Long May Our Land Be Bright, With Freedom’s Holy Light, July 4, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Independence Day 2013
July 4, 2013
Gen 22:1-19; Psalm 115; Mt 9:1-8

Today, on this Fourth of July, we celebrate the 237th birthday of our nation. We thank God for all his gifts. We pray to him, as we prayed in the opening Hymn “America the Beautiful,” to shed his grace on us, to crown our good with brotherhood, to mend our every flaw, to confirm our soul in self-control and our liberty in law, to refine our gold, to help us convert success into nobleness and make every gain divine, “till selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free” (seventh verse).

There is so much wisdom in this hymn:

  • We recognize our need for God’s help and we beg for his grace.
  • We admit our flaws and ask God to fix them.
  • We recognize that the desire for selfish gain is what will corrupt us as a nation and so we implore God to strengthen us in self-control and bind our liberty to respectful obedience of just law. This is so that, as we heard on Sunday (Gal 5), our freedom will not bring us to slavery and tear us apart by an exaggerated insistence on rights while neglecting responsibilities, but rather will lead us to love.
  • That’s why we beg God to make us good and to crown our goodness with an authentic fraternity, a just patriotism, based on solidarity and brotherly love.

We come today to pray for all of these things. We recognize, however, that our liberties are being threatened, not so much from without, but from within.

Pope Benedict XVI said at the White House five years ago. “The preservation of freedom … demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good.”

Freedom, in other words, cannot be taken for granted. We must exercise our freedom for the good, or we risk losing it altogether. We must have the courage to engage in civic life and bring our deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate in order to preserve our freedom.

The reality is that not enough of us are doing so. Too many take our freedoms for granted.

  • Only about one percent of American families have any member of their family associated with the military, while the vast majority allows this very small minority to put its lives on the line to keep us free.
  • A third of Americans never even register to vote and of those registered, in most elections, less than half vote. In the recent Senatorial election, only 28.5 percent voted, which means that among all those eligible to vote 18 and older, fewer than 1 out of five exercised this solemn right and responsibility.
  • Rates of community involvement and public service are way down in most places.
  • Even when our rights are seriously being trampled upon, with IRS agents using their office to harass and discriminate against citizens with whose religious or political beliefs they disagree, when the NSA is spying on Americans for no warranted reason, when the FBI is secretly harassing reporters telling inconvenient truths about what the FBI is doing, when the Department of Health and Human Services is unilaterally making rules forcing Citizen A against his or her conscience to pay for Citizen B to have free abortion-causing drugs, sterilizations and birth control pills and compelling pro-life organizations and business owners to fund abortion, so many just go on with life as usual, ignoring the accumulation of these threats and not holding those who are violating their and others’ liberties accountable.
  • One of the biggest threats of all is to religious liberty, which is the first freedom mentioned in the Bill of Rights. In the Holy Hour on June 21 that began our parish’s observance of the Fortnight for Freedom, I mentioned many of these threats now being carried out against faithful soldiers in the military, faithful pharmacists by various state legislators, faithful business owners by the IRS and HHS and directly against Church food pantries, hospitals, schools, adoption agencies and more. Secularists in government are trying to reduce freedom of religion to “freedom of worship,” as if freedom of religion only means the ability to pray rather than to practice one’s faith in life and not be compelled against conscience to violate one’s faith except in the most extreme of circumstances.

Our nation was built on what on this day 237 years ago Thomas Jefferson and the courageous founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence called the “self-evident” proposition that we’re all endowed by our Creator, by God, with inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but these truths are no longer obvious to secularists in government who are trying to pretend that such rights are given by government, not by God, and attempting to force everyone to give everything to Caesar instead of what they owe to God.

Such attacks on religious freedom would flabbergast our founding fathers.

If you go to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, on one side you’ll see a huge inscription of the words of the Declaration of Independence he authored, pointing to these self-evident truths I just cited and most of us know by heart. On the opposite side, however, you’ll read other words by Jefferson that are less famous but now just as crucial to recall. “The God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” Once we begin to doubt that our freedom comes from God, Jefferson suggested, we will never be secure in it. The attacks on religious freedom that we are now experiencing are attacks on freedom at their root. Jefferson wrote in 1809, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

John Adams, another bold signatory of the Declaration 237 years ago today, declared, “We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion. Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Unless men and women, boys and girls, are formed to follow properly-trained consciences, in other words, America as an experiment in ordered liberty won’t work. Unless they know what’s right and wrong and do what’s right and refrain from what’s wrong, then America will be ripped asunder by slaveries to impulses masquerading as freedom. There’s a Polish aphorism that the number of external policemen you need is in inverse proportion to the number of internal policemen — well-formed consciences — and their power guiding people to do the right thing even when they can get away with the wrong thing.

