For Americans, the annual observance of the Fourth of July celebrates the independence of the United States. Our national story is made up of the varied lives and unique experiences of countless peoples who nonetheless share in seeking “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Each of these people is following his or her own American Dream, the achievement of which requires hard work, fortitude, and faith. As we celebrate and reflect upon our personal freedoms— long fought for and subsequently defended— we also acknowledge those peoples whose rights are continually imperiled or at risk of being curtailed by injustice. The United States by no means has a spotless record in establishing civil rights, but those efforts have raised up incredible heroes who sought to make the American Dream more accessible peacefully and justly. As Catholics, we especially thank God for His blessings on this land and for the preservation of our rights to bear witness to Him publicly as Americans.
Thanks to the efforts of French and Spanish missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholicism began to take root among the indigenous peoples of what would become the United States. As the fledgling country wouldn’t have an installed bishop until 1789, the American Church continued to grow during the first half of the 19th century thanks to the influx of Irish and German immigrants seeking the religious toleration which was becoming less and less abundant in Europe. Protestants were critical of these arrivals, declaring it was not possible to be a good American and Catholic at the same time (partly due to false beliefs spread about allegiance to the Roman pope). Thanks to the determination of these immigrants, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, by 1850 Roman Catholicism was the largest denomination in the United States.
Despite the political and cultural persecution American Catholics experienced, the ministries and loving charity of certain clergy and religious ensured that the needs of their fellow citizens were met. Figures like Mother Cabrini and Mother Seton founded religious communities that took care of the poor whom society all too often ignored. Mothers Drexel and Duchesne cared for Native Americans (as did Kateri Tekakwitha), African Americans, and women as they evangelized with the missionary spirit. Fr. Michael McGivney began a member-benefit society (which would become the Knights of Columbus) to care for the widows and families of Catholic male breadwinners who lost their lives. Isolated from the public square, the Catholics of this country nevertheless found a niche caring for other outcasts through a public witness that expressed faith as the catalyst for action. Doing so forced many observers to cease their suspicions and prejudices and helped normalize Catholicism in America. The examples of faithful religious continued to inspire Catholics in all walks of life to live out their faith freely. In recognition of their faithful witness of the Gospel, many of these brave citizens are now hailed as saints for universal veneration in the Church.
Today, secularism and the misrepresentation of civil rights threaten the very foundation of the society which Catholics have indisputably helped shape. Legal challenges are filed against religious symbols, schools, churches, and charities, supposedly for discriminatory actions or the preservation of the separation of church and state. American Catholics are often torn between publicly defending these institutions and their work or avoiding antagonization for speaking out. Nonetheless, the Church continues to meet the needs of the poor and the outcast in the same spirit of welcome the poet Emma Lazarus immortalized in the words of “The New Colossus,” which hangs in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
As Americans, we thank God for the gift of religious liberty and for those who continuously defend it. As Catholics, we pray for our leaders to be guided by the Holy Spirit to pursue justice and for those abroad who are still struggling for the basic rights and freedoms we enjoy. There is no shortage of opportunities around us to live and act as the saints before us. The American story continues with each of us; perhaps its future chapters will tell of the great love and commitment of countless citizens who welcomed the refugee, defended the unborn, cared for the disabled, accompanied the lonely and the imprisoned, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, promoted charity, and honored the dead. We have much to celebrate on July Fourth; may God always guide our nation in the ways of liberty and justice for all.
n the wake of the Holy Father’s first visit to the United States, the Catholic Apostolate Center would like to share some of our favorite quotes from his time here. This is a two-week series where we will share 10 quotes each week. We invite you to use these quotes and images as you “Move forward! Siempre adelante!” in your journey of faith.
1. “In prayer, God keeps calling us, opening our hearts to charity.”
Prayer is nothing more than lifting our hearts or minds to God. God, the Eternal Present, is at all times beckoning us towards deeper union with him. Pope Francis reminds us that the fruit of prayer is charity—selfless love. We cannot spend true time with God in prayer and remain untransformed by his charity. It is this encounter with Charity itself—with God—that impels us to respond with charity towards others.
2. “Joy springs from a grateful heart.”
As Christians, we are called to be a witnesses of Christ’s love and the Father’s mercy. Joy is the fruit of holiness, of unity with God. May we be joyful people of Resurrection whose light reflects the unquenchable light of God. Choose joy.
3. “Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, rejoice!”
As Pope Francis said in his homily during the Canonization Mass of Junipero Serra, St. Paul practically orders us to rejoice. What a beautiful “commandment.” What often strikes people, Christian or not, about Pope Francis is his joy. Pope Francis radiates the joy of the gospel. It is precisely this joy that he exudes which attracts so many to him. This joy comes from the Lord. Only by rejoicing in Him, will we be able to rejoice for Him and invite others into this joy.
4. “God bless America!”
This statement from Pope Francis throughout his visit is short but powerful. Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ, is calling down God’s blessings upon the American nation. In so doing, he is blessing our roads, our work, our families, our very existence. May we be a people of blessing. May we be a blessing to others—living signs of the ultimate blessing of God.
5. “If we want life, let us give life. If we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”
In his address to Congress, Pope Francis cited the Golden Rule as a solid foundation for promoting the common good. In our individualistic society, we often forget our vocation to promote the common good. It’s difficult to see how our actions impact others. Pope Francis reminds us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12)
6. “In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness.”
Our world is wrought with injustice, suffering and hardship. The seeming lack of logic regarding suffering leads many to reject the notion of a benevolent, loving and present Creator. Pope Francis spoke the words above to a group of homeless individuals at Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C. In doing so, Pope Francis does not try to excuse injustice or suffering, but affirms that God does not abandon us to face it alone.
7. “Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors, in the faces of those at our side.”
Oftentimes, it’s tempting to love humanity as a whole and become frustrated with people in particular. This could mean being short with our co-worker, impatient with a roommate or ignorant of the impoverished we pass by on the street. Pope Francis reminds us that Christ is present in each and every one of us. He is knocking on the door of our hearts, asking us to invite him in in the face of those we reject, overlook or avoid. Let us start by loving people in particular in order to love humanity as a whole.
8. “God is present in every one of you, in each one of us.”
Each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, which means that we all carry inherent dignity. Humanity’s status as the epitome of God’s creation means that we are called to treat others respectfully and be treated thus. By reminding ourselves not only that God is present within us, but in each one of us, we can begin to live according to our dignity and honor the dignity of every human life.
9. “Prayer makes us brothers and sisters.”
When we pray, we pray to the same Father. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus opened the doors of heaven to mankind after the Fall and enabled us to call God “our Father.” Because we are now made sons and daughters of God, when we pray, we join the whole of the Church. May we live as a family, as brothers and sisters striving to return to our true home with God our Father in heaven.
10. “Forward! Keep moving forward!”
As Christians, we are called to always move forward in our journey of faith, on our mission of love. Pope Francis reminds us that the way forward requires encountering Christ so that we may encounter him in others. Though our world oftentimes is filled with darkness, the Christian goes forward boldly towards the light of Christ. May we go forward each day in our pursuit of God himself, in our pursuit of holiness and love.