Piety: Honoring America This July Fourth With Your Family

COMMENTARY: As we honor America this year, there are several things we can do to honor the institution of our country. First, we can go to Mass with our families.

Gratitude for the blessings of our nation is a form of piety
Gratitude for the blessings of our nation is a form of piety (photo: Unsplash)

The rising full moon, glowing golden in the twilight, was accented by the fireworks shooting off across the lake. The children sat with full bellies crowded on the dock “oooing” and “ahhing” while the adults stood behind, chatting and laughing. The fireworks continued as the sky darkened while the children played tag in the yard. It was the middle of summer, and they were excited to be out past dark. 

While this sounds like a normal end to a celebration of the Fourth of July, it was also an act of the virtue of piety, a moral act in which we honor our country for all that we have received from it. 

As American Catholics, we should be mindful of the debt we owe our country and exercise piety as we mark the day that the Second Continental Congress declared our independence from Great Britain.

Most of us associate the word piety with the saint kneeling reverently at church, hands together in prayer. However, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the act of reverently praying is not piety, but the virtue of religion. Religion is giving to God what we own him in justice, while piety is the justice and honor we show toward our parents and country. St. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way: “Just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 101, 1). The worship we give to our country is ultimately directed toward God, who is the Creator and sustainer of all things.

St. Thomas explains that we first receive our existence from God, and secondarily from our parents and our country. From our parents we receive life and nourishment, but they could never give us these things if we had not been born into a community and a nation that created a society in which we can be raised and educated. Piety is a subvirtue under the cardinal virtue of justice. In some cases, justice is a paying back of what is due to another, such as a fair exchange of money for goods or a punishment that makes true reparation for a crime. Piety toward our country falls into the category of justice, which involves a debt that can never be repaid, just like we owe to God, our parents and our teachers.

While we can never full repay our country for all she has given us, we can strive to live out the gratitude we owe in our celebration of our Independence Day. There are three categories that we can focus on this year with our families in our celebrations. We should show piety toward the institution of America, which has a generally just foundation of laws and preserves our freedoms to pursue lives of holiness and material needs. We ought to show piety toward our country in the land in which we live, where we experience beauty of God’s creation and from which we receive natural resources for food, shelter and clothing. Lastly, we should have piety toward the people of our country who came before us — the Native Americans whose ancestors came here first, those who established our nation, and our own direct ancestors.

As we honor America this year, there are several things we can do to honor the institution of our country. First, we can go to Mass with our families. This year the 4th of July falls on a Sunday, but even when it falls on a weekday, most parishes have a special Mass time and prayers specifically for the United States.

 At Mass we can pray for our nation to be sanctified through conversion to a deeper love of God and knowledge of moral truths. Another way to show honor is to visit a local historic site and learn about the history of your area. 

My family has enjoyed visiting Fort Snelling near our home in St. Paul, which is run by the Minnesota Historical Society. They run an event every Independence Day where we learn about the first settlers in our area. Another way to honor the day in a Catholic way is to read the Declaration of Independence aloud and discuss the importance of the rights it stood for and ways in which our country needs to improve. 

The traditional cookout and fireworks display with friends and family can also be an act of piety. We can make it specifically Catholic by saying a prayer together at our picnic, but also by just having an intention to honor our country with gratitude. Make the patriotic dessert. Put up your American flag. Put on the music. And thank your country for the freedom we have within her borders and the nourishment you have received from her. 

Another way to show piety this Fourth of July is to show reverence toward the land itself. In the beginning, God gave the land and all his creatures to humans for us to protect and from which to draw our sustenance. When we go to Mass this Independence Day, we can pray for protection of the natural beauty of our country and prudent use of our natural resources. If you are able, take time to encounter the beauty of God in nature by visiting a park — even seek out a state park, national park or national monument.

 If you cannot get to such a park on the Fourth, discuss a plan to visit one in the future or talk about your memories of a past trip. My family has taken three trips to see national parks in the West. The road trips through multiple states and hikes in preserved national parks where we observe the beauty of varying terrains and biomes has led us to appreciate the extensive beauty of America more fully. 

More importantly, we have encountered the presence of God in the stunning views and communion with nature, for all his creation has potential to direct us to our Creator.

The third place in which we can express piety toward our country is through remembering and honoring those who came before us. At Mass on Independence Day, pray for the souls of those who lived here before us: our direct ancestors, the Native Americans, all of the immigrants who came and struggled to survive in a new land, and those who fought and worked for the preservation of our country. When my family visited Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde last month, we prayed for the souls of those who lived and died in the dwellings we toured. As you gather with your family and friends, talk about those who came before you. 

Learn about and tell stories of the Native Americans who lived here first and stories of how your family came to America. Tell about the founding of our nation and those who fought and died so that we could have this nation where we struggle to protect the rights of all and treat all equally. Express gratitude for their sacrifices. We would not be here now if they had not given up much for those who came after. 

Happy Fourth of July, and may God Bless America!

Dr. John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, discusses religious freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 16, 2013.

Catholic University’s John Garvey (Sept. 25)

Catholic University of America’s president has announced he is stepping down at the end of the school year. John Garvey’s time at the university has widely been recognized as a period of strengthening Catholic identity and shoring up the academic offerings in the Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition. His work has paid off: student retention has increased and fundraising goals have been topped at record levels. President John Garvey joins us today to tell his story about not only about building up a university but about falling in love with Catholic U.