I just returned from Costa Rica where I was teaching Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. One of the things it was impossible to overlook in that country is that every house has tall bars on the gates, on the windows and either walls or tall bars all the way around the yard. Even the Missionaries of Charity’s convent has a high wall, a steel gate and barbed wire all the way around. I asked Daniel, the man who picked me up at the airport, why every house is essentially a prison cell surrounded by bars and walls. He told me that the people don’t trust the police to protect them because they like the self-serving local and national governments who sign their checks are corrupt. The people feel threatened by their neighbors who would rather steal than work and so to protect themselves and their property, they just secure all of their homes against intruders. I look at it as a warning to us in the United States. Costa Rica is basically Catholic but the cultural formation given by corrupt governments and police have outweighed the moral formation given in the Churches because many have just become religious in name. The government has a duty to promote a religious and moral people and when it does the opposite, society unravels. For centuries our government and civic institutions promoted morality. Benjamin Franklin used to give money to all the Churches in Philadelphia to strengthen them, because he knew that without their necessary moral formation, our country would not remain free for long. That’s what makes the attempts to undermine religious institutions in our country today so shocking. That’s what makes the plain attempts of government agencies to force Americans to act against their conscience so appalling.

So today we come here to pray for our nation, to bring to God its flaws and ask him to mend them and to bring to him our gold — the great blessings we still have! — and beg him to refine it, which means refine us.

Today’s readings —the readings of the day — give us indications of how God wants to do just that.

In the Gospel we see how the friends of the paralyzed man out of love brought him to Jesus. They didn’t allow obstacles to get in their way. When there were too many people in the house and the people were too selfish to let the paralyzed man in, they climbed up on the roof — think about how hard that was to get a paralyzed man on a stretcher onto a roof without having him fall off at great peril! — opened up the roof and carefully lowered him down. Likewise, we must be similarly loving and passionate to take our friends, to take our fellow citizens, to the Lord. First, in our prayer. But then also by apostolate, inviting them to come with us to meet the Lord in Church. Our government is fit for a moral and religious people, not for any other, John Adams warned, and if our friends aren’t practicing their faith, there are not only personal but national consequences.

We also see in the Gospel that Jesus healed the paralyzed man’s sins before he healed his withered legs and arms. The most important thing Jesus could do for him was share his mercy. Likewise we need to recognize how much we and our fellow citizens need that mercy. Thomas Jefferson in that same inscription on his monument I mentioned before said, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” He knew that God would hold us accountable. Jefferson was thinking about the evil of slavery. But it’s the same with every evil. We must come to the Lord for mercy for the sins occurring in our nation with legal protection. This reparation is one of the greatest services of our nation. We must also ask for God’s mercy for our own sins against our country, commissions and omissions that all evidence some version of the lack of love toward our neighbor. We must bring others with us to Jesus for healing so that Jesus can mend our flaws one person at a time.

Likewise we need to be willing to sacrifice for our country, recognizing that what God asks of us is not going to be easy. In the first reading, in one of the most famous scenes in the Old Testament, Abraham brings his beloved and long-awaited son Isaac to sacrifice him to the Lord. The Lord was testing Abraham to place God first in his life, even above his son. And Abraham, confident in God’s love and knowing that even if his son should die God would be able to raise him from the dead, was willing to do so. The Angel stopped Abraham’s hand, but this whole scene points to what God himself was willing to do for us, not stopping the hand of those who hammered his own Son to the wood of the Cross he had carried, so that we might experience true freedom, the freedom for which we were made, the freedom by which we can love others in the same self-sacrifical way with which Christ loved us first. We likewise need to love our neighbors and be willing to sacrifice for them, to suffer for them. That’s true patriotism, the patriotism of so many soldiers from the revolutionary war to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the patriotism demonstrated in their willingness to give their lives for the sake of others. We’re not going to be instruments of the renewal of our country on the cheap or by a shortcut. It’s going to require a faith that translates into loving sacrifices, as we see in the willingness of our father in faith.

In the midst of a culture that is trying to banish God to the peripheries, eliminate his name from our currency and the pledge of allegiance, and prevent groups that get a penny from any government agency from mentioning him, we’re called in the words of the Psalm to have the courage to say “I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.” We must have the audacity to say, “Why should the pagans say, ‘Where is their God?’” and allow them to get away with it. The idols of our culture are no longer pagan statues with eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear and mouths that don’t speak, but money, sex, power and  unrestrained pleasure and we are called to use our liberty to show another way, a better way, a way that leads to true happiness: namely, that our house trusts in the Lord, who is our help and our shield.

I began this homily by pondering the prayer we sang at the beginning of the Mass. I’d like to finish with the words of the prayer we will chant as the exclamation point of our prayer today at the end of Mass. It’s “America” or “My Country Tis of Thee.” In that hymn, again full of faith and wisdom, we ask the Lord to “let freedom ring,” as the bells of our carillon rang out for ten minutes before Mass began in consonance with Catholic churches throughout the country. And we turn to him and pray, “Our fathers’ God to thee, Author of Liberty, to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, with freedom’s holy light, protect us by thy might, Great God our King!” We ask him for that protection, we acknowledge that he is the author of our inalienable freedom, and we ask him for the grace that we might use our freedom to radiate his holy light, the light of faith that our land needs in order to be bright long and forever.