In my first weeks as archbishop of Baltimore, I find myself surrounded by history. I live in the shadow of the Basilica of the Assumption, the nation’s oldest cathedral, whose cornerstone was laid in 1806. Beneath the basilica are buried many archbishops, including John Carroll, the nation’s first bishop. On the walls of my residence are portraits of my 15 predecessors, many of whom were pivotal in the growth of the Church in the United States and in defending the freedom and reputation of the Church amid an anti-Catholic culture.
As I walk around my new home, the words of Cardinal James Gibbons, who served this archdiocese for more than four decades before his death in 1921, ring in my ears: “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.”
Cardinal Gibbons defended the proposition that one could be both a loyal American and a good Catholic. Now we are called to be loyal Americans precisely by being good Catholics. The words Blessed John Paul II spoke when he visited Baltimore in 1995 remain true: “The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people’s awareness of the importance for society of religious freedom; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith.”
THE VINE AND THE BRANCHES
During his visit here, Blessed John Paul II prayed in a small private chapel in my new home. Many former archbishops of Baltimore have offered Mass and prayed in the same chapel, and this inspires me when I consider the current challenge we are facing in defending religious liberty in the United States and throughout the world. The prayerfulness of my predecessors reminds me that this struggle will not be won only by planning and political action. Something more is needed.
In the Gospels, Jesus teaches that he is the vine and we are the branches. Just as a branch cannot survive when cut off from the vine, he says, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). We need to take this to heart in our struggle to defend religious liberty. If we want to preserve, uphold and foster religious liberty as understood and taught by the Church, and hold fast to the legacy of the Founding Fathers of the United States, then we need to pray diligently as communities, as families and as individuals.
With this in mind, the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has suggested that we have a “Fortnight for Freedom.” This is to be a special period of prayer in the two weeks leading up to the Fourth of July. During this time, the Church will celebrate a number of feasts days including the feasts of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, who courageously laid down their lives when King Henry VIII arrogated to himself the leadership of the Church.
And there are many other ways that we can observe this fortnight for freedom in our liturgies: Petitions for the preservation of religious liberty can be offered at Mass; special prayers that have been composed for this time can be prayed, perhaps as a conclusion to the general intercessions; votive Masses for civil needs can be offered; and homilies on the Church’s teaching regarding religious liberty can be delivered.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR PRAYER
The fortnight for freedom is an ideal time to grow in our understanding of what the Catholic Church teaches about religious liberty.
We should make it a point for 14 consecutive days to thank God for the freedoms with which he has endowed us and commend to the Lord those who have died in defending our liberty. Freedoms erode when they are taken for granted by citizens. Religious freedom erodes when, in the face of an increasingly secular culture, believers stop going to church and cease to bring convictions born of faith into family life, daily work and social settings. Conversely, when we consciously thank God for our freedoms, we will be more apt to protect them.
The fortnight for freedom will be an opportunity for every Knight and his family to set aside a little time each day to pray for religious liberty. Consider praying a family rosary, other devotional prayers or Archbishop John Carroll’s “Prayer for Government.” You might also set aside some time at dinner to discuss religious liberty. Ask family members to read parts of the bishops’ document titled “Our Most Cherished Freedom” (published in the May 2012 issue of Columbia) and be prepared to talk about it in light of current events.
Finally, what if we used spare moments during our day to pray for religious liberty? It might be as simple as having a prayer card in your pocket that you can pull out at a moment’s notice.
Years ago, Mother Teresa visited the seminary I attended, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. We all expected her to tell us about what she and her sisters were doing for the poorest of the poor around the world. Instead, she told us about the parable of the vine and branches. She helped us see that anything important requires prayer. So please, pray for religious liberty at church, in K of C council meetings, at home and when you are alone.