Remembering Who We Are As Catholics and Americans

Today, Catholics from all backgrounds and all walks of life gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., for the closing Mass of the Fortnight for Freedom. I had the privilege of celebrating that Mass, and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput delivered the homily.

I can think of no better way for us to have ended our nationwide Fortnight for Freedom than to stand together, and pray together, in thanksgiving for our God-given gift of religious freedom, enshrined as the “First Freedom” in our U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

At each Mass, we remember and celebrate who we are as Catholics. We gather around the table of the Lord to receive the gift of the Eucharist, just as the Apostles gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper. The Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ suffering, death on the cross and resurrection is made real to us, here and now, and then we go out to the world to share that gift of Jesus’ new life and his love. That new life in Christ, that living out of our faith, is reflected not only in our worship and in our personal acts of charity, but in our Church’s educational, health care and social outreach. Those works, those acts of faith, are threatened whenever our religious freedom is eroded.

On July 4, we also mark Independence Day, our nation’s birthday, a special day to remember and celebrate who we are as Americans. We remember that on July 4, 1776, our founding document, our Declaration of Independence, was written.  Here in our nation’s capital, we can visit the National Archives and see this remarkable document, which includes the unforgettable phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

From the beginning of our nation, the founding fathers recognized our equality and liberty, and that those rights are bestowed on us by God.

After the nation’s bicentennial, a monument to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence was dedicated near the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool. Carved in stone are replicas of each signature, along with the signer’s name, occupation and home town and state. These men represented all walks of life and backgrounds. They were lawyers, merchants, physicians, plantation owners and surveyors. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania was a printer and scientist. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Marylander and the only Catholic signer of the Declaration, was a merchant and plantation owner. Lyman Hall of Georgia was a physician and Congregationalist minister.

Those signers professed many different faiths. They were Catholic, Congregationalist, Deist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Quaker and Unitarian.  From many different backgrounds, representing many religions, they stood united for liberty.

It is no wonder that when America gained her independence and when the founders gathered to draft the Constitution, that the “First Freedom” in the Bill of Rights guaranteed religious freedom to all Americans, no matter what their background, no matter what their religion. For those who signed the Declaration of Independence and then drafted the Constitution, religious freedom was central to who they were as Americans. They put their names, and their lives, on the line to guarantee that right, not only for themselves and their fellow patriots, but for all the generations of Americans to come.

Knowing that God has blessed us with the gift of religious freedom, to worship and live out our faith according to our consciences, we have prayed together and stood together from June 21 to July 4 for the Fortnight for Freedom. At a time when religious freedom is threatened in our land we, like our nation’s founders, must stand together to protect our religious liberty, which is part of our birthright as Americans.

After this Fortnight for Freedom, we must continue to remember and to celebrate who we are, as Catholics and as Americans, proud to be both, and united in our commitment to protect our religious freedom not only for ourselves, but for future generations. With the courage of those intrepid signers of the Declaration of Independence, let us stand together for our “First Freedom.”