This weekend, we mark the anniversary of the establishment of our nation as a free and independent sovereignty. The signing of our Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 guarantees our freedom, especially that in which we can freely practice our religion as an expression of our Catholic faith, just as any other religious group is permitted to do in this country. But that guaranteed freedom carries with it the responsibility to actualize and live out that faith at all times, especially when challenged in either overt or subtle ways. That challenge becomes more evident in our country with each passing day
In this Sunday’s first reading, we hear of a prophet who is being sent to a tough audience, people who are “obstinate of heart.” Ezekiel is warned that he will be contradicted and rejected, yet he must speak the word of God whether people “heed or resist” (Ez. 2:2-5).
Jesus also encountered opposition in his own country. We see in the Gospel that the people in his hometown of Nazareth would not accept Him, and that their lack of faith prevented Him from performing any great miracle there. He remarked, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” (Mk 6:1-6). On the other hand, Jesus sometimes found great faith among people who were not of his own country or race or religion, much to the chagrin of the people of Israel. Also, when the Apostles began to preach after Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they were to find that the Gentiles responded far more readily to the message of the Gospel than did the people of Israel.
We might do well to keep this in mind in our attempts to proclaim the Gospel in these days. Many of us, of course, are glad to support the missions in faraway countries; but closer to home, we may be reluctant to talk about our faith or seek to proclaim the Good News of God’s kingdom to our family members or friends or the people we encounter in everyday life at work or in school. Yet, that is precisely what we are called to do as disciples. We may be afraid of apathy, ridicule or outright opposition, but we must follow the example of Jesus and look for more fertile ground when we are faced with people who reject the faith.
Throughout the Church’s history, her practice of charity has been the most compelling witness to the goodness of God and the value of religious devotion. Even when the experience of charity does not lead others to belief in God, it demonstrates that religious devotion makes an invaluable contribution to the common good. At the same time, through the practice of charity, believers manifest the great dignity of the human person—their own and that of the people to whom they minister. By serving others out of an authentic love grounded in faith, we witness to the ability of the human person to devote oneself freely to God and to participate in the divine life of love. Our practice of charity affirms the dignity of those we serve by demonstrating that what they need – including food, shelter, and health care – is love, because human beings are made for God, who is love.
Imitating and manifesting that divine love through our actions is the reason why freedom of religion cannot be reduced to freedom of worship. Religious liberty is more than being able to pray in our churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship; religious liberty means being able to put those beliefs into practice in our hospitals, schools and social services, such as Catholic Charities.
In this regard, Pope Francis has said that a healthy pluralism does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. In his Address to Participants in the Conference on International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values, Pope Francis remarked, “Religious freedom is not only that of private thought or worship. It is the liberty to live, both privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles resulting from found truth.”
These threats to religious freedom are occurring not just in far-away places, but right here in our own country. Through the courts of our country, we continue to hope for justice to protect our religious institutions from the threats of the federal government imposed by government mandates that require the provision of morally objectionable services.
May we heed the call of Pope Francis when he said, “We must promote religious liberty for all people. Every man and woman must be free to profess his or her faith, whatever it may be. Why? Because that man and that woman are children of God.”