Friday, June 29, 2012

What religious freedom is for

Archbishop José H. Gomez
By Archbishop José H. Gomez

I’m writing this week in the midst of the “Fortnight for Freedom” declared by the U.S. Bishops as a time of prayer, study and penance for religious freedom.

From time to time in our democracy, as citizens we need to renew our dedication to the founding freedoms that have made America so exceptional. If we don’t, we risk forgetting history’s lessons and we risk forgetting why these freedoms are so important.

As Christians, we also have a duty to be lovers of freedom and defenders of the freedoms we love. Church history teaches us that we have to struggle for these freedoms; they have never been given to Christians for free.

St. Paul used to say, “For freedom Christ has set us free!”

Jesus did not set us free from sin and death so that we could serve ourselves. We are set free for God — to love him and to serve him. We are set free so that we can be his instruments in bringing his salvation to our brothers and sisters.

Some people in our government and in the media say that we’re exaggerating when we talk about religious freedom being threatened.

We’re not exaggerating. The actions proposed by our government are real. They threaten our ability as individual Christians to live the way that Jesus wants us live. They threaten the church’s ability to carry out her mission.

But I think the biggest threat we face is our own indifference — or our feeling that this struggle doesn’t really affect us personally.

When we talk about “freedom of religion,” it can seem like an abstract concept. It can seem like something that’s maybe important in principle but doesn’t really have much to do with our everyday lives.

And it’s true that we are free today to go to church, to read our Bibles, to pray in our homes, and to read religious publications and find religious programming on television and the internet.

But religious freedom means more than that — because being a Christian means more than that.

Being a Christian means living with Jesus and worshipping him. It means living according to his words and example. It means carrying out his commandments — to love and to tell others about him. It means working to create a society that reflects the ethical and spiritual values of his Gospel.

That is what this struggle for religious liberty is about. It’s about making sure each of us has the freedom to carry out our Christian duty to evangelize and to serve others in love. And it’s about making sure that the church is free too — as the institution established by Christ to carry on his mission in the world.

I’ve been reflecting on the saints that we remember in the Church’s liturgical calendar during this two-week period.

Of course, the Church calendar wasn’t created with the Fortnight for Freedom in mind. The Church has been remembering these saints on these dates for centuries — centuries before our country was even founded.

Still, I find it striking to think about how many of saints that we remember during this fortnight were martyrs for freedom — who stayed true to Jesus and his Gospel in the face of persecution from political authorities.

The fortnight began on the vigil of the feast of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. They were executed because they refused to bow to the political pressures of King Henry VIII — who demanded that they accept his “supremacy” over the church and that they deny the church’s teachings on the sanctity of marriage.

Also during this fortnight, we remember St. John the Baptist — who was also executed by a tyrannical king for defending God’s law for marriage.

We remember too during this period the first Martyrs of the Church of Rome, from the very beginnings of Christianity. And on June 29, we remember the greatest of these early martyrs, St. Peter and St. Paul.

All of these courageous men and women suffered death to defend the freedoms that we often take for granted. All of them used their freedom in Christ to transform their societies. From within. By the force of their love and their example. We are called — each one of us — to the same mission in our society.

Let’s ask the intercession of these martyrs during the final days of this fortnight. And as we pray for one another this week, let’s try to find some sacrifice, no matter how small, that we can make for this cause.

And let’s ask Our Lady of the Angels to give us the courage to defend the liberty of the Church and our freedom of conscience.

Archbishop José H. Gomez is archbishop of Los Angeles. His weekly column is provided by and appears in The Tidings, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Reach Archbishop Gomez on Facebook at www.facebook.com/archbishopgomez.

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