When I lived in Thailand for several years, our apartment straddled two major roads in Bangkok. Besides the horrific traffic, this also meant that we were right in the middle of any major Thai holiday, many of which possess a very obvious Buddhist character.
Several times a year, often on weekends, our family breakfast would be interrupted by loud religious songs played on megaphones mounted on trucks, accompanied by the pounding of drums and banging of cymbals. Looking over our balcony, we would see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Thai Buddhists processing down our street.
It was a remarkable — if somewhat annoying — display of public piety and solidarity by the Thai people. We need more events like this in America, I told myself.
Of course, America has many public holidays that foster what I’ve elsewhere described as an important civic liturgy that binds the citizens of our nation together. Some remind us of our early history and founding (Thanksgiving and Independence Day); others of the sacrifice of our soldiers (Memorial Day and Veterans Day); and others of the heroism and brilliance of those intimately united to our shared history (Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Columbus Day). Our nation even celebrates some holidays of an explicit religious nature, like Christmas, although these have been more-or-less secularized for broader public participation.
The feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for “Body of Christ”), which the Catholic Church celebrates today, is also, although much less so, a part of a shared American experience. Immigrants from Catholic countries around the world have been celebrating this feast in America at least since the mid-nineteenth century, if not earlier (the city of Corpus Christi in Texas was settled in 1747).
Irish, Spanish, French, German, and Polish Catholic communities in the United States all have hallowed traditions honoring this feast, which includes a public procession of the faithful, the Eucharist held aloft for all to adore. If one pays careful attention while driving around any city or large town with a Catholic population, one is likely to see Corpus Christi celebrants today.
It would make little sense for the United States to adopt Corpus Christi as a national holiday given that its identity is tied to particular brand of Christianity, Catholicism (although it is honored by many predominantly Catholic nations). Indeed, even if one were to make an argument that America’s unique Christian heritage allows for honoring Christian holidays in the public square, many Protestants find the theology behind Corpus Christi disagreeable, if not blasphemous. All the same, there is good reason for Americans to encourage and, when appropriate, participate in such public displays of public piety.
Memorial events like Corpus Christi, whether they be explicitly Catholic, explicitly Protestant, or ecumenical, are confident in their movements in the public square. Corpus Christi processions draw the attention of passerby precisely because they are out of the ordinary. They remind people of faith, regardless of their affiliation, of their commitments to God.
When I was a Protestant and saw a Corpus Christi procession, I was intrigued, even if I disagreed with the theology behind the ceremony. Now as a Catholic, the event’s public nature bolsters my faith and inculcates a pride in a religious community willing to evince such courage.
These kinds of events also serve as a public, non-aggressive profession of faith. They declare something about Christianity without awkwardly knocking on doors or putting tracts in people’s hands. There is something interesting and even potentially provocative about a large group of people quietly and peaceably making a public statement about their beliefs. Like the presence of Jesus among the people, their very presence elicits a response.
Finally, public remembrances like Corpus Christi serve as an important foil to the ever-increasing high-profile events on the left. Pride parades are increasing in prominence and popularity across the United States. Those who criticize public festivals that celebrate various forms of sexual identity and behavior are met with ridicule or disdain, even by religious persons willing to acknowledge that pride parades are often defined by sexual libertinism, “self-indulgence and excessive individualism.” Solemn, respectful public acts of piety like Corpus Christi are all the more necessary in an America overwhelmed by anti-faith, anti-life protests by the Left.
When I commented to a Catholic priest there on the many public Thai Buddhist festivals that marched by my Bangkok apartment building, he nodded in recognition. “The Catholic Church in this country, and elsewhere, needs to be as public and proud of their religious holidays as the Buddhists are,” he commented.
In a nation like America that seems set to only become more secularized in the coming decades, public celebrations like Corpus Christi can remind the nation that although the Christian faithful may become a minority, we will be a vocal, proud minority. We aim to preserve our space in the public square, because we have just as much of a right to it as anyone else.
If you are a Catholic, I urge you to celebrate your local Corpus Christi procession. If you’re not, but you care about religious persons’ right to live and work in the public square, I urge you to at least lend your moral support to Corpus Christi. Or foster your own public religious celebrations. Declare to all who will listen that American men and women of faith are here, and we are not leaving.