By Maria Wiering, [email protected] – On the eve of the feast day of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore held up the two martyrs as a source of inspiration for American Catholics during a Mass June 21 launching the U.S. bishops’ much-anticipated Fortnight for Freedom.
“Their courageous witness of faith continues to stir the minds and hearts of people yearning for authentic freedom, and specifically, for religious freedom,” he said.
With the hope of drawing greater attention to the weakening of religious freedoms in America, the U.S. bishops called for the Fortnight for Freedom, which lasts through July 4, to be 14 days dedicated to prayer, education and public action.
According to the parish’s sacristan, more than 1,000 people from Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and surrounding states attended the 7 p.m. Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, which Archbishop Lori called “a monument to religious freedom.”
The basilica was America’s first Catholic cathedral, commissioned at the turn of the nineteenth century by America’s first Catholic archbishop, John Carroll of Baltimore.
Archbishop Lori celebrated the Mass with Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and former archbishop of Baltimore; Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishops of Baltimore; and about 65 priests. About 25 deacons and representatives from the Knights of Columbus Color Corps also attended the Mass.
In a homily that received a standing ovation, Archbishop Lori described the integrity St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher demonstrated as the king asked them to violate their personal consciences, calling the men symbols of two “inseparably linked” aspects of religious freedom – the freedom of individuals and the freedom of institutions.
The two men were martyred separately in 1535 for refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy, which repudiated papal authority and acknowledged the King of England as head of the church.
Archbishop Lori presented St. Thomas More – a devout Catholic, husband, father and lawyer – as a symbol of the individual’s religious freedom, and St. John Fisher – bishop of Rochester in Kent – as a symbol of the religious freedom of institutions, many of which were destroyed or forced to break ties with the Catholic Church in the wake of England’s upheaval.
“If we fail to defend the rights of individuals, the freedom of institutions will be at risk, and if we fail to defend the rights of our institutions, individual liberty will be at risk,” he said. “More needs Fisher, and Fisher needs More.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called for the Fortnight in March in their Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty’s statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” Archbishop Lori is the committee’s chairman.
The statement outlined several instances of “religious liberty under attack.” Foremost among the U.S. bishops’ concerns is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that employers, including most religious ones, provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, which Catholic teaching considers “morally objectionable.”
The mandate goes into effect Aug. 1 for most employers, including private employers who object to providing contraception coverage. The mandate is scheduled to take effect for church-related institutions in 2013. As part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the mandate’s future is in question as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to deliver a decision on the law’s constitutionality this month.
Since the mandate was announced in February, the bishops have also expressed concern about its “narrow” definition of church as a body which mostly hires and serves its own members, and exists to advance its own teachings — excluding faith-based universities, charities, hospitals and other institutions that seek to serve the common good.
“We must never allow the government – any government, at any time, of any party – to impose such a constrictive definition on our beloved church or any church,” Archbishop Lori said.
Even if current religious liberty threats were overcome, the Catholic Church would still need to face “powerful forces which seek to prevent religious faith from exerting an appropriate and necessary influence within our culture,” he said.
“Let us remain united with our ecumenical and interfaith partners in being that obstacle,” he said.
Ann Alsina, a parishioner of St. Mary in Annapolis attended the Mass with her 9- and 7-year-old daughters, because it was important to her to join in praying for freedom and the country, she said.
“For me, it’s not the contraception mandate, it’s the definition of what is a religious organization” that is her greatest concern, she said.
The altered definition of “church” also concerns Brenda Montague, who drove two-and-a-half hours from Alexandria, Va., in rush-hour traffic to attend the Mass “as a show of support,” she said.
“I hope there’s enough public pressure that people will wake up and see what’s going on,” said Montague, a parishioner of St. Peter in Olney, Md.
“They’re telling us that it’s OK to be Catholic when we’re at Mass, but it’s not OK to live our faith,” she said.
William McCarthy Jr., executive director of Catholic Charities of Baltimore, said that he attended the Mass because he sees a need to preserve a “balance of church and state,” he said.
Regardless of the mandate, his agency is committed to continuing to work to improve the lives of those in need, he said.
“It may become more difficult, but we’re absolutely committed to that,” he said.
Father Brian Nolan, campus chaplain of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg said he hopes the Fortnight will be the time of “prayer, education and witness” for which the U.S. bishops called.
Religious freedom is not a political issue, he said.
“This affects everybody, and not just on the issue of the HHS mandate and whatever the Supreme Court rules,” he said, citing new immigration and marriage policies.
About 40 protestors, many of them Catholic, stood outside the basilica holding a banner that read, “Bishops: We need pastors, not politicians.”
Among them was Jannette Festa, a parishioner of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Homeland. She said that she believes that birth control is an economic, not moral, issue. “I’m pro-choice,” she said. “I do not think that contraception as a part of health care is a religious liberty issue.”
Standing on the basilica’s front portico after the Mass, Father Nolan saw the protesters and remarked, “I think the crowd is very small on the other side. … I think that we as a nation are in support of religious freedom.”
U.S. dioceses have planned a variety of events to coincide with the Fortnight, which will culminate in a 12:10 p.m. Mass July 4 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The bishops are encouraging Catholics to attend Fortnight events and to subscribe to receive text message updates on religious freedom issues by texting “Freedom” to 377377. Click here to see a list of events in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.