“Freedom Isn’t Free…You gotta pay a price...You gotta sacrifice...for your liberty” – words from a song spread by an international group of young people called “Up With People.” They’ve been traveling around the world singing and spreading the message for 50 years, and I am reminded of this song as once again our holiday nears.
It’s July 4, 1967. I’m a student at CUA in Washington DC. At our Mass the priest uses an excerpt from my brother’s letter from Vietnam. Weeks later I visit him, wounded, in Andrews Air Force Base Hospital.
It’s August 1976, our Bicentennial year. I’m in Philadelphia for the 41st Eucharistic Congress, attending Mass at JFK Stadium sitting next to a man from Bangladesh, and surrounded by Catholics from around the world, making us aware of their hungers for freedom of religion, for justice, for peace, for life itself in repressive countries from which many of them come. I can barely make out a tiny blue and white figure near the platform for the altar, and I know it is Mother Teresa. That’s as close as I get!
It’s July 19, 1986, Cuernavaca, Mexico. I’m in the cathedral with several other Benedictine Sisters from around the USA. We silently pray for the rest of the group carrying a large banner in a parade celebrating Nicaragua’s independence under the Sandinista government, after overthrowing Somoza. His terrorist troops have reunited; now call themselves “contras.” Our banner reads, “Benedictines for Peace Oppose Aid to the Contras.” Remember the Iran-Contra scandal? The Nicaraguans celebrate their hard earned freedom on this day. It’s threatened by US aid to the contras.
It’s July 1, 1989, Paris, France. I’m touring with a group of high school students. It’s the centennial of the Eiffel Tower which is lit up: “100 ANS.” (for the tower) The French are celebrating the independence that began with the storming of the Bastille on July 13, 1789, their bicentennial. We can see the outline on the ground where the Bastille had been, gilded gates through which executioners took the unfortunate prisoners doomed for the guillotine. We are told that it took 100 acrobats to build the Eiffel Tower; every seven years it is repainted by acrobatic painters to protect it from rust. The French treasure their freedom.
It’s June 20, 1990, Vienna, Austria. Two teachers and I had taken a tram to see the Belvedere palace. An elderly woman gets off with us. She overheard, and understood, our conversation on the ride, and is eager to tell us to be sure to visit the red marble room in the palace. This was the scene of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty by the foreign ministries of Great Britain, France, USSR and USA on May 15, 1955 with Austria, officially ending World War II and the subsequent 10 year occupation by the four Allied Powers. Austria had been annexed by Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II. (Remember “The Sound of Music?”) She very proudly shows us the entrance way and proceeds to tell us of her feelings while her country was occupied and then freed again after ten years. It is touching. She points out to us on the map all sorts of wonderful places to visit after the Belvedere.
It’s July 1, 2013. I’m concluding my Jubilee trip with my three sisters and we have to catch a plane in Montreal, Canada. We come across a parade downtown featuring the Royal Mounties. They are celebrating the passage of the British North American Act, establishing Canada as a self-governing entity within the British Empire in 1867, and their Independence Day.
Then on July 29, 2014 my two Vietnam war veteran Marine brothers stand, holding the folded American flag presented to them at the funeral of our youngest brother, while the poignant melody of “Taps” resounds outside the entrance to the church. They had been ready to pay the price, for “Freedom isn’t free, …you gotta pay the price,… you gotta sacrifice,… for your liberty…
Were these occasions coincidental? I have much to think about on this Independence Day 2015.
Sr. Mary Carol Hellmann, OSB