Father Kenneth Doyle: Flags on the altar/The pope’s security detail

Q. Our parish is meeting in temporary quarters for Mass because we are building a new church. This place has the American flag and the Arkansas state flag flanking the altar. Should those flags be removed during the Mass? (Jonesboro, Arkansas)

A. Perhaps surprisingly, the Catholic Church has no binding regulation on the placement of flags within a church building — neither in the Code of Canon Law nor in any of its liturgical books. It is left to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, who most often leaves it to the discretion of the local pastor.

Having said that, it is true that the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has encouraged Catholic parishes not to place a national flag in the sanctuary itself and so, more often, it is displayed in a church’s vestibule. Underlying that suggestion is the fact that Catholics belong to a universal faith community that transcends national borders and that, as St. Paul tells the Philippians (3:20), our primary citizenship is in heaven.

This same thinking guides the placement of flags on a casket during a funeral Mass, and here there actually is a rule that governs. The Order of Christian Funerals provides that “any national flags or the flags or insignia of associations to which the deceased belonged are to be removed from the coffin at the entrance of the church. They may be replaced after the coffin has been taken from the church” (No. 132). During the Mass itself, a white funeral pall normally covers the casket as a symbol of the person’s baptism.

It sounds to me from your question, though, that you may be borrowing a Protestant worship space while your own new church is being built. If this is the case, I think that as a grateful guest I would be cautious about doing any “structural rearrangement” and might be tempted to leave the national and state flags just where they are.


Q. Who are the men protecting Pope Francis who are wearing suits and ties? Are they part of the Italian national police force, Swiss Guards or a private security firm? (They seem to protect the pope not only at the Vatican, but they travel with him on papal trips.) (Edison, New Jersey)

Pope Francis is pictured during an audience with Swiss Guard recruits and their family members in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican May 4. The audience was held two days in advance of the annual swearing-in of new guards. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

A. The men you see in suits and ties protecting the pope — especially on trips outside of Rome — come from a variety of security forces. The storied 500-year-old Swiss Guard, clad in colorful uniforms when they guard the entrances to the Vatican, also have armed plainclothes members who travel with the pontiff.

In addition, the Vatican has its own 130-member police force, the gendarme corps, who are assigned to accompany the pope. (Domenico Giani, the inspector general of this corps, is the pope’s personal bodyguard and is often seen off the front fender of the popemobile.) Also, on foreign visits, the host nation’s own security force — as per diplomatic protocol — is heavily involved in orchestrating the pope’s protection.

The difficulty comes in trying to balance security interests with a pope’s desire to minister in a personal way to his flock. Once, shortly after the 1981 attack on St. John Paul II’s life at an audience in St. Peter’s Square, I asked a Swiss Guard if there would be stricter security protocols in place going forward. The guard said, smiling but with a touch of frustration, “You can keep people away from the pope, but you’ll never be able to keep this pope away from the people.”

I saw this exemplified in 1995 when St. John Paul visited New York City. I had been charged with managing the movements of the “tight pool,” the handful of videographers and still photographers who were given close-up access at each of the papal sites, and so I had a U.S. Secret Service agent assigned to me.

When the pope came out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the plan had called for him to get into the popemobile and ride the one long block to the cardinal’s residence. Instead, St. John Paul decided to wade into the crowd on the sidewalk and began shaking hands. I said to the agent, “That must terrify you when he departs from the plan.” To my surprise, the agent said, “Actually, it’s the safest thing of all. If we don’t know what he’s going to do, then nobody else can know either.”

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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