|For the past several years we have commemorated the Fortnight for Freedom invoked by the United States Bishops as a two-week period of prayer and reflection upon the great treasure of religious freedom. The Fortnight was a two week period which began on June 21 and concluded on July 4. It was an opportunity for us to come together as believers across the nation and to celebrate what Pope Benedict XVI referred to as the "most cherished of American freedoms," religious liberty. The Fortnight for Freedom has been a great blessing for us as the Church in the United States bringing with it a greater appreciation for this precious liberty and the opportunity to join together to ensure that it is not threatened especially in the context of today's culture which brings with it so many confusing opinions. Last year the Fortnight for Freedom concluded with the Convocation of Catholic Leaders which called together all the dioceses of the United States in Orlando, Florida, as a very significant and faith filled event in the history of the Church in our nation.||
The traditional Fortnight for Freedom will take place in a different manner this year. We will observe Religious Freedom Week which will commence on the Feast of St. Thomas More, June 22, and conclude with the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29. The theme for this year is Serving Others in God's Love. During this week, the United States Bishops asked that we again reflect upon the importance of religious freedom especially so that the Church is able to carry out her mission of service and mercy not only within our nation but outside as well. We are also invited to pray in a special way for those who are persecuted in other parts if the world because of their religious belief. Religious Freedom Week brings a very focused time to help us reflect upon religious freedom and to energize ourselves in regard to acting as good citizens to ensure that this great gift is protected in our nation which was founded precisely to protect religious liberty.
Pope Francis has consistently spoken on the importance of religious liberty within our world. He has addressed the many challenges to religious liberty and the persecution which is taking place internationally. The suppression of the right to religious liberty goes against the very nature of what it means to be a human person and it is essential that we do all we can to protect that liberty. At the beginning of this year Pope Francis asked for a special intention of prayer for those whose religious liberty is persecuted, threatened and made difficult. He expressed, "When we think of those who are persecuted for their religion, we go beyond differences of rite or confession: We place ourselves on the side of the men and women who fight to avoid renouncing their religious identity. Let us pray... so that Christians and other religious minorities... may be able to practice their faith in full freedom."
In his visit to United States in September, 2015, Pope Francis spoke in a powerful and inspiring manner on religious liberty outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It truly was a landmark speech. He referred to religious freedom in a similar manner as Pope Benedict XVI and defined to it as "a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors." He emphasized that religious liberty "by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private spirit of individuals and families." He stressed that, "In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others." He spoke in particular to the members of the large Hispanic population of our nation as well as to representatives of immigrants to our country. He concluded his historic address with the words which are so fitting for us during Religious Freedom Week, "May this country and each of you be renewed in gratitude for the many blessings and freedoms that you enjoy. And may you defend these rights, especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God Himself. May He bless all of you."
It is so appropriate that we begin Religious Freedom Week on the Feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. Thomas More had a remarkable political career in London, England, and was appointed as Chancellor of England by King Henry VIII in 1529. He concentrated his political life on promoting justice and restraining the harmful influences of those who advanced their own interests at the expense of the weak. In 1532 Thomas Moore resigned his office in the face of the Kings intention to take control of the Catholic Church in England so he could condone his invalid marriage. More was imprisoned in 1534 for his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy which recognized the King as the leader of the Church. He was put on trial and condemned by the court. He was beheaded in 1535, freely giving his life as "The King’s good servant but God's first." St. Thomas More went to his martyrdom with great grace and peace as a man of faith who was totally committed to Christ and His Church. He reminds us that our faith cannot be separated from service in the public sphere. The good statesman and citizen is the one who brings his beliefs to the public realm, not to impose his religion, but to ensure that all are able to live and proclaim their faith. St. Thomas More's life and example are a good focus for us to begin Religious Freedom Week.
St. Thomas More is also a good example of the theme for this year's Religious Freedom Week – Serving Others in God's Love. He realized that religious freedom was necessary to ensure the good of all and to protect the rights which God has given to us at birth. As we live our faith in our modern world today, we realize the threats that a lack of religious freedom impose and we actually can see the horrors of persecution and violence which comes to those who practice their faith in other parts of the world. In our own nation, we realize that religious freedom is necessary if we are to be able, as Catholics, to serve in areas of political life, education, healthcare, adoption, foster care and migration and refugee services. Our prayers and our ability to act as citizens in influencing those involved in political life to protect our religious freedom go hand-in-hand. As we serve others in God’s love, our concern is not only for ourselves but for men and women of all faiths.
Religious freedom is primary among our rights and we must be aware of the threats that are opposed to it today. No one is more the guardian of our rights and freedom the Lord, Himself. He came into this world to set us free. Out of His infinite love for us, Christ came among us and took our human nature to Himself to give it an even greater dignity. He became one of us so that we might realize the truth of our existence as free men and women made in the image and likeness of God. Christ restored our freedom in the fullest way. As we commemorate this Religious Freedom Week, His words are clearly before us, "If you remain in my word, you truly will be my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31).
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 8, 2018