Hey, Father! Where can the American flag be placed in church?

Why do we not have an American flag in our church? We are “one nation, under God.”  We sing patriotic songs on July 4, etc., but the flag of our great nation is nowhere to be seen. 

– Nancy in our diocese

The practice of placing the national flag somewhere inside churches seems to be an American custom. In my travels, I cannot recall seeing a national flag in the churches I have visited in Italy, Scotland, England, Spain, Turkey, Greece, or Australia; I have only seen a national flag in some churches in the United States of America.

Neither the General Instruction of the Roman Missal – which governs the celebration of the Mass and certain aspects of churches – nor the Code of Canon Law addresses the topic of flags within churches, presumably because such a practice is unforeseen by the Bishop of Rome. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, has provided some guidance on the placement of flags within churches:

The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the Church together with a book of prayer requests. It remains, however, for the diocesan bishop to determine regulations in this matter.

Why might this be?

The sanctuary is meant to be a representation of the heavenly Jerusalem and, ideally, represents in various means the worship given to God by the angels and saints, that same worship and life to which we aspire and for which we long. Just as in the life to come, there will be no marrying, neither will there be any national differences among humanity (cf. Matthew 22:30; Galatians 3:28). Consequently, nothing representing national boundaries has a place within the sanctuary because it is not – and will not be – part of the heavenly Jerusalem.

That said, it is permissible to display flags in the vestibule or parish hall, or some other such space, at the discretion of the pastor, unless the local bishop determines otherwise. So far as I know, none of the bishops of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois has issued a policy on the displaying of flags in parish buildings. The displaying of flags outside of the sanctuary is a possibility, but it is nowhere required.

Fr. Daren Zehnle is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.