[Note: The following is paid advertising on behalf of the Fortnight to Freedom campaign of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.]
On his visit to the U.S., Pope Francis encouraged us to nurture, promote, and defend the precious gift of religious freedom. To this end, 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.
The Fortnight for Freedom runs from June 21 (the vigil of the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher) to July 4 (when we celebrate our national Independence Day). I will celebrate the opening Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, MD.
The closing Mass takes place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington will celebrate, and Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh will serve as homilist.
The theme for this year’s Fortnight is “Witnesses to Freedom.” The Conference is lifting up for reflection the stories of 14 women and men—one for each day—who bear witness to freedom in Christ, such as Oscar Romero, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Martyrs of Compiègne, and the Coptic Christians who were killed by ISIS last year.
We are also working with Stonyhurst College in England to coordinate a U.S. tour of relics of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, two exemplary Christians who bore witness to freedom in the face of a government that sought to violate the conscience rights of its citizens.
Reflecting on the lives of these great men and women can show us how we might serve as witnesses to freedom today.
They love their country, yet this love does not surpass their love for and devotion to Christ and his Church. It is remarkable to see the witness of so many martyrs throughout the history of the Church who love the land and people of their birth, even as they are being persecuted.
We can emulate this in our work today to promote religious freedom in the U.S., as it is of a piece with our efforts to contribute to the good of all Americans. We are dedicated to protecting and building up civil society precisely so that we—and so many others—may remain free to provide education, to care for the sick, the poor, and the migrant.
Indeed, to yield in the face of challenges to religious institutions today would show a wavering love for our country and a weakening in our resolve to serve the common good.
And so we see that these witnesses are also dedicated to service. They show us that what is important is not simply that we have rights, but that we exercise them responsibly and out of love for others. This can take many forms.
Like Thomas More, John Fisher, or Edith Stein, we may find ourselves at the forefront of culture. Or, we might serve those who are oppressed and marginalized, as Ven. Henriette Delille did. In every situation, we are called to be missionary disciples, people who follow Christ and serve the world.
And if following that call means that we are occasionally at odds with the government or the ambient culture, we can be assured that the power of the Holy Spirit will buoy us in times of trouble.
The witnesses remind us as well that the struggle for religious freedom is not new. In the history of the Church, both globally and in the United States, religious freedom disputes have arisen frequently.
Our challenges did not begin with a particular government regulation or Supreme Court decision; they began instead when our capacity for knowing the truth and loving the good were damaged in the Fall. All people overstep their bounds from time to time, and the people who establish and run governments are no different.
In short, by pondering the lives of these exemplary Christian witnesses, we can learn much of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in today’s challenging world.
We pray that over these two weeks, the grace of God will help us to grow in wisdom, courage, and love, that we too might be faithful witnesses to freedom.