Our First, Most Cherished Liberty

(Homily for Pentecost & Memorial Day)

Bottom line: Pentecost Sunday underscores our Christian mission. Memorial Day reminds us of the sacrifice required to maintain freedom. And our first, most cherished liberty is religious freedom.

This year Pentecost falls on a patriotic holiday - Memorial Day weekend. I would like to take advantage of this coincidence to address an extremely important issue: Freedom of religion. This is not an easy issue to address - especially in an election year - but we cannot responsibly avoid it. Our bishops are deeply concerned about attacks on religious freedom. A few weeks ago they issued a declaration titled, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." It begins with these words:

"We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud of both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens."

After speaking about how we as American Catholics have played our part in defending freedom, they raise an alarm: "Religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad."

Religious liberty is under attack.* Before addressing how this first, most cherished, freedom is under attack - in our country - let's take a look at the Scripture readings. They illustrate what religious liberty is and why it is important.

Both the reading from Acts and the Gospel begin with the disciples gathered in prayer. They are enclosed in a room - probably the same upper room where they celebrated the Last Supper. While they pray, the Holy Spirit comes upon them.

When the Holy Spirit comes, a change occurs. They are "sent." They go out to preach publicly, to heal and to reconcile men with God. They have a mission.

So, on Pentecost Sunday we see two things: prayer and mission. We begin with prayer. Prayer opens us to the Holy Spirit, and when we receive Him, he gives us a mission - a mission that brings us into the public square. Prayer and mission. The two cannot be separated.

Unfortunately not everyone understands the unity of prayer and mission. Today people are saying to us: "It's OK if you pray, but we will tell you what can do publicly." The bishops observe a subtle change in language. Government officials, instead of talking about freedom of religion, now speak about "freedom of worship." This might seem small, but it has huge implications. It's like saying to the Apostles: "You can pray any way you want, but stay in your own little room. Don't bother the rest of us. We will tell you what you can and cannot do when you go out of that little room."

That is happening today. The bishops point out areas where the government is attempting to restrict our mission. They give seven examples. I am sure you have heard about the most notorious case: The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. As the bishops explain, this mandate would force almost all religious institutions - including Catholic hospitals, schools and parishes - to "facilitate and fund a product contrary to their moral teaching."

People used to say the Church should stay out of people's bedrooms. Now they are saying the Church should pay for what people do in their bedrooms!**

We would be required to facilitate the use of these products not only for married couples, but also for singles, college students, even high school youth. Some bishops - for example, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago - have stated that if this mandate becomes effective, they will close hospitals or schools rather than submit to such a violation of conscience.

You might be thinking, Oh, that will never happen in our country. Well, something comparable has already happened. To put that case in context, I would like to address a misgiving.

Some people are worried that religious liberty will become a partisan, political issue, especially in an election year. That's a valid concern, but a couple of things need to be said: First, as the bishops point out, they didn't choose this fight or its timing. Second, threats to religious freedom come from both sides of the political spectrum.

Among the attacks on religious freedom, the bishops mention a law passed in Alabama that would make it "illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the word of God to, an undocumented immigrant." The Alabama bishops joined other Christian leaders in filing a suit against that law.***

If you read the document on religious freedom, you can see clearly that bishops hold no illusion that one party is all good and another all bad. Any party could do things that restrict our mission. As I mentioned earlier, the attack on religious freedom has already begun in our country. Let me quote:

"Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services - by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both - because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit."

Now, a person might say: Too bad we can't provide adoption and foster-care services in those areas, but what's the big deal if some of our work gets restricted? There's still plenty to do and no one is stopping us from going to Mass.

