As many of my readers know the Fortnight For Freedom wrapped up on July 4th, Independence Day here in the United States, in a mass held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, D.C. The usual teeny-tiny group of the shrill, formed by the heretical, bitter, and wrinkly, was apparently there, but to be honest I was not even aware of their presence until I saw the news reports later. This was partially due to the fact that an estimated 4,000+ people attended, which was particularly noteworthy for a scorchingly hot July day, not to mention the mass falling on a mid-week National holiday. In fact on the way to the event, I fell in with a group of people from Kentucky who were in town for the fireworks, but who wanted to come add their support to the bishops’ efforts.
Of the four bishops who spoke, each had a different role to play. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, as the host, was a welcoming figure, thanking everyone for their help in bringing about the event. He noted the presence of an overflow crowd, with all of the side aisles at standing room only, as well as the piazza and grounds outside the Basilica, and took particular time to thank the priests in attendance. And well he might, for I have not seen that many priests gathered together in one place here in the Nation’s Capital since the Papal Visit in 2008: the processions alone were so long that we ran out of verses to sing for both the opening and the closing hymns.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Papal Nuncio and therefore the personal representative of the Pope in Washington, brought a letter from the Vatican expressing Pope Benedict’s support for the Fortnight For Freedom as well as his bestowing Apostolic Blessing on those participating in it. In the letter, the Pope noted that the Fortnight had been a “symphony of prayer for the nation and its leaders,” reminding us that “freedom is not only a gift, but a summons to personal responsibility.” The Holy Father closed his letter by expressing his hope that those hearing his words would continue to bring the wisdom and insight of the Faith to the work of pursuing America’s highest moral principles.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was the homilist, and what an excellent, sobering, yet inspirational homily he gave us. Rather than reproduce the text of it – which you can read here – in piecemeal fashion in this post, I would recommend you read the entire thing yourself, even if you are not a Christian, taking careful note of the delicate thread of reason running through it. Truthfully, I had been expecting something perhaps a bit more strident, particularly since the Gospel reading chosen for the day was the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel about payment of the census tax to Caesar. This same passage provided both the touchstone and the title to Archbishop Chaput’s book “Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life”, which I had the privilege to discuss with him when I met and got to hang out with him a few years ago.
Instead, it became clear as I listened to his sermon that Archbishop Chaput was setting exactly the right tone by calling us to look elsewhere than human ends for our purpose. For Chaput’s role in this celebration, it seems to me, was to be one of reminding all of us of the big picture. Freedom comes from God, not from man, and no Caesar has the power to give it or take it away. The reason we must stand up for our religious freedom was not to score political points, but rather to defend our ability as Christians to individually and collectively deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ, as His disciples. As the Archbishop stated in his homily, we cannot share with others what we do not live joyfully ourselves.
I suspect that like many other people I was simply stunned into silence by the sermon, delivered in a gentle, pastoral way, and yet containing such wisdom and perspective on why we were all there in the first place. It took a good minute or so after Archbishop Chaput had finished speaking and began to return to his seat that a slow ripple, then a tidal wave, of applause and a standing ovation followed in the wake of what he had said. In his homily he had reminded us that our goal was eternal, and far more important than political parties or power. Normally I do not like hearing applause at mass, but in this case I must confess that I got caught up in it, for it was both a moment of witness to the truth, and also a teaching moment for all of us gathered there as to how we must look at our relationship to the world we live in.
At the conclusion of mass, it fell to Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to provide what some might call the “red meat” of the day. He noted that he had recently returned from a visit to Rome for the inauguration of a non-partisan organization known as the Observatory on Religious Liberty, founded by the Italian government to look at the state of religious freedom around the world. And as it turns out, the Observatory has selected the United States as their first case study, noting that if religious liberty can be threatened here, it can be threatened anywhere.
Archbishop Lori pointed out that the preservation of religious liberty needed the assistance of the laity. “We bishops are prepared to lead,” he affirmed, “but this is much bigger than the bishops.” He called for those present to carry on their advocacy for the preservation of our right to worship in a spirit of reason and charity. “The Fortnight For Freedom may be over, but the rigorous and unapologetic defense of our God-given right to our religious liberty is not.”
Of all that was said at this mass, clearly Archbishop Chaput’s words will have the longest and deepest impact on those who heard or read them. Yet once again what really impressed me, as has been the case with many large-scale Catholic events such as this one over the past decade, was the large number of people in attendance who grew up during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. These future leaders of the Church, whether as clergy, laity, or religious, are active, engaged, and all on the same page. From where I was sitting, the future of the Catholic Church in the United States at least is a younger, more exciting thing than what most pundits in the alleged mainstream media would like you to believe.
My American readers are well-aware of what a great blessing it is not to have our government directly entangled with the running of our religious institutions, as it is in many places of the world, from Saudi Arabia to Great Britain. That freedom, to practice a faith (or not) as we choose, is one of the foundation stones of our republic. The U.S. bishops, with the support of many religious leaders of other faiths and denominations, courageously decided to stand up together and draw the nation’s attention to this fact. In so doing they have not only reminded us where freedom actually comes from, and what the Christian Faith teaches us about our place in the world, but they have also provided an opportunity for us to once again see the future of the Catholic Church: a future which, whatever challenges lie ahead, is marked by the active participation of faith-filled young people, devoted to Christ.