A pastoral approach when Sunday and the civic holiday converge
July 4, 2021, is the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and it is also Independence Day. As Catholics, we will assemble to celebrate the Eucharist to keep the Lord’s Day holy. As Americans, we will join with citizens throughout the nation marking the anniversary of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence.
An important pastoral question to consider in advance of the summer holiday is the appropriate observance of this particular Sunday with a fitting possible commemoration of a significant civil anniversary.
The liturgical reform agenda of the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) breathed with the theological impulses brought forward from the half-century-plus liturgical movement that preceded it. The progressive reforms of the liturgical calendar during that same period gave renewed emphasis to the place and observance of Sunday.
Thus the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy proposed: “By a tradition handed down from the apostles which took its origin from the very day of Christ’s resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day; with good reason this, then, bears the name of the Lord’s day or Sunday. For on this day Christ’s faithful are bound to come together into one place so that; by hearing the word of God and taking part in the eucharist, they may call to mind the passion, the resurrection and the glorification of the Lord Jesus, and may thank God who ‘has begotten them again, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto a living hope’ (1 Pt 1:3). Hence the Lord’s day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the piety of the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year” (No. 106).
The theological and liturgical character and weight of Sunday, “the original feast day,” is firmly established in the modern reform of the liturgical calendar following the Vatican II. The 1969 Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and on the Calendar repeats the instruction on Sunday in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and further declares: “Because of its special importance, the celebration of Sunday gives way only to Solemnities and Feasts of the Lord; indeed, the Sundays of Advent, Lent and Easter have precedence over all Feasts of the Lord and over all Solemnities. In fact, Solemnities occurring on these Sundays are transferred to the following Monday unless they occur on Palm Sunday or on Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection” (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, No. 5).
Sunday, July 4, 2021, is thus to be celebrated above all as a Sunday. This is a Sunday, however, during Ordinary Time. The Universal Norms further explain that Sundays during this period, without prejudice to the distinctive character of the Sundays during other times of the liturgical year and their focus on a particular aspect of the mystery of Christ, celebrate the mystery of Christ recalled in its fullness (cf. Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, No. 43).
Civil Observances in the Roman Missal
While the nature and place of Sunday are clear from the above instruction of the Church, the Roman Missal itself provides some indications when civil observances can be incorporated into the celebration of the sacred liturgy. The Proper Calendar for the Dioceses in the United States of America includes two such observances. The first is for July 4, Independence Day, when it falls on a weekday. The second is for the fourth Thursday of November, Thanksgiving Day. Independence Day has several options for the prayers to be used.
The Roman Missal texts for each of these observances have been crafted to anchor the civil observance in the saving mystery of Christ. With the additional consideration of the Word of God proclaimed on these two occasions, it becomes clear that Christ is the Savior of the world, in whose image we seek to live (cf. Preface, Independence Day II, Roman Missal). Likewise, “in Jesus, through his Death and Resurrection, we find our ultimate redemption, freedom from sin, and every blessing” (Preface, Thanksgiving Day, Roman Missal).
A review of the liturgical and possible biblical texts for Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day, as well as the great variety of texts in the liturgical books for the Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions for Civil Needs, makes the case that civil observances and civil needs have a place in the celebration of the sacred mysteries.
Sunday, July 4, 2021
The starting point for pastoral preparation for Sunday, July 4, 2021, is the careful review of all the given texts for the day in the liturgical books. This includes the euchology — the formulary of prayers — the chants for the entrance and Communion, the presidential prayers, the choice for the preface of the Eucharistic prayer, the Eucharistic prayer, the solemn blessing or prayer over the people — and the biblical texts for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Some of the euchology is proper to the Fourteenth Sunday and it is the Sunday cycle B readings for the sacred Scriptures. All of these texts taken together manifest “the mystery of Christ recalled in its fullness” on this particular Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Combing through the Roman Missal texts, several phrases from the entrance, the collect, the prayer over the offerings, the Communion, and the prayer after Communion, offer theological ideas flowing out of the mystery of Christ that both underscore and resonate with authentic civil independence, a freedom for the Christian that has its origin in God. “Your right hand is filled with justice (the entrance).” “For those you have rescued from slavery to sin, you bestow eternal gladness (the collect).” “Day by day bring our conduct closer to the life of heaven (the prayer over the offerings).” “Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you (the Communion).” “Grant … we may gain the prize of salvation and never cease to praise you (the prayer after Communion).”
Each of these excerpted phrases points in some way to the experience of Christian freedom. This freedom is a satisfying obedience to God that then is evidenced in right relationships with others. The other parts of the euchology that have options — the choice of the preface of the Eucharistic prayer, the Eucharistic prayer itself, the solemn blessing or prayer over the people — can then be selected for their echo of similar theological ideas.
The biblical readings in the Lectionary for Mass for this Sunday come from the Prophet Ezekiel, Psalm 123, the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel. All are familiar and easily accessible. Like the euchology, these biblical tests likewise can be heard within the context of Christian freedom as the framework for grasping more completely civil independence. This type of independence continues to shape the contribution of the Christian to society.
As is often the case during Ordinary Time, the first reading anticipates the Gospel. Both readings highlight the role of the prophet — Ezekiel and the Lord — who is frequently resisted for an unacceptable message. The apostle quotes the Lord in the face of his trial and difficulty. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). The responsorial psalm and the verse before the Gospel give reassurance to those who are faithful — seeking to live in the freedom of the children of God — that God is with all in the struggle. “Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy” (the response for the psalm). “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (the verse before the Gospel). Christian freedom is the foundation of civil independence and often requires a stand that is at odds with others. This posture is frequently isolating and seeks the protective guidance of the Lord.
More deliberately on Independence Day an intention in the universal prayer should be directed to ongoing thanks and protection of our American freedoms. The hymn at the end of Mass, which has no specific liturgical requirements, can also be an opportunity to focus on God’s blessing on our country on this civil holiday.
The task at hand for the priest celebrant and homilist on Sunday, July 4, 2021, is to keep Sunday as Sunday, and at the same time to recognize that this Sunday is the principal civil holiday for almost everyone in the liturgical assembly. If the preparations and preaching for this Sunday Eucharist begin with Christ and his mystery, then the necessary and important connections will be made between Christian freedom and the observance of Independence Day.
FATHER DENNIS GILL is rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia and the director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Pope Francis’ Visit to Independence Hall
Pope Francis, visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Sept. 26, 2015, spoke on religious freedom:
“Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. …
“Our rich religious traditions seek to offer meaning and direction, ‘they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and heart’ (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 256). They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.”