On July 4, Independence Day, the United States celebrates the anniversary of its birth, and Americans recall the ringing words of the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are words that have inspired generations of Americans and kindled the aspirations of freedom-loving people everywhere in the world.
This year, the Fourth of July again marks the completion of the Fortnight for Freedom. This two-week period is designated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for Catholic citizens to reflect on the importance of religious freedom and to work toward preserving it not only in the United States, but also in so many parts of the world where people suffer persecution for their faith.
LOVE OF COUNTRY
Independence Day and the Fortnight for Freedom have special meaning for the Knights of Columbus. One of the Order’s core principles in addition to charity, unity and fraternity is patriotism, or love of one’s country. While all Knights are called to love their native land, the principle of patriotism is associated in a special way with the Fourth Degree. Every time I am blessed to have an honor guard at Mass or take part in activities organized by a Fourth Degree assembly, I am reminded of how many Knights and their families have fought and worked to defend freedom.
The Knights of Columbus contributes to the good of society by fostering authentic patriotism, which does not mean that we love our country regardless of right or wrong. Rather, it means that we love our country so much that we want it to embrace what is true and good. We want our country to be a place where human dignity is recognized and respected from conception until natural death, a place where religious freedom is robustly fostered, not just tolerated. Out of love for country we are vigilant, lest our freedoms be unduly curtailed for political reasons.
We likewise work to defend marriage and the family because we recognize how these institutions strengthen civil society. This same love of country also prompts us to reach out to those in need and to welcome those who come to our shores seeking a better life, much as our ancestors did.
During the States Dinner at the annual Supreme Convention, we sing not only state and provincial songs, but also the national anthems of all the countries where the Knights of Columbus is present. Each of these songs express a love of country. They tell of bravery shown in defense of homelands, and they speak of human aspirations for freedom coupled with the hope of a better tomorrow. In the United States, for example, the “Star-Spangled Banner” calls my native country “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We all like to take pride in our native land as a place of freedom, and we all have a stake in defending our freedoms. This requires vigilance and courage.
PRACTICING RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
The fact is, our rights and freedoms are linked. For example, the right to life, religious liberty and freedom of speech are linked intellectually, morally and legally. Life is God’s most fundamental gift to us, and religious freedom pertains to each person’s relationship with the Creator. After all, the human person is created in God’s image and endowed with inherent dignity. A quote on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., reads: “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 a gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
I am most grateful to the Knights of Columbus for its staunch support of the recent Fortnight for Freedom. The excellent participation of so many Knights and their families was a source of great encouragement. This was a moment for us to focus yet again on how precious and fragile of our God-given liberties are and on how diligent we need to be in protecting them from governmental intrusions.
But we need to go further.
The best way to defend religious liberty is to practice one’s faith. Religious liberty is under attack by an increasingly secular culture, in part because fewer people are going to church and participating in parish activities. It is estimated that only 27 percent of Catholics in the United States attend Mass each Sunday. Study after study illustrates that those who attend Mass regularly think differently about the serious issues confronting society. Those who attend Mass less frequently tend to blend in with prevailing cultural attitudes about morality. If 75 percent of Catholics went to Mass each week, I don’t think religious freedom would be in such danger, at least in the United States.
But there is a deeper reason to cherish religious freedom: It is a gift of God. It is the Lord’s way of inviting us to open our hearts to his truth and love, revealed most fully by his Son, Jesus Christ, and communicated to us by the Holy Spirit. We need to protect and cherish our freedom as an act of profound thanks to God. Doing so leads us in the ways of holiness and helps us to become good citizens.
May we, the family of the Knights of Columbus, continue to be at the forefront of defending and fostering religious liberty at home and abroad!