Fr. Roger J. Landry
June 22, 2012
One of the lessons Blessed John Paul II brought with him from Poland to the papacy was the importance of opportunities to give the entire Church and the wider society the time to pray about, study and act together with regard to particular pressing issues. In 1966 the Polish Church marked the Millennium of Christianity in the country with a year’s worth of prayer, cultural and historical events, and public witness to remind all Poles of their dignity, rights and national and cultural history that the communist government was trying to extirpate. It was an enormous time of growth that helped set the stage for the eventual downfall of Soviet suppression. This was one of many such focused times of prayer, education and witness that the Polish Church routinely organized in order to give prayerful and peaceful resistance to oppression and to form people in the virtues to persevere in the truth.
John Paul took these lessons with him to the Vatican, where he regularly inaugurated opportunities that would combine prayer, learning, and action with regard to priorities that could help and strengthen believers around the world. This is what was behind the various holy years called to focus together on the meaning of our redemption, on Mary, on women, on the family, on each of the Persons of the Trinity, on the Incarnation, the Rosary and the Eucharist — something Pope Benedict has continued with the inauguration of the Year of St. Paul, the Year for Priests and the upcoming Year of Faith.
These lessons have not been lost on the bishops of the United States and this is partially the background for the Fortnight for Freedom that the Church in our country began yesterday. In response to the multiple threats against religious freedom at home and abroad not only being allowed but waged by various agencies of state and national governments, the bishops have not just responded with a postcard campaign, but with an unprecedented, coordinated, concentrated tripartite focus on prayer, education and action. Over the course of these two weeks, the bishops are asking all Catholic institutions and individuals to give their attention to the threats to religious liberty and freedom of conscience and to respond with prayer, study and public witness.
The first part of the campaign is prayer, since prayer ought to be the first response of Catholics anywhere to anything. The bishops have asked dioceses and parishes to schedule specific times for people to come together to pray. Many dioceses have scheduled special Masses, holy hours, days of eucharistic adoration, recitations of the Rosary, days of fasting on the Fridays of the Fortnight and more. The bishops have also composed a Litany for Liberty and a special prayer in defense of religious liberty that they’re asking all Catholics to recite daily during the Fortnight. Like all good prayers, when prayed devoutly and attentively, it will form those who pray it in the knowledge and virtues needed to respond as conscientious, competent and courageous citizens.
The prayer begins by turning the first words of the Declaration of Independence into words of praise and thanksgiving, “O God our Creator, from Your provident hand we have received our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Then it describes how those rights correspond to religious duties that society must respect: “You have called us as Your people and given us the right and the duty to worship You, the only true God, and Your Son, Jesus Christ. Through the power and working of Your Holy Spirit, You call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world, bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel to every corner of society.” Next, it turns to prayers of petition that we might act in accordance with our God-given rights and gifts and that God will fortify us during this Fortnight to protect and promote true freedom. “We ask You to bless us in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty. Give us the strength of mind and heart readily to defend our freedoms when they are threatened; give us courage in making our voices heard on behalf of the rights of Your Church and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.”
Then it prays for the gift of unity in the Church. Some joke that the only time the Church stands together is at the Alleluia before the Gospel. It’s now a time in which the Church needs the gift of true communion to overcome division in order to give a united witness to liberty, and turn back the threats of liberty not merely for ourselves but for all those who will come after us. “Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father, a clear and united voice to all Your sons and daughters gathered in Your Church in this decisive hour in the history of our nation, so that, with every trial withstood and every danger overcome — for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and all who come after us — this great land will always be ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’”
The second part of the campaign is an educational and catechetical component. The bishops’ special website, fortnight4freedom.org, has a plethora of materials from the bishops conference and from dioceses across the country. The point of the educational and catechetical campaign is to equip Catholics with a deeper awareness of the history of religious freedom in the founding and growth of our country and in the teaching of the Church, so that as Catholic citizens they can defend the right to religious freedom and freedom of conscience in society and help others to appreciate their centrality. One document all Catholics should study during this Fortnight will be the U.S. bishops’ “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” which we published in our April 20 edition and which is available at fortnight4freedom.org. Another great opportunity for learning will be the town meeting that Cardinal Sean O’Malley is hosting at 8 p.m. on June 25. It can be watched live on Catholic TV (Comcast 268, Verizon 296, and CatholicTV.com, which will archive it for viewing anytime) and listened to on WQOM, 1060 AM. Various parishes throughout our diocese have scheduled important educational opportunities to bring their parishioners and others up to speed and prepare them for mission.
The third leg of the campaign is action. Ideas have consequences only if we make them have consequences by living in accordance with those ideas. The bishops are asking people to speak to their friends, family members and neighbors about the threats to religious freedom, to contact those who represent them in office, to write letters to newspapers, to give public witness as many have been doing through the Stand for Freedom rallies across the country. One act of collective witness that the bishops have requested is for all Catholic churches in the country to ring their bells at noon on the Fourth of July. Catholics are encouraged in a particular way to take time out of their Independence Day activities to pray, study and act, and opportunities around the noon “Let Freedom Ring” initiative might be a powerful way to do so.
The bishops scheduled the Fortnight for the 14 days between June 21 and July 4 because this is a time in which we mark the feast days of so many great martyrs — SS. Thomas More and John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, the first martyrs of the Church of Rome, and St. Thomas the Apostle — who freely gave their lives rather than violate the truth they knew in conscience. It’s also a time, on Independence Day, that we recall that our freedom doesn’t come free and that so many national heroes — acting not only with patriotism but also disproportionately acting as a result of their Christian faith — have shed their blood to keep us free. If these soldiers who died to keep us free were alive today, they would doubtless be urging all of us to get off our sofas and be as dedicated to the protection of freedom when it’s threatened here from within as they were in sacrificing themselves to keep us and others free when freedom was being challenged from without. Such dedication, shown by martyrs and soldiers serving a cause far higher than themselves, is required during this Fortnight and beyond to ensure that America remains truly the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Happy Fortnight!