Our country’s national anthem hails the United States as the “land of the free” in recognition of the many unique liberties and “inalienable rights” afforded to us, her citizens. One of these great gifts is the freedom of religious expression, that is, to be able to live out one’s faith without fear of persecution. Yet, recent times have seemed to cast a shadow over this right, and events of our time such as legal rulings and portrayals in the media would indicate that such freedoms are being curtailed. Throughout his visit to the U.S., Pope Francis encouraged us to nurture, promote, and defend the precious gift of religious freedom. Likewise, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has continued to encourage Catholics, other Christians, and all people of good will to set aside two weeks to reflect on religious freedom.
By the time this post is published, the Fortnight for Freedom will be concluding, having been started on June 21, the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. As Donald Cardinal Wuerl describes it, the Fortnight comprises of “fourteen days of prayer, education, and action. It is also a time for us to count our blessings… The challenge to live out our faith, the challenge simply to be who we are may at times seem daunting. But remember we’re a people of hope, we live in faith and we live in hope.” The theme for this year’s Fortnight is “Witnesses to Freedom.” As Archbishop William Lori noted, the USCCB invites us to look to the examples set in “the stories of fourteen women and men— one for each day— who bore witness to freedom in Christ, such as Bl. Oscar Romero, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Martyrs of Compiègne, and the Coptic Christians who were killed by ISIS last year.”
Each year, dioceses around the country arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. To kick off the fourth annual Fortnight, for example, Archbishop William Lori celebrated the opening Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Each year, the closing Mass takes place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. with Donald Cardinal Wuerl being the main celebrant and Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh serving as homilist. The Fortnight for Freedom reflects an understanding of the People of God that the right of religious expression must be protected against those who would negate it, not just for Catholics, but for people of all faiths.
As the Second Vatican Council noted, although we must respect the just autonomy of the secular, we also remember the truth that there is no aspect of worldly affairs that can be separated from God. On the eve of the first Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, acknowledged that the effort was viewed by many as partisan and exaggerated. He commented:
It is not about parties, candidates or elections, as some others have suggested… In the face of this resistance, it may be tempting to get discouraged, to second-guess the effort, to soft-pedal our message. But instead, these things should prompt us to do exactly the opposite, for they show us how very great is the need for our teaching, both in our culture and even in our own church.
In standing up for our right to religious liberty, let us make prayer a central component of our efforts—prayer not only for ourselves, but for the leaders of our country and its citizens whom we are called to evangelize. These freedoms handed down to us by the Founding Fathers are too important to take for granted. Efforts to scrub any reference to God or the faiths of those who built up this great Nation must be called out and overcome. Finally, throughout it all (and beyond the two weeks), each of us must remember that our strength does not come from ourselves, but that “help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2). May these two weeks, by the grace of God, help us to grow in wisdom, courage, and love, that we too might be faithful witnesses to freedom.
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