The Church in the United States will once again observe the Fortnight for Freedom from June 21–July 4. This two-week period is an opportunity for the whole Church to pray, study, and reflect upon the great gift of religious freedom—our first, most cherished liberty.
The theme of this year’s Fortnight for Freedom is “Witnesses to Freedom.” Each of us is called to be a witness in our own time. But how does one serve as a witness to religious freedom? And who are our models?
The freedom to serve
First, we need to be clear about our terms. Religious liberty is the freedom necessary for people of faith to fully live out their beliefs in society. It is both the freedom from being coerced into beliefs or actions that violate one’s convictions, and it is also the freedom to respond to the call of the Creator in word and deed—both as individuals and corporately as a church.
Unfortunately, in the United States today, hostility to religion by the state and in the culture is growing. Religion generally, and Christianity in particular, is seen less and less as a benevolent, humanitarian presence in our community, and more as a harmful element in the lives of individuals and society.
When tempted to despair about the state of religious freedom in the United States, we must remember that the Church has seen and withstood many worse challenges than what we face today. Unlike Catholics in some countries who are suffering direct and immediate persecution, and who cannot even worship freely, American Catholics are not in any immediate danger of being thrown to the lions by the state.
But the Greek word for witness is “martyr,” and a different kind of martyrdom—expulsion from a profession, loss of a job, having to close one’s business or ministry, penalization by the government, enduring social scorn and ridicule for standing up for what is right—is very real and is becoming more and more prevalent.
Witnesses of holiness, witnesses of freedom
As we prayerfully consider the challenges we face as a society and as a Church, we can look to the witness of the communion of saints and draw strength from their example and graces from their intercession. We never know when that moment will come, the moment encountered by so many saints, where we must offer true witness to the Gospel. It may come in small things, or it may be a very public challenge to our faith and livelihood. We must all pray and look to the saints as models and intercessors that we, too, may stand firm and persevere.
But most importantly, we must imitate the saints, and forge our own paths to holiness in the little things of life, and in the concrete circumstances in which we have been called. Each of us is called to be a missionary disciple, and no matter who we are or where we live, our task as disciples is to foster an encounter between all persons and Jesus Christ. The best way to do so is by living the beauty of holiness. The humble, yet zealous practice of the faith, and going forth into society as witnesses of charity, prayer, and service will not only lead people closer to Christ, but will also be the best witness to freedom.
Remember, religion and religious believers are increasingly seen as a threat to the community. We must dispel that perception by offering a compelling witness of the beauty of the faith in our own lives.
Not everyone is called to be a martyr, but everyone is called to be a witness.