As we get ready to celebrate another 4th of July, another Independence Day, Peggy Noonan has offered us a reminder of what it means to be an American, and it involves a story about Brooklyn and a priest:
I was at a wake for an old family friend named Anthony Coppola, a retired security guard who’d been my uncle Johnny’s best friend from childhood. All the old neighborhood people were there from Clinton Avenue and from other streets in Brooklyn, and Anthony’s sisters Tessie and Angie and Gloria invited a priest in to say some prayers. About a hundred of us sat in chairs in a little side chapel in the funeral home.
The priest, a jolly young man with a full face and thick black hair, said he was new in the parish, from South America. He made a humorous, offhand reference to the fact that he was talking to longtime Americans who’d been here for ages. This made the friends and family of Anthony Coppola look at each other and smile. We were Italian, Irish, everything else. Our parents had been the first Americans born here, or our grandparents had. We had all grown up with two things, a burly conviction that we were American and an inner knowledge that we were also something else. I think we experienced this as a plus, a double gift, though I don’t remember anyone saying that. When Anthony’s mother or her friend, my grandmother, talked about Italy or Ireland, they called it “the old country.” Which suggested there was a new one, and that we were new in it.
But this young priest, this new immigrant, he looked at us and thought we were from the Mayflower. As far as he was concerned–as far as he could tell–we were old Yankee stock. We were the establishment. As the pitcher in “Bang the Drum Slowly” says, “This handed me a laugh.”
This is the way it goes in America. You start as the Outsider and wind up the Insider, or at least being viewed as such by the newest Outsiders. We are a nation of still-startling social fluidity. Anyone can become “American,” but they have to want to first.
I suspect a lot of us — more and more of us, in fact — know priests like that. Priests who came from somewhere else to live the faith here, and are now mastering the intricacies of the mass and the sacraments in a new and alien language, but in a place that has always been glittering with promise: America. Bless them.
And yes: God bless America.