Remaining Steadfast in Liberty and Our Gospel Mission
It was my great joy recently to celebrate Mass at the reconstructed Brick Chapel in Saint Mary’s City and on Saint Clement’s Island, where our Catholic ancestors first set foot on these shores in 1634. They had left England and travelled here precisely so that not only could Catholics live their faith without restraint, but others could as well.
The purposeful founding of colonial Maryland as the birthplace of religious freedom in our land in many respects anticipated the founding of our nation on the principle of liberty for all, which we celebrated last week. However, it is one thing to declare that we are a free country, to proclaim that we are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights – including religious liberty – and it is another thing to secure the blessings of freedom.
A few years after religious freedom was established in Maryland, that freedom was lost as those antagonistic to the Catholic Church seized power, closed the original Brick Chapel, and enacted measures essentially outlawing the practice of the Catholic faith. After a bright beginning, things looked bleak. Nevertheless, our Catholic forebears kept the faith, firm in their hope. Despite many harsh obstacles, the Catholic Church here overcame them and grew.
Similarly, within a few weeks of the Declaration of Independence, it looked as if all might be lost as New York City was captured by the British and General George Washington was forced to retreat again and again in order to preserve the American army. But as Thomas Paine wrote during that perilous time shortly before Christmas 1776, “Though the flame of liberty may sometimes cease to shine, the coal can never expire” (The Crisis, no. 1).
Certainly the flame kept burning in General Washington. While the British troops were superior in numbers, experience and materiel, the “Father of our country” had something more important – he was steadfast in his resolve. And because of his bold action at Trenton at the darkest hour, the American cause rallied and with that revitalized hope, freedom would eventually be won.
In observing the anniversaries of the establishment of our nation and of our local Church, we rejoice in those accomplishments but also remember that history shows that we cannot take it for granted that our rights and liberties, religious or otherwise, will be respected of their own accord. Instead, as the old adage says, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Freedom – including the freedom to fulfil the Gospel mission entrusted to us, to publicly live and proclaim the saving love of Jesus Christ – is something we must continually work for, and it is not always an easy task. Today, in the face of an aggressive secularism and occasional legal setbacks, we may be tempted to view it as an impossible mission. But Jesus never promised that our work would be easy. On the other hand, we know that in the Lord, we have hope and the power of his Spirit, including the gift of fortitude, to enable us to meet the challenges of the day.
The Israelites in Egypt were oppressed for 400 years, but with the Lord, they obtained freedom. The first Christians also faced oppression and they began as a small band with no great resources, yet animated by the fire of the Holy Spirit, the truth of Jesus Christ set them free. With that Gospel truth, they touched the hearts of others and managed to transform the world.
Throughout history, the Church and humanity as a whole have faced challenges to our natural rights and liberties given to us by God. But like the early Church, our Catholic ancestors in this land, and General Washington and the other founders, we remain steadfast in determination, firm in our resolve and confident in our hope. Christ’s kingdom will prevail.