At the end of a Memorial Day Mass, celebrated here as elsewhere throughout the United States, the celebrant waited at the back of the large tent set up at the cemetery to greet the many, many people who came to remember and to pray. A woman with tears in her eyes waited her turn, and then with a quiet voice tinged with sadness said, “I simply want to say thank you.” She went on to express her gratitude to the Church for speaking up for religious freedom. She commented, as if simply reflecting out loud, “My boy died in Iraq because he was defending America. The Church’s speaking up for freedom makes his loss just a little bit more bearable.” Then with a mother’s love she took the celebrant’s hand and said, “Please pray for my boy that he is now with God.”
At that Mass, the celebrant never spoke about religious freedom. He talked about death as that gateway through which each of us must someday pass and how 2,000 years ago, God sent his Son to teach us the truth about ourselves, our destiny, our death and the pledge of everlasting life.
It is precisely because of this belief that the Church has always honored, with great respect, the memory of the dead and why we have funeral Masses, Catholic cemeteries and Memorial Day commemorations.
There is, however, a natural connection between events like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, which both celebrate our freedom and honor those who paid the ultimate price for it, and contemporary efforts to preserve our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms here at home.
The Bill of Rights highlights a whole series of rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution. Not everybody is always happy with all of them. But they are there to protect all of us. History shows that some, particularly those in government, at times express the desire to have more control over our freedom.
Certainly there are those who find the burning of an American flag as a form of protest – the same flag in which we bury our dead when they are brought back home from defending our freedom – to be a particularly repugnant freedom but it is there and protected. You can go through the Bill of Rights and find something that somebody objects to about each and every one of them. But that doesn’t mean we do away with them or deny access to the exercise of that freedom.
In fact, we ask our young men and women in uniform to be prepared to die to defend all of those freedoms. Sometimes we even send those brave young people to faraway lands telling them that the defense of American freedom begins there.
Among the freedoms, in fact the one recognized as our first most cherished liberty, is the freedom of religion. As the bishops of the United States have underlined for us, “We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are 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. To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other. Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory, and should instead be complementary” (Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty by the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, April 12, 2012).
When there was a challenge to equal access to education in the United States, people went into court to end segregation in education. When there was a question about infringement of individuals’ right to personal freedom, freedom from unjust search and seizure or the denial of due process, people went into court. The lawsuits filed across the United States by dioceses and other religious entities, such as universities, hospitals, Catholic charities and social service ministries are part of the great American tradition, the great American heritage, the great American freedom of access to the courts. We count on the impartial and independent courts to protect us under the Constitution, to restrain government from overreaching its authority or abusing its powers.
The mother at the Memorial Mass had it right. While the loss of a loved one is always a great suffering, knowing that a son or daughter or parent or spouse or loved one died in defense of American freedom does make the loss just a little bit more bearable.