By Mark Schmidt
Director of Respect Life/Social Justice
In 2012 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom released a document titled: “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” In it the bishops designated June 21 to July 4 as a “Fortnight for Freedom” to focus on the promotion of religious liberty at home and abroad. It begins with the vigil of the Feasts of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, martyrs executed by Henry VIII during the English Reformation, and ends on Independence Day, a day recognized by our nation as a pivotal moment in history when a people stood up for rights such as religious, economic and political liberty.
Unfortunately, even though our nation codified religious freedom early on in law, there are moments when that freedom is attacked and threatened. “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” presents a list of some examples of threats to religious liberty in the United States. Among these infringements are the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring employers to provide artificial contraception to employees; criminalization of churches and parishioners who provide the necessities of human life to undocumented immigrants; and attempts to require faith based organizations providing care to refugees and migrants to refer clients for abortion and contraceptive services. This list is certainly not exhaustive. It is important to note that religious liberty is not solely infringed upon here at home and the persecutions abroad are often far more terrible. Abroad Christians are being martyred by the thousands in Iraq and Syria by Daesh (ISIS). Muslims are being slaughtered by Christians in the Central African Republic. And people of all faiths are under persecution in states like China and North Korea.
As Catholics we remember that our faith was born into a society of persecution. Christ was crucified by a Roman overlord. The first Christians in the early church huddled together in underground catacombs for Mass and to bury their dead, snuck out at night to gather in houses of believers and faced martyrdom rather than relinquish their salvation to the state. Even over the course of the history of the United States there have been waves of anti-Catholicism against our faith. Still the Gospel message of Christ has not been defeated and neither has his church.
In the face of attacks on our religious freedom it would be easy to become bitter, angry or give in to hatred. However, this is not the Catholic way; it is not the way of Christ. Pope Francis, while visiting Philadelphia, stated: “it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
This is why we participate in a Fortnight for Freedom. As Catholics we recognize the importance of prayer, fasting and personal public witness. We are reminded of this in the Gospel of Mark when a demon is too difficult for the Apostles to drive out but seems easy for Christ. When pressed why he was able to drive out the demon when the Apostles had failed, Christ replies, “This kind can only come out through prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29) We cannot underestimate the power and importance of prayer.
Prayer and fasting helps us transform our own selves to be more like Christ and to remain steadfast in the face of challenges to our faith. It disposes us to God, the author of love, so that we are more readily able and willing to love even those who seek to persecute us. “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) It is a way that we may “Take care then that your light not become darkness” (Luke 11:35), that we do not become bitter and resort to retaliation or return persecution with persecution. As such, in growing closer to Christ, and sharing his love with all, we help to evangelize the faith that we seek to defend and in doing so bring others to Christ by our example. “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:16)
Let us then seek to engage in the world around us through dialogue, respect for the dignity of others’ chosen faith and work to end attacks on religious freedom. And let us pray the prayer for religious liberty that ends the document “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”:
Almighty God, Father of all nations, For freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus (Gal 5:1). We praise and bless you for the gift of religious liberty, the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good. Grant to our leaders the wisdom to protect and promote our liberties; By your grace may we have the courage to defend them, for ourselves and for all those who live in this blessed land. We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness, and in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, with whom you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Next week we will discuss a few saints from history and their experiences being persecuted for their faith. For more information on Fortnight for Freedom go to the USCCB website at http://www.fortnight4freedom.org/.
Schmidt is the director of Respect Life and Social Justice for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.