Popes and Saints Against Nationalism

By Chris Sparks

[W]e need to clarify the essential difference between an unhealthy form of nationalism, which teaches contempt for other nations or cultures, and patriotism, which is a proper love of one's country — Pope St. John Paul II, Oct. 5, 1995 (Feast of then-Bl. Faustina Kowalska).

The Marian Fathers’ Congregation and charism was made for these times.

It’s amazing. Their Founder, St. Stanislaus Papczynski (1631-1701), lived during a time of pandemic, invasion, early death, a shortage of parish priests — sound familiar?

And the Order would thrive for a time before nearly succumbing to a Russian onslaught, the oppressive policies of the tsarist regime almost driving the Congregation of Marian Fathers out of existence.

But then came the Renovator, Bl. George Matulaitis (1871-1927). Among his many achievements was the writing of his Journal, a treasury of spiritual wisdom and Catholic faith lived in the face of overwhelming odds. During his time serving as bishop of Vilnius, helping reconstruct the diocese and see his flock through the turmoil of the end of World War I, all while he trying to lead the renascent Marian Fathers, he recorded his thoughts, his works, and his many challenges.

Taking sides
One of those challenges was nationalism among the clergy. The borders of nations surrounding Vilnius were in flux for much of Bl. George’s time as bishop, making it incredibly challenging to maintain the independence and the services of the Church to all, even as one day the Polish army is in charge, and the Red Army the next. Different priests of the Diocese of Vilnius took different sides, meaning that Bl. George’s Journal entries for most of 1919 often deal with the question of nationalism, a topic being discussed more and more broadly these days.

For instance, Bl. George wrote:

Some priests think that they can get the people to board the nationalist wagon and then drive them into the Church that way. But in most cases, the wagon falls apart and does not bring the people into the Church. It is better to get into the Catholic wagon in the first place and drive straight to Church (entry of Feb. 19, 1919).

There speaks a man with his priorities in order. Indeed, Bl. George’s stance is farsighted, anticipating the strong teachings of the popes in the coming decades as the world confronted the rise of the most violent and dangerous sorts of nationalism imaginable.

Consider, for example, the words of Pope Pius XI:

The Church founded by the Redeemer is one, the same for all races and all nations. Beneath her dome, as beneath the vault of heaven, there is but one country for all nations and tongues; there is room for the development of every quality, advantage, task and vocation which God the Creator and Savior has allotted to individuals as well as to ethnical communities. … Whoever tampers with that unity and that indivisibility wrenches from the Spouse of Christ one of the diadems with which God Himself crowned her; he subjects a divine structure, which stands on eternal foundations, to criticism and transformation by architects whom the Father of Heaven never authorized to interfere — encyclical letter Mit Brennender Sorge, 18; see also 10, 11.

God of all nations
Strong words. Strong teaching for the Church in Germany in the 1930s, setting the stage for the extensive teaching of Pope Ven. Pius XII’s “On the Unity of Human Society” (Summi Pontificatus, 1939) and “On the Mystical Body of Christ” (Mystici Corporis, 1943). Those taught that God is a God of all nations, not of one, and so all nations, races, and peoples may equally find their home in the Church. Why? Because all come from the common family that goes back to Adam and Eve, as Humani Generis (1950) authoritatively taught.

Does this mean that any sort of love of nation is wrong? No! Saint John Paul II explained:

[W]e know that the fear of "difference", especially when it expresses itself in a narrow and exclusive nationalism which denies any rights to "the other", can lead to a true nightmare of violence and terror. … True patriotism never seeks to advance the well-being of one's own nation at the expense of others. For in the end this would harm one's own nation as well: doing wrong damages both aggressor and victim. Nationalism, particularly in its most radical forms, is thus the antithesis of true patriotism, and today we must ensure that extreme nationalism does not continue to give rise to new forms of the aberrations of totalitarianism. This is a commitment which also holds true, obviously, in cases where religion itself is made the basis of nationalism, as unfortunately happens in certain manifestations of so-called "fundamentalism" — address to the United Nations.

Embrace patriotism

We are called, then, to patriotism, to love of country, of culture, of people, even as we also love our neighbors in other countries, other nations, and other peoples. Saint Faustina modeled this sort of patriotism throughout her Diary. She prayed for Poland with great fervor (see, for instance, Diary 32-33; 59-60), but she also prayed for a traditional oppressor of the Polish people:

December 16, [1936]. I have offered this day for Russia. I have offered all my sufferings and prayers for that poor country. After Holy Communion, Jesus said to me, I cannot suffer that country any longer. Do not tie my hands, My daughter. I understood that if it had not been for the prayers of souls that are pleasing to God, that whole nation would have already been reduced to nothingness. Oh, how I suffer for that nation which has banished God from its borders! (Diary, 818)

So let us oppose nationalism and embrace patriotism. Let us take up the Divine Mercy Chaplet to pray for mercy on our county and on the whole world. Let us love our neighbor, whether they are of our same nationality or no. And let us remember that our Catholic faith comes before partisan ideology of any sort.

Pray for me, that I may practice what I preach; I’ll pray for you.

Chris Sparks is the author of the Marian Press book How Can You Still Be Catholic? 50 Answers to a Good Question.


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