E Pluribus Unum: Can We Americans Sustain Our Founding Motto?
By Father Bruce Nieli, C.S.P.
In 1894, a six year old boy from Menfi, Sicily, Melchiore Nieli, in the company of his mother Grazia, on a ship destined for Ellis Island, jubilantly threw his hat into the Atlantic Ocean upon seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. He was thrilled to have escaped the poverty of his native village and behold the symbol of the land of hope. He would later fulfill a dream by opening a hardware store along with his little son Anthony (my father) in Merrick, Long Island, New York, and donate the shovel for the groundbreaking of Cure of Ars Church, perhaps the first parish named for Saint John Vianney following his 1925 canonization.
One of the glories of the world's great religions has been the support given throughout history to immigrants and refugees. The Hebrew Scriptures are forthright: "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you" (Leviticus 19:34). Pope John Paul II, in his powerful Apostolic Exhortation promulgated in January, 1999, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, The Church in America, gives contemporary voice to this solidarity by quoting from the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops: "The Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration."
The United States of America is at this writing embroiled in an identity threatening conflict over the issue of immigration, and especially, in the Pope's phrase, "non-legal immigration." Many immigrants and refugees fear deportation in an increasingly hostile American environment. It is the opinion of this writer that to a great extent the source of this conflict is the hesitancy on the part of many, perhaps due to complacency, reserve, or even fear, to truly get to know persons culturally different from themselves, to deeply enter into their aspirations, struggles, and life experiences. Who are these immigrants as persons? Saint Paul the Apostle could serve as a master teacher in this regard: "I have become all things to all people" (1 Corinthians 9:22). The crisis over immigration is, sadly, yet another manifestation of the profound polarization we are experiencing as a people. It reflects one more challenge to our founding motto e pluribus unum, "out of many, one."
In 1776 our fledgling country was struggling to form itself as one nation from thirteen diversely populated colonies. The Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to create a seal and motto for the newly declared United States of America, and the motto they came up with was the Latin e pluribus unum. To this day one can see this phrase on the ribbon carried in the beak of the bald eagle within the Great Seal of the United States on the reverse side of the one dollar bill. We were to be a sovereign union of sovereign States, "out of many, one."
Our country was therefore rooted in a philosophy; in fact we were to live out as a people the great philosophical problem of all time—that of the one and the many, unity amidst diversity. In terms of population, this translates into "how do I maintain my own identity while being open to the values, beliefs, and cultures of others?" "How can I be a free person while living in community?" How can we as a people truly be a veritable multicultural beacon of freedom and providential "light to the nations?" This has been for us historically a lifelong and painful struggle, but in an authentic way America has become that beacon and light, the planet's cultural barometer, inviting the world to send us, in the words of Emma Lazarus' famous poem, its "tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free." But will that invitation continue?
It is my conviction that Catholic Americans have a providential opportunity to bring our people together and renew our e pluribus unum identity. With our incredible human diversity and mystical unity, we Catholics are an e pluribus unum Church with a mission to rebuild an e pluribus unum America. "From California to the New York island,""from sea to shining sea," the United States cries out for a spirituality of e pluribus unum, a guiding light and permeating force to root us historically yet open us up globally.
Catholicism can provide for America such a spirituality by becoming, in the words of Servant of God Isaac Hecker, a "North Star"of the Spirit. Our Table of the Eucharist could serve as Dr. Martin Luther King's "table of brotherhood." In our parishes, schools, institutions, and societies, we can be bridge-builders for our people, facilitators of intercultural bonding and neighborhood intercommunion. As our Catholic bishops have pointed out, we can help our people really get to know persons of diverse backgrounds and become instruments of reconciliation and channels of mutual understanding. We can become both truly human and truly holy by reaching out to the rich diversity of our population.
A similar claim was made early in our American history by the influential Alexis de Tocqueville. In his seminal work, Democracy in America (1835), de Tocqueville states, "These Catholics show great fidelity in the practices of their worship and are full of ardor and zeal for their beliefs; nevertheless they form the most republican and democratic class there is in the United States; (Catholicism) likes to intermingle all classes of society at the foot of the same altar, as they are intermingled in the eyes of God." Later on in that century, the aforementioned Isaac Hecker, Paulist founder, would claim that his contact with "all classes" of persons in America would draw him to Catholicism and to his eventual belief that "in the union of Catholic faith, and American civilization," there would result "a future for the Church brighter than any past." Thomas Merton, recently cited by the Dalai Lama as a major influence in his spiritual journey ("Many Faiths, One Truth," NY Times Op-Ed, Tuesday, May 25, 2010), relates in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain that it was precisely the great diversity of ages, genders, and classes prayerfully participating in the first Mass he ever attended, at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan, that prompted him to seek initiation into Catholicism.
It was, in fact, in Manhattan, during my participation in the recovery of bodies at Ground Zero, in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, that a spirituality of e pluribus unum really hit me. On opposite ends of what had been the campus of the World Trade Center I was aware of two powerful icons: the steel beams joined in the form of a cross, retrieved from the rubble and planted at the site, and perhaps the earliest painting of our country's Great Seal, with e pluribus unum on the ribbon, above George Washington's pew in St. Paul's Chapel. I was reminded of Saint Paul's words: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and have all been made to drink of the one Spirit." (I Corinthians 12:13) It is from the cross of Christ that the living water of the Holy Spirit flows, turning a desert of hatred and despair into an oasis of love and hope, and transforming a divided nation into an "America united."
The Diocese of Memphis, like dioceses all over the country, is blessed with thousands of immigrant persons. Many, perhaps most, are undocumented. They share in our parish life and account for the largest participation in some of our liturgies and religious education classes. They do the landscaping, construction, poultry farming, nannying, hotel maintenance, restaurant servicing, and umpteen other activities not provided for by a retiring American labor force. I am graced to have so many as dear friends and coworkers in the vineyard. May we all share with them what Melchiore Nieli and so many like him came to enjoy— "a future brighter than any past."