By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published May 28, 2009
Patriotism is a deeply religious virtue! Religious symbols seem to mix easily with the flags of most nations. This past Monday a national civic holiday was the occasion for many folks to pause and to pray for our country and especially for those who have given their lives in defense of our freedom. I was privileged to celebrate Mass at the Canton National Cemetery, one of the newest military cemeteries where many brave men and women who have served in the military services are interred. It was a natural fit to offer Mass in this sacred place and to ask Almighty God to be merciful to all those buried therein.
Our nation has a long heritage of making room in its public arena for the religious beliefs of all its citizens. This concession has not always been warmly greeted recently, as some people have taken exception to the presence and expression of religious values as part of our national heritage. Yet our nation’s earliest documents reference the faith of our pioneers and founders.
We Catholics have an important contribution to make to this our nation. Not only have Catholics fought and died in every war and conflict of this nation, we have been engaged in the congresses and legislative bodies that have enacted the laws and policies of our country. We have a right and an obligation to share in the debates that are a legacy and a privilege of the free people of our country. Occasionally, our voices may likely challenge the prevailing opinions of our fellow citizens—so be it! Our religious heritage enriches this country and our moral vision has much to offer to all of the people of this land. We should proudly remind our society of the importance of the dignity of all human life, the sanctity of the family and the principles of moral living that so often are portrayed as old-fashioned and outdated.
On the evening of Memorial Day, I celebrated Mass for some of the inmates at the Fulton County Jail. I try to visit our local prisons regularly to remind the inmates, staff and volunteers that even those serving a sentence for a criminal act belong to the Church. I am most edified to be accompanied on all of my visits by wonderful laity who share in the ministry to those who are in prisons. These virtuous people realize that Christ Himself can be found among those who are in jail—He Himself said so. Each time I visit one of these institutions, I am struck by the young age of most of those who are in jail. Those young men and women have made a terrible mistake in their lives, and for many of them they will spend a good portion of their young adult lives behind bars.
On Monday evening, I met a young man who identified himself as a graduate of our schools—both grammar and high school. I was stunned. How could a young person who had benefited from a Catholic education end up in prison? Where and how had we failed him? Then I remembered what we all know too well—our youngsters are subject to many forces and influences well beyond their home and church communities.
As I left the jail, I was determined to remind us all of the importance of keeping our Catholic voices active in the public debates and discussions that take place in our society. We have much to offer and a great deal to lose if we remain silent.