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.
Thomas Wong is a young professional in Washington, D.C.
Last week a friend and I were watching football together and we started talking about how unprecedented of a year 2016 has been. At that moment it seemed like anything was possible—the Cubs were headed to the World Series, a feat that last happened in 1945! My friend even joked that maybe the Bears would win the Super Bowl! Well the Cubs have won the World Series, first time since 1908, and the Bears still look dubious for the Super Bowl. There are countless examples of how different this year has been, but none more so than our current presidential election. This long and winding election will finally be over and our Facebook newsfeeds will return to their usual mix of cat photos and recipe videos. During this election cycle I have often been asked by a lot of my friends what a Catholic is supposed to do. Some people have made up their minds completely independent of the magisterium of the Church, while others have decided to completely remove themselves in the process by not voting.
As faithful Catholics, participating in our electoral system requires a formation of conscience. It demands that one know and understand the different issues and the Church's teachings of various issues. It is not something that can be broken down into a simple check box format, but demands an understanding of the teachings of the Church. In response to this situation, the bishops of the United States have written a pastoral letter, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship outlining several key teachings that are important to today's political climate. We at the Catholic Apostolate Center have created a special portal dedicated to this document. I highly recommend visiting the page and exploring its various topics. Exploring these issues and positions is critical to making an informed decision. The document goes into detail regarding the very nature of Catholic involvement in our politics. This process includes a formation of oneself both as an apostle and a citizen. A few months ago, Bishop Robert W. McElroy, Bishop of San Diego, wrote about this formation. Saying "It is for this reason that the central foundation for an ethic of discipleship in voting for the Catholic community in the United States today lies not in the embrace of any one issue or set of issues but rather in a process of spiritual and moral conversion about the very nature of politics itself."
The other common thing I hear from some people is that "so many people vote, mine can’t possibly matter." These individuals are choosing not to participate in their right to vote as a citizen of this country. Everyone has that right to not participate, but before making this decision there are things to consider. One should remember that the Church encourages our participation. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington expanded on this further last week in a column in The Catholic Standard discussing Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship "Civic participation is not a simple task for faithful citizens It requires a willingness to listen to Catholic social teaching, and then conscientiously apply it to the political sphere. We must pray for guidance in our civic choices so as to uphold the dignity of all life and the common good. We must learn about the issues and where candidates stand. We must vote in recognition of the important contribution that every voice makes on Election Day, and we must remain engaged to build a civilization of justice, peace and caring for one another.
Tonight, we should know the results of the election and a portion of the country will be disappointed. Whoever is elected will have the enormous task of unifying this country and moving forward. That task will not be an easy one, but is possible. One only needs to look at the example Pope Francis gave last week in Sweden. He traveled there to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and spoke of the hope for reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans: “We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” Catholics in the United States are also called to similarly work hard to build bridges to our neighbors. I have no doubt that this country will unify but it will take understanding, prayer, and time.
Pat Fricchione is the Research and Production Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center.