Today marks the beginning of a special confluence of our civil and liturgical calendars, a time to prayerfully reflect on and celebrate our religious freedom as Americans and as Catholics. The second annual Fortnight for Freedom begins today and concludes on July 4, two weeks during which our Catholic liturgical calendar celebrates great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power and our civil calendar marks Independence Day, a day when all Americans celebrate their freedom.
At a time when religious freedom is threatened in our nation and around the world, the U.S. Catholic bishops first proposed and commemorated the Fortnight for Freedom last year to highlight the importance of religious liberty, the First Freedom in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Dioceses across the country celebrated two special weeks of prayer, study, catechesis and public action, culminating in a Mass that I celebrated on July 4 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where we offered prayers of thanks to God for the blessing of our nation’s heritage of religious freedom.
This summer’s Fortnight for Freedom begins with a Mass today at 7 p.m. at Baltimore’s historic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
I invite you to join me once again this year at the closing Mass of the Fortnight on July 4 at noon at the National Shrine in Washington.
The need for prayer, education and action in defense of religious freedom is all the more urgent this summer. In the coming days, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its rulings in cases involving the possible redefinition of marriage, and on Aug. 1, the Obama administration’s ”HHS mandate” is scheduled to go into effect for most religious non-profits, a measure that first of all gives the government the power to define religious ministries and also would force Catholic institutions to violate Church teaching on the dignity of all human life in order to provide health insurance coverage for their employees.
In early 2012, I joined other American bishops at an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, when he warned of “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.” He said that U.S. bishops had told him of a troubling pattern by some civil leaders, “to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”
Those prophetic words show what is at stake with the HHS mandate and other measures and trends in our culture.
As faithful Catholics and as loyal Americans, we can learn from the witness of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. Both of these English saints displayed devotion to their faith and love for their country, even to the point of martyrdom. Saint John Fisher, a bishop, and Saint Thomas More, a layman, were beheaded by King Henry VIII a fortnight apart from each other in 1535 because they professed their loyalty to their Catholic faith and opposed the king’s remarriage and his declaring himself as the head of the Church of England.
This bishop and layman show us that defending our religious freedom is the work of all of us – bishops and priests whose role is to teach, to lead and to sanctify their flock, and the laity whose task is the evangelization and sanctification of the temporal order. They showed what it means to act prayerfully in defense of our God-given freedom to believe in and live by the teachings of our faith.
Our religious freedom is part of our DNA as Americans and as Catholics. During this Fortnight for Freedom, let us pray together, let us learn about our religious freedom and let us act to defend our First Freedom, our “most cherished liberty.” As our nation’s bishops have noted, we are Americans and Catholics, proud to be both, “grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens.”