AMERICAN. . .CATHOLIC. . .PATRIOT.  The young man, stout, Latino, member of the Army Reserve and of our university’s Knights of Columbus chapter, wrote these three distinct words on the board. “We want our new members somehow to understand these three,” he explained. “How do we do that?

I thought of St. Augustine’s The City of God — just the thing, of course, but practically-speaking the academic equivalent of saying: “Go away, kid, you’re bothering me.” Then, it hit me:  Pope John Paul II.  Throughout Gift and Mystery, the pope’s wonderful little book describing his road to the priesthood, he talks about his early education as both a “Christian” and a “patriot.” Indeed, it is striking, given the rather low opinion many of our contemporaries have of the word “patriot,” how many times and how freely John Paul II uses the word. So, for example, in a particularly moving passage, Pope John Paul says this about his First Mass as a priest:

I celebrated my First Mass on All Souls Day … in the crypt of Saint Leonard … in Wawel Cathedral at Cracow….  I chose this place … in order to express my spiritual bonds with those buried in that Cathedral….  More than any other Polish church, Wawel Cathedral is full of historical and theological significance…. All who visit the Cathedral find themselves immersed in the nation’s history. This, then, was why I wanted to celebrate my first Masses [there]: I wanted to express my special spiritual bond with the history of Poland, a history symbolized by the hill of Wawel.

Blessed John Paul later describes the theological significance of that particular place, where so many of the key figures of Polish history are buried: it represented, he says, a living expression of the communion of saints.

All those whose mortal remains rest in the tombs of Wawel Cathedral lie there in expectation of the resurrection. The whole Cathedral thus seems to echo the words of the Apostles’ Creed: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.’ This truth of faith also sheds light on the history of the nation. All those people are ‘great spirits’ who led the nation through the ages. In their ranks are found not only sovereigns and their consorts, or Bishops and Cardinals, but also poets, great masters of language, who were extremely influential in my education as a Christian and a patriot [emphasis added].

It is noteworthy, of course, that Karol Wojtyla’s Polish patriotism in no way prevented his loving embrace of what is sometimes called “the global church.” Later in Gift and Mystery, John Paul describes his first trip to Rome in 1946 as a doctoral student and about getting the advice from one of his spiritual directors, Fr. Karol Kozlowski, to “learn Rome.”  “For those fortunate enough to study in the capital of Christendom,” his director told him, it was as important to “learn Rome itself as to study. (He wouldn’t have been the first student in Rome to have realized this; indeed, one wonders how students in Rome can study anything else.) 

Wojtyla took up the challenge eagerly. The young Polish priest stayed with the seminarians of the Belgian College and met priests from around the world. In particular, he says, he would stop often at the Jesuit church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale to visit the relics of the great Polish saint, Stanislaus Kostka, where he remembered that, among the visitors to the tomb of this distinctively Polish saint, “there were many seminarians from the Germanicum [the German seminary], easily recognizable by their characteristic red cassocks.”

A young Polish priest; the Belgian College; German seminarians visiting the relics of a Polish saint; and remember, this was 1946! The rubble from the Second World War still lay scattered in the streets. And yet there, in Rome, Wojtyla had a foretaste of a better world. There, “at the heart of Christendom, in the light of the saints,” says Pope John Paul, “people from different nations would come together, as if to foreshadow, beyond the tragic war … a world no longer divided.” 

Such a man — a distinctly Polish man — might have been forgiven for being wary of any outward expression of “national identity” or “patriotism,” especially among Germans. But he was not. Their distinctive national identity, as well as his own, was not something to be hidden, but embraced — corrected, in part, yes, but in the end, “taken up and preserved” by their unity within the soul of Christianity.

Thus, when my young friend asked how he could help his fellow students understand what it would mean to be an American, a Catholic, and a patriot, I suggested he read with them Pope John Paul’s very last book: Memory and Identity. If you read it yourself you’ll see that here was a man who knew everything about his country’s history and society: its political struggles, its great literature and art, its spiritual traditions, the distinctive ethos of its people. He knew its tragedies, as well as its triumphs. He had imbibed and thus embodied his country’s culture: its distinctive response to the fundamental questions of God and the meaning of life, and to that most fundamental question: How shall we live given the love we have been shown and to which we are being called?

On this Fourth of July weekend, its good to remind ourselves that when we know our own county’s history and culture and deep spiritual ethos as well as he knew his, neither excusing your country’s vices nor overestimating its virtues, and we can understand it all in light of the faith of the Church, then we will be on the path to understanding what it means to be an “American”, a “Catholic,” and a “patriot.”

“And after you’re done with that,” I told him finally as I headed out the door, “go read St. Augustine’s City of God.”

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.