Text Size:
  • A
  • A
  • A

The Public Witness of Faith


Archbishop William E. Lori, Supreme Chaplain

At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore March 20, Archbishop Lori smiles during the official announcement that he would become the 16th archbishop of Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was adapted from the supreme chaplain’s homily during his installation as the archbishop of Baltimore May 16 at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

In the first century, during the height of the Roman Empire, St. Paul preached in the Areopagus of Athens. He did not hesitate to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the place where ideas were discussed and debated.

By pointing to the altar to an Unknown God, Paul sought to make connections between the culture of Athens and the Gospel. But never did it occur to him to present the Gospel as mere ideas, as an alternative philosophy. Rather, in that very public square, Paul preached Christ crucified and risen as the source of life itself. His words were met with skepticism and even ridicule, yet among those who heard him, some came to believe.

Few people in history went to more areopagai than did Blessed John Paul II as he traveled the length and breadth of the globe proclaiming the Gospel of Christ — just as his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, continues to do. They teach us all how important it is not only to bring the Gospel into the public square, but also to defend the right to do so.


During his visit to Baltimore in October 1995, Pope John Paul II said: “The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people’s awareness of the importance of religious freedom for society; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith. And it is vitally necessary, for the very survival of the American experience, to transmit to the next generation the precious legacy of religious freedom and the convictions which sustain it.”

St. Paul is depicted preaching in Athens, as written about in the Acts of the Apostles. (Art Resource)

When the bishops from the region including Washington, D.C., and Baltimore visited Rome in January, Pope Benedict also spoke forcefully about the need to defend religious liberty in the United States: “With her long tradition of respect for the right relationship between faith and reason, the Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents, which,” he said, “seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth.” The pope added that “the legitimate separation of church and state cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the state may choose not to engage or be engaged by the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”

We do not seek to defend religious liberty for partisan or political purposes, as some have suggested. No, we do this because we love human dignity, which was fashioned and imparted not by the government, but by our Creator. We defend religious liberty because we love every human person, seeing in the face of every man and woman the face of Christ, who loved us to the very end and who calls on us to love and serve our neighbors with the same love he has bestowed on us. And we do this because we seek to continue serving those in need while contributing to the common good in accord with the Church’s social teaching, and to do so with compassion and effectiveness.

My predecessor, Cardinal James Gibbons, often withstood attacks from people who said it wasn’t possible to be a practicing Catholic and a loyal American. More than a century ago, he wrote, “I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection, without interfering with us in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Christ. Our country has liberty without license, and authority without despotism.”

Now we must be loyal Americans by being bold and courageous Catholics!

So, dear friends, let us be of good cheer. Let us never imagine that the faith we profess with such personal conviction is merely a private matter. By its nature, the profession of faith is a public matter. It is meant to be spread far and wide, and acted upon in and through Church institutions and in the witness of individual believers. Let us not shrink from entering the public square to proclaim the person of Christ; to teach the values that flow from reason and faith; to uphold our right to go about our daily work in accord with our teachings and values; to defend the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until natural death; to defend the institution of marriage as between a man and a woman; and to serve effectively those in great need with convictions borne of the moral law.


It is important to note that St. Paul did not enter the public square, the Areopagus, without first carefully studying the culture and religious practices of the Athenians. He also came filled with the love of God poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit. He knew that the churches where he had preached and fostered the faith needed to be strong and vibrant, faithful and fruitful, truthful and loving. He also knew that for his witness of faith to be believed and for the Church to flourish both in times of peace and in times of persecution, that its members must not only stand fast in the truth of the Gospel, but must also live the truth in love.

Can there be any doubt how challenging this is? The Church is endowed with the holiness of Christ, yet is in need of constant renewal and purification. We stand in need of God’s mercy.

We should pray that, as the upcoming Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict unfolds, we not only teach the faith but also bear witness to it in a manner that helps to heal the breach between faith and culture. We should also pray that the Lord bless our families and give us the grace to renew family life, which is the bedrock of our society and the strength of our parishes. Let us be a Church that honors our elders, sustains those in the prime of life, welcomes our young with enthusiasm and joy, and supports parents in the task of educating and forming the next generation.

St. Paul speaks of a variety of roles in the Church, but also of their orderly functioning for the health of the whole Body of Christ. As we enter the public square to proclaim the Gospel and to defend human rights and dignity, may our Catholic communities be marked by a deep sense of inner solidarity and harmony. In this way, we prove ourselves to be worthy ecumenical and interfaith partners, both in our search for unity in truth and in our service to the common good. We also prove ourselves to be worthy partners, together with government, the business sector and community groups, in serving the needs of all.

Finally, it was only with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that the Apostles truly grasped the mystery of Christ and truth of the Gospel, and found the courage to proclaim the Gospel boldly to the ends of the earth. Let us beg the Holy Spirit to pour the love of God into our hearts so that we may be formed in Christ and proclaim the faith by living the truth in love and embracing love in truth. Through the prayers of Mary, our Queen, may God bless us and keep us always in his love!


SUPREME CHAPLAIN ARCHBISHOP WILLIAM E. LORI is the 16th archbishop of Baltimore and chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.