Personally I am not so worried about the Church. We have faced restrictions and out-right persecution - and have come through it strengthened. I am, however, more concerned as an American. If Christians are forced out of adoption services, health care, education and social services, it will hurt our country.**** And in the end, curtailing religious freedom will lead to attacks on other freedoms. It has happened in other countries and it could happen in our own.*****

A few weeks ago I was at the Evergreen Cemetery. I noticed the grave of man who is arguably the most famous resident of Snohomish Country - Senator Henry M Jackson. He has these words on his tomb:

"If we really believe in the cause of freedom, let us practice it and protect it - for humanity's future depends on it."

Freedom is not something we automatically possess. We have to fight for it. On Memorial Day we remember those who gave their lives for our country.

It is providential that Pentecost 2012 falls on Memorial Day. As we heard in the readings, the most important thing we can do is pray - open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. But prayer leads to mission: to proclaim Jesus publicly, to heal and to reconcile. No matter what any government says, we cannot give up our mission. And we know that a country, which allows freedom for that mission, will be blessed.

As our bishops state: "We are Catholics. We are Americans... Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory and instead should be complimentary." Pentecost Sunday underscores our Christian mission. Memorial Day reminds us of the sacrifice required to maintain freedom. And our first, most cherished liberty is religious freedom. Amen.


*To put this struggle in an historical context, I would like to recommend Bad Religion, How We Became a Nation of Heretics. It comes from a surprising source - a young New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, himself a convert to the Catholic faith.

In the first part of Bad Religion, Douthat gives a telescoped history of how Christianity arrived at its present crisis. I found the history true to my experience as a seminarian in the sixties, a young priest in the 70's and 80's and now, entering my fifth decade of service. Besides a compelling description of those years, he also gave me plenty of matter for an examination of conscience as I reflected on my own tiny role in the events.

Regarding our present situation, Douthat argues that Americans have not so much fallen into secularism as "heresy." That is, most of our compatriots acknowledge some place for Jesus, while following deformed beliefs and practices. Douthart analyzes for major heresies: the attempt to put the Gnostic writing ("Lost Gospels") on the same level as the New Testament, the prosperity Gospel that effectively negates the pascal mystery, the pantheism of the God Within movement, and the combining of Christianity and nationalism in a way that subordinates faith to partisan politics.

Douthat unmasks these heresies in a confident, incisive manner. No doubt, Bart Ehrman, Joel Osteen, Elizabeth Gilbert, Glenn Beck and others are wincing about what Douthat writes concerning their beliefs. I hope they will not respond defensively, but that his words will help them see that they (and their followers) have room for repentance.

The bottom line for Christians is salvation of human beings. Bad Religion shows how even the best can become corrupted. That includes not only heretics, but also those striving for fidelity to ancient faith that Jesus gave the Apostles.

Douthat has written a book to savor, to mine for insights and to use for an examination of conscience.

**Note to fellow homilists: Before using this paragraph, take into account your congregation .

***Deacon Tom Tosti shared with me a letter from Archbishop Rodi of Mobile, Alabama, explaining why they filed the lawsuit.

****Not that we have all the answers, but we have made significant contributions in these areas. Historians now recognize that the institutions we most cherish - hospitals, universities, science, our modern legal system and economic theory - all developed in the Middle Ages. In other words, they formed under the influence and supervision of the Catholic Church.

*****A new movie, For Greater Glory, deals with the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico.

Spanish Version

From the Archives (Pentecost Sunday):

2016: Led by the Spirit
2015: Disciple Makers Week 8: Holy Spirit Make It Possible
2014: Practical Sign of Hope
2013: Even Greater Things
2012: Our First, Most Cherished Liberty
2011: It Was the Holy Ghost
2010: The Power of the Holy Spirit
2009: The Soul's Most Welcome Guest
2008: Double Gift
2007: With You Always
2006: He Testifies to the Truth
2005: The Greatest Unused Power
2004: A Man Open to the Holy Spirit
2003: To Drink of One Spirit
2002: Healing of Memories
2001: Hateful Comparisons & Precious Gifts
2000: The Spirit & The Flesh
1999: Each in His Native Language
1998: Empty Rites?

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