Bottom line: We are at the beginning of the Fortnight for Freedom that will culminate on July 4. Today we celebrate the great herald of freedom - John the Baptist. He points the way to ultimate freedom - Jesus. And he teaches the steps to freedom: Virtue ("repent"), Solidarity ("share with the poor") and, when government encroaches on basic freedoms, push back.
Today we celebrate the Birth of St. John the Baptist. It is such an important feast day that it replaces the ordinary Sunday readings. It is also important in the sense that his is one only three whose birthdays we commemorate. The other two of course are Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
This year the Birth of John the Baptist has an additional importance: It comes at the beginning of the Fortnight for Freedom. During these fourteen days before Independence Day our bishops are asking us to study, give thanks and pray for religious freedom. What I would like to propose this Sunday is that St. John the Baptist is the herald of freedom.
He is the herald of freedom in an absolute sense because he the forerunner of Jesus who is Freedom itself. Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free." (Jn 8:32) Politicians sometimes quote this verse, but by "truth" Jesus does not mean some kind of ideology or political program. To understand what Jesus is saying you have hear the whole sentence: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free." By becoming disciples, we know the truth - Jesus himself. By knowing Jesus through prayer and sacraments, we experience freedom. Jesus himself is the Truth that makes us free. John, therefore, is the herald of freedom because he announces Jesus.
John heralds freedom in a very practical way. Do you remember his basic message? It is: Repent, change your life. "Produce good fruit," he says, "as evidence of your repentance." (Luke 3:8) And what is the good fruit? I want to mention a word that has lost its meaning for us. That word is "virtue." It might sound boring, but virtue is essential for a good life. It comes from the Latin word for "strength" and it includes things like courage, patience, fair-play, respect, sportsmanship and generosity. Without virtue freedom becomes impossible. Our founding fathers envisioned a "Republic of Virtue." They knew that democracy could not succeed unless ordinary citizens practiced basic virtues: honesty, self-discipline, habits of work, etc.* In his Farewell Address George Washington said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." It's only logical when you think about it. The natural human tendency is to take the path of least resistance: sleep in, turn on the TV, play video games, surf the Internet, get a six-pack, use drugs, toss the wrapper on the ground, leave the task to the next guy, watch out for number one. You know what I mean. We need religion to counter-act self-indulgence.
In recent years sociologists have made some embarrassing studies - embarrassing, that is, to sociologists themselves who tend to be non-religious. Their studies show that attendance at a weekly service (such as Mass) correlates with better health, longer life, lasting marriages, young people avoiding destructive behaviors and - surprise - happiness. God has given us a command to keep holy the Lord's Day. It's not that he needs anything we can give him, but that we need to worship him. Many people have fallen into the habit of only going to Mass when they feel like it. Some even think that it wrong to go to Mass unless they feel like it! Nothing could be further from the truth. You need to go to Mass especially when you don't feel like it. Our natural tendency is downward. Let me say it again: We need religion to counter-act self-indulgence. John the Baptist said it better than I ever could: Repent, produce the fruits of repentance - don't be afraid of virtue.
Virtue - which is self-government - makes democracy possible. And as John the Baptist teaches, virtue moves a person outside of himself. When the people asked him, What shall we do? He said, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry." (Lk 3:11) Democracy depends on people solving problems on the smallest possible level. Family members should take care of each other, as best they can. We need community organizations to address issues that families can't handle alone. St. John the Baptist teaches us to not wait for the government, but pitch in and do our part. In showing how everyone can practice solidarity, John the Baptist heralds freedom.
There's something more - and this is the tough part. When a ruler departs from God's law, John the Baptist teaches us to push back. He challenged King Herod for marrying Herodias - his brother's wife. Herodias was not amused. She got the king to imprison John and eventually to murder him. He stands at the head of a long line of Christian martyrs, continuing into our times: St. Christopher Magallanes, put to death for opposing laws of a repressive Mexican government.** Saint Maximillian Kolbe and Edith Stein, who died in Nazi concentration camps. And more recently Shahbaz Bhatti - a practicing Catholic in Pakistan. He was murdered, as Time Magazine reported, "because he had called for changes in a blasphemy law used to persecute religious minorities."
Now, you and I are not living in a country where people are being put to death for their faith. But we are seeing disturbing government encroachment on basic liberties, including the first freedom - freedom of religion. Our bishops give seven examples. I have placed a summary in today's bulletin. Our bishops are asking us to join them in pushing back. We do this by praying and by studying these issues.*** Our first prayer of course is gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy. Ultimately those freedoms don't come from the government, but from God himself.****
We are at the beginning of the Fortnight for Freedom that will culminate on July 4. Today we celebrate the great herald of freedom - John the Baptist. He points the way to ultimate freedom - Jesus. And he teaches the steps to freedom: Virtue ("repent"), Solidarity ("share with the poor") and, when government encroaches on basic freedoms, push back. Amen.
*Charles Murray identified four "founding virtues." He writes "Two of them are virtues in themselves - industriousness and honesty - and two of them refer to institutions through which right behavior is nurtured - marriage and religion." In his book "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," he uses sociological studies to demonstrate how we are losing those virtues - and how that loss is changing our country. As they say, it ain't a pretty picture. I found the book very thought provoking, especially for us who have the task of teaching those virtues.
Another perhaps surprising book on the relationship of virtue and democracry is: "Why Catholicism Matters: How Catholic Virtues Can Reshape Society in the 21st Century" by Bill Donohue. He has a nice quote from Fareed Zakaria:
"Greece was not the birthplace of liberty as we know it. Liberty in the modern world is first and foremost the freedom of the individual from arbitrary authority, which has meant, for most of history, from brute power of the state." Zakaria puts his finger on how this first evolved: "The Catholic Church was the first major institution in history that was independent of temporal authority and willing to challenge it. By doing this it cracked the edifice of state power, and in nooks and crannies individual liberty began to grow." For this reason, he concludes that "the rise of the Christian Church is, in my view, the first important source of liberty in the West--and hence the world."
**Peter O'Toole gave a wonderful portrayal of Father Magallanes in the new movie For Greater Glory.
***Here is the Fortnight daily prayer:
Almighty God, Father of all nations, For freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus (Gal 5:1). We praise and bless you for the gift of religious liberty, the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good. Grant to our leaders the wisdom to protect and promote our liberties; By your grace may we have the courage to defend them, for ourselves and for all those who live in this blessed land. We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness, and in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, with whom you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
****An online sample homily states it this way:
Our Bishops have identified several attacks on religious liberty. The mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services that all employers, including Catholic agencies, provide health insurance for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, is a national assault on religious liberty without precedent in our history.
There are other worrying measures at the state and local level too, notably laws which prohibit the spiritual and charitable assistance given by the Church to undocumented immigrants.
When the government says that we must do what our faith forbids us to do, or when it says we cannot do what our faith mandates us to do Ė then we too might be called to have the courage of John the Baptist to refuse those unjust orders.
It is a stark question that we face: Shall the government increase, and Jesus decrease? The Fortnight for Freedom reminds us that our liberty is not something we have invented for ourselves, much less is it the largesse of the government. It is Godís gift. We have been set free in Christ Jesus for freedom. The genius of the American experiment in ordered liberty is that it recognized this. As Catholics and Americans we insist again upon that recognition. We insist today as John the Baptist insisted before King Herod; we insist today as Peter and Paul insisted before the Emperor Nero; we insist today as Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More insisted before King Henry VIII.
From the Archives:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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Parish Picture Album
Cuzco, Machu Pichu and the Sacred Valley with link to Mary Bloom Center video
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
(new, professional website)
National Petition to Stop HHS Mandate - important updates