By Sister Nancy Surma, OSF
I had a special Fourth of July celebration this year—I attended a naturalization ceremony. A friend of mine noticed that there was going to be one on the holiday and invited me along. I had never been at this event before, but I had seen pictures of happy new citizens many times in the newspaper or on TV. I jumped at the opportunity.
It was remarkable to be there in person. A large crowd of spectators gathered on a grassy field, some sitting under a big, white, open-sided tent while many sat on folding chairs in the sun. Those becoming citizens sat proudly in the front rows. From the start of the program, I felt a delight as the entire crowd loudly joined in singing our National Anthem, not leaving the singing up to the soloist.
There were a few short speeches by various officials, then we watched as those about to become citizens stood up as their country of origin was called, 96 persons from 52 countries, starting with Albania and ending with Vietnam. They came from countries as safe and familiar as Canada as well as countries torn by violence like South Sudan. I wondered what the story of each person was. Why did they leave their home? What joys and fears might they have known? What drove them to become a citizen of the United States?
Next the oath of citizenship was administered, a rather dry and legal affair which seemed in conflict with the joyful voices that dutifully repeated its many phrases. Then the children of the new Americans were called up on stage to face us and lead us with their youthful voices in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I learned that for those of them under 18 and born in the country of their parents, this ceremony made them citizens too. A few more speeches and then came the singing of America the Beautiful made memorable by the new citizens rhythmically waving the small American flags they received back and forth to the music. I had tears in my eyes.
That day made me realize for a change what I so often take for granted—the great gift it is to live in this country which we proudly proclaim is the “home of the brave and the land of the free.” These rights and opportunities which I received from my being born here are gifts many people in the world do not experience. My good fortune comes through an accident of birth, not a deliberate choice I had to make.
That day, I felt something akin to the gratitude I feel on Holy Saturday as I witness catechumens who have made a conscious decision to be received into the Church. That ritual helps me realize how fortunate I am that my parents made a decision to share their gift of faith when I was baptized as an infant. Being a Catholic and being an American were choices made for me before I could reason or speak. My hope is that I live a life worthy of both gifts now that I can make my own choice.