and as you have called us from many peoples to be one nation, grant that, under your providence, our country may share your blessings with all the peoples of the earth.”  

Amen. Happy Fourth! 



Father James Hamel is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and an active duty chaplain as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He is currently the command chaplain at Pacific Air Forces, headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii.