Archbishop John Ireland

Fortnight For Freedom: Archbishop John Ireland on Patriotism


fortnight for freedom 2016





Like most veterans of the Civil War, go here to read about his service, Archbishop John Ireland had a deep love of this nation.  The following is a speech on patriotism that he delivered to the New York Commandery of the Loyal League on April 4, 1894.  His speech is completely out of step with the popular sentiments of our day that tend to view patriotism, at best, with suspicion and that take for granted freedom hard won by the blood of prior generations.  I find myself much closer to agreement with the Archbishop than I do with the zeitgeist in which we find ourselves.



Patriotism is love of country, and loyalty to its life and weal—love tender and strong, tender as the love of son for mother, strong as the pillars of death; loyalty generous and disinterested, shrinking from no sacrifice, seeking no reward save country’s honor and country’s triumph.

  Patriotism! There is magic in the word. It is bliss to repeat it. Through ages the human race burnt the incense of admiration and reverence at the shrines of patriotism. The most beautiful pages of history are those which recount its deeds. Fireside tales, the outpourings of the memories of peoples, borrow from it their warmest glow.
Poets are sweetest when they re-echo its whisperings; orators are most potent when they thrill its chords to music.

Pagan nations were wrong when they made gods of their noblest patriots. But the error was the excess of a great truth, that heaven unites with earth in approving and blessing patriotism; that patriotism is one of earth’s highest virtues, worthy to have come down from the atmosphere of the skies.

  The exalted patriotism of the exiled Hebrew exhaled itself in a canticle of religion which Jehovah inspired, and which has been transmitted, as the inheritance of God’s people to the Christian Church:

“Upon the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, when we remembered Sion.—If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I do not remember thee, if I do not make Jerusalem the beginning of my joy.”

The human race pays homage to patriotism because of its supreme value. The value of patriotism to a people is above gold and precious stones, above commerce and industry, above citadels and warships. Patriotism is the vital spark of national honor; it is the fount of the nation’s prosperity, the shield of the nation’s safety. Take patriotism away, the nation’s soul has fled, bloom and beauty have vanished from the nation’s countenance.

The human race pays homage to patriotism because of its supreme loveliness. Patriotism goes out to what is among earth’s possessions the most precious, the first and best and dearest—country—and its effusion is the fragrant flowering of the purest and noblest sentiments of the heart.

Patriotism is innate in all men; the absence of it betokens a perversion of human nature; but it grows its full growth only where thoughts are elevated and heart-beatings are generous.

Next to God is country, and next to religion is patriotism. No praise goes beyond its deserts. It is sublime in its heroic oblation upon the field of battle. “Oh glorious is he,” exclaims in Homer the Trojan warrior, “who for his country falls!” It is sublime in the oft-repeated toil of dutiful citizenship. “Of all human doings,” writes Cicero, “none is more honorable and more estimable than to merit well of the commonwealth.”

Countries are of divine appointment. The Most High “divided the nations, separated the sons of Adam, and appointed the bounds of peoples.” The physical and moral necessities of God’s creatures are revelations of his will and laws. Man is born a social being. A condition of his existence and of his growth of mature age is the family. Nor does the family suffice to itself. A larger social organism is needed, into which families gather, so as to obtain from one another security to life and property and aid in the development of the faculties and powers with which nature has endowed the children of men.

The whole human race is too extensive and too diversified in interests to serve those ends: hence its subdivisions into countries or peoples. Countries have their providential limits—the waters of a sea, a mountain range, the lines of similarity of requirements or of methods of living. The limits widen in space according to the measure of the destinies which the great Ruler allots to peoples, and the importance of their parts in the mighty work of the cycles of years, the ever-advancing tide of humanity’s evolution.

The Lord is the God of nations because he is the God of men. No nation is born into life or vanishes back into nothingness without his bidding. I believe in the providence of God over countries as I believe in his wisdom and his love, and my patriotism to my country rises within my soul invested with the halo of my religion to my God.

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Quotes Suitable for Framing: John Ireland


Be ambitious, seek to elevate yourselves, to better your lot;  too often we are too easily satisfied.  When a man is poor, let him live in a hovel.  I esteem him;  at any moment I tend him the right hand of fellowship;  but if by labor, by energy, he can secure to his family comfort and respectability, and does not, then I despise him.

Father, later Archbishop, John Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day sermon, St. Paul, Minnesota 1865

Cardinal Gibbons and the Knights of Labor



This Labor Day I recall an episode in both the history of labor in the United States and in the history of the Catholic Church in America.  The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of labor strife, as businesses grew larger, the fruit of the ongoing Industrial Revolution, and workers fought for improvement of working conditions that by any standard were frequently abysmal.  Prior to the Civil War apologists for slavery often argued that the average slave in the South was better fed, better housed and better clothed than the average industrial worker in the North.  This of course overlooked the entire question of liberty, but there were enough terrible examples of wretched working conditions in the North to give the argument facile support.

Unions sprang up to represent workers.  One of the largest in its day was the Knights of Labor founded in 1868.  Successful in several large strikes, by 1886 the membership totaled 700,000, perhaps a majority of whom were Catholic.  In 1886 the Archbishop of Quebec condemned the Knights in Canada based upon the secrecy that attended the meetings of the organization and forbade Catholics to join it.

The American hierarchy voted 10 to 2 against condemning the Knights.  Archbishop James Gibbons was going to Rome in 1887 to receive his red hat as Pope Leo XIII had made him a Cardinal.  While there he took the opportunity to submit a lengthy letter in support of the Knights.  Although the letter bears the name of Gibbons, it was probably written by his friend Bishop John Ireland of Saint Paul, who had long been active in support of the rights of workers.  The letter did the trick and the Vatican announced that the Knights were not to be condemned.  The arguments made in the letter had an impact on Pope Leo XIII and helped lay the groundwork for his historic encyclical  Rerum Novarum (1891) in which he defended the rights of workers to organize to seek better working conditions.  Ironically the subject matter of the letter, the Knights of Labor, was in decline, too many of its strikes having involved violence which the leadership of the Knights condemned, but which tarnished the Knights in the eyes of the public.  The Knights would cease to operate as a labor union in 1900, newer unions taking the place of this pioneering organization.

The letter of Cardinal Gibbons stressed that Catholic workers in America who belonged to labor organizations were not hostile to the Church as often occurred in Europe where Unions were organized by Leftist and Anarchist groups.  In America most Americans supported the workers in their struggle to improve their lot, with both major political parties vying to pass legislation aiding workers.  In short, the letter explained American labor and political conditions to the Vatican and how these differed substantially from those existing in Europe.  The letter and the decision of the Vatican were good examples of effective communication between American ecclesiastics and Rome.  Here is the text of the letter: Continue reading

Father John Ireland and the Fifth Minnesota



One of the titans of the Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century in the United States was Archbishop John Ireland, the first Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota.  Future blog posts will cover his career as Archbishop.  This blog post is focused on his service during the Civil War.  Ordained a priest only a year, Father John Ireland at 24 in 1862 received permission of his bishop to join the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.  He joined the regiment immediately after the battle of Shiloh.

At the battle of Corinth on October 4, 1862 the Fifth Minnesota saved the day for the Union with a charge that stopped a Confederate breakthrough of the Union lines.  Running short on ammunition, the troops received additional cartridges from Chaplain Ireland who ran down the line dispensing ammunition.  When the fighting was over, the soldiers noted that their chaplain tirelessly tended the wounded and administered the Last Rites to soldiers whose wounds were beyond human aid.

The troops were very fond of their young priest and built him a portable altar from saplings.  His sermons were popular with the men, being direct, blunt and brief.  He was noted for his sunny disposition, quick wit  and his courage.  He was also an enthusiastic chess player, and would take on all comers in the evenings in camp.

Before battles he would hear the confessions of huge numbers of soldiers, with some Protestant soldiers often asking for admission to the Church.  He was always ready to pray with any soldiers no matter their religion, and give them what comfort he could in reminding them that God was ever at their side during their time of peril.  On one occasion he went to the side of an officer who had been shot and was bleeding to death and had asked for a chaplain.   the Archbishop recalled the scene decades after the War.   ‘Speak to me,’ he said, ‘of Jesus.’ He had been baptized — there was no time to talk of Church. I talked of the Savior, and of sorrow for sin. The memory of that scene has never been effaced from my mind. I have not doubted the salvation of that soul.”

Father Ireland was mustered out of service in March of 1863 due to ill-health, but he never forgot his time in the Union Army.  He was ever active in the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization,   and would write about his experiences as a combat chaplain.  Unlike most Catholics of his day, he was a firm Republican, the friend of Republican presidents including McKinley and Roosevelt, and never forgot why the Civil War had to be fought, as this statement by him regarding the rights of blacks indicates: Continue reading

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