Fortnight for Freedom 2016: Witnesses to Freedom
The American experience for two centuries had recognized the importance of religion in shaping political and cultural life. And priding ourselves during that time on being the “land of the free,” we also tended to take religious liberty for granted. But more recent experience shows that things have changed.
Here and around the globe there are increasingly aggressive efforts to push God and religious believers out of the public square. “By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault,” states the 2016 annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Christians in particular face growing challenges to freely living our faith, with various levels of oppression or outright denial of religious freedom. Our Christian sisters and brothers in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria and elsewhere are suffering violent persecution, and in the United States there is a growing tendency toward state interference in Catholic institutions and schools, as well as social and cultural pressures to act contrary to faith, conscience, human dignity and the common good, as informed by Catholic teaching.
No longer can we simply assume that our rights and liberties, religious or otherwise, will be respected as they once were. Furthermore, it is not enough that we lament this problem – we need to meet this challenge with action. Silence and complacency are not an option if we call ourselves Christian.
The theme for this year’s Fortnight is “Witnesses to Freedom.” This nation continues to need those who will stand up, sometimes alone, and call America to return to its own heritage, which recognizes that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights and liberties. We especially continue to need people of faith, young and old, who will bear witness to truth, religious freedom, conscience and human dignity.
We are blessed already by the inspiration of many who have gone before. The bishops of this country cite several witnesses to authentic freedom in Christ at their website, including Blesseds Miguel Pro and Oscar Romero, Saints Peter and Paul, Perpetua and Felicity and, in particular, John Fisher and Thomas More.
When Henry VIII made his vainglorious claim to be supreme ruler in all matters, even over the Church, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More refused to forsake their fidelity to God and the Church. Instead, each died a martyr for truth, conscience and freedom. Five centuries later, their witness inspires. In fact, the Fortnight began on the vigil of their feast day, June 22, and at the closing Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on July 4, we will have the special honor of the presence of their relics.
Other witnesses to freedom, some of them non-Catholic, commend themselves to our reflection as well. The many victims of ISIS genocide inspire and challenge us to remain firm in the faith even in the face of death. Another witness for freedom is Karol Wojtyla who, years before he became Pope John Paul II, steadfastly worked for religious freedom amidst a harsh Communist regime in Poland, including his defiant celebrations of Mass in an open field at Nowa Huta, which the regime had designed to be “the first communist city without God.” Other witnesses include Blessed Clemens August von Galen, Catholic Bishop of Münster, Germany, who denounced the Nazi regime from the pulpit, and also the Protestant Sophie Scholl, who had been inspired by Bishop von Galen, her brother Hans and other members of the White Rose, the German resistance group that also spoke out against Hitler before their arrest and execution.
In this country, especially in this 60th anniversary year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we can never forget Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life as a tireless witness of freedom and dignity for all people. To him we can add the Little Sisters of the Poor who have become the public face of a widespread movement in defense of religious liberty against the oppressive HHS Mandate.
The people of God have encountered obstacles and even persecution before, and the answer now is as it was in the past – standing firm in bearing witness to the Lord – which is also the mission given us by Jesus, who came to set humanity free. Throughout history, the Church and humanity as a whole have faced challenges to our natural rights and liberties given to us by God. But if each of us resolves to add our own name to that list of witnesses to freedom, Christ’s kingdom will break through in spite of limitations.