I spent last Saturday afternoon with my hands in the dirt.  My wife and I just bought a house in town, near where I work and where we worship.  It’s about a hundred years old and needs some attention, but it’s got good bones, as they say.  The level yard drops off steeply to the sidewalk, and one section of the slope is bare soil and vulnerable to eroding spring rains.  With my 5 year-old daughter Franny tagging along, I spent a few hours on the hill raking dirt over grass seed and fertilizer, and then tacked down some biodegradable erosion-control matting and gave it a good soaking with the hose.

Our neighborhood has significant pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks, so as we worked, Franny and I met lots of neighbors.  A few homeless folks with backpacks responded to my hellos as they ambled by. A disabled married couple from the Victorian-turned-apartment building next door introduced themselves and complimented my landscaping efforts.  “Beautiful day,” I called. “We’ve earned it,” they responded, happy as red-breasted robins that spring had arrived. Franny watched shyly as a trio of older girls strolled and chatted. We met a lady who lives a block south.  She walked down the street picking up candy wrappers and aluminum cans. We helped a minute. A couple walked by glistening with sweat; the lady jokingly complained they’d been walking all day. I laughed back, “It’s good for you; it’ll keep you out of the doctor’s office.”  She responded with a smile, “That’s what he says,” elbowing her companion. I met the unassuming Good Samaritan – a 60-something mechanic who lives with his wife across the street – who cleared my lengthy sidewalk in the big April blizzard. We traded phone numbers and promises of mutual help for those two-man jobs around the house.

As faithful citizens, we must ask ourselves:  Do we love our countrymen, unfiltered, in the flesh?

Faithful citizenship requires bonds of loyalty and affection not just between a citizen and his or her country (a virtue we call patriotism, a “daughter-virtue” of piety), but, as importantly, faithful citizenship requires that such ties of affection exist between citizens themselves.  It’s what the Roman statesman Cicero and his Greek predecessors called “civic friendship,” a theme developed by Pope Leo XIII. Pope Pius XI speaks of “social charity,” Bl. Pope Paul VI of a “civilization of love,” and Pope St. Paul John Paul II of “solidarity.”

Each of these terms drives at a simple point: love for our countrymen – as a real, lived experience of affection for and civic friendship with those in our communities – is a necessary condition for a healthy social and political order.  It’s the first public thing, and it’s a requisite brick in the foundation for all public things (in Latin, “Res publica” – hence the name of our form of government). It’s the first forum in which we act for the common good, the proper aim of all politics.

And it’s something everyone can choose to do.

– published in the West River Catholic, May 2018