David Karas photo
David Karas photo

St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, had a front row seat to history as more than 900 men, women and children from all across the state converged on the cathedral by the busload and joined hearts, hands and voices to protect and preserve the religious freedom of all faiths.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., celebrated Mass along with more than 50 priests from across the state, during which he challenged those gathered and filling the pews to join in the fight to protect religious freedom during the first diocesan mass with such a calling.

“Things do change, things can change,” he said during his homily. “Things must change.”

Citing the words of Abraham Lincoln, Bishop O’Connell affirmed that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He said that the church community must come together.

“We see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity, endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with…courage,” he said, quoting the words of Pope Benedict XVI and calling those gathered to strengthen their fight for justice. “I look out at this congregation, and I see those people, and I sense that courage.”

He continued, “We come to pray for an end to the unwarranted and unprecedented assault on religious freedom.”

His homily drew tears from members of the congregation, and prompted a standing ovation from the crowd.

Bishop O’Connell described the “new cultural currents” that have presented an ongoing threat to religious liberty.

“They represent a threat not only to the Catholic faith, but to humanity itself,” he said, referencing in particular the threats to life, marriage and the family. It is what Pope Benedict described as “radical secularism,” that brought the more than packed crowd of believers together, Bishop O’Connell said.

“I worry that we may have set the stage by the way we are living our lives,” he said during his homily, adding that the challenges made against the Catholic faith could be rooted in perceived weakness among believers. “As Catholics, we have to take it back. We cannot allow this to continue in our Church.”

The clergy processed into the cathedral to the popular hymn, “Lift High the Cross,” an appropriate tune to rouse the courage in those gathered to stand together.

Drawing connections with the first reading, Bishop O’Connell repeated the words of St. Paul, “All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

He said that the Church has faced similar threats – and similar challenges to the ability of Catholics to practice their faith – in the past.

 “The fact that we faced this before doesn’t diminish the fact that we face this now,” he said. “The stakes are high, (and) the possible resolution could alter our lives.”

The bishop’s message was well received by John Lybarger, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Three Bridges.

“There needs to be some space made for us,” he said, asserting that the rights of Catholics and Christians to practice their faith must be maintained and must have a place in our society. “This is not over. We need some space as Christians.”

At the conclusion of the Mass, the faithful processed to the steps of the State House, where hundreds shared shouts and hugs of solidarity and strength, and held signs to get their message through to lawmakers.

The goal of the Mass and a subsequent rally was to advocate for the protection of religious freedom for members of every faith, and to show opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that forces all employer health plans to include free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs, regardless of moral or religious objections.

Religious employers like Catholic universities and hospitals will be forced to provide services that directly contradict Church teachings, Catholic leaders have said.

The “Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally” was just one of 160 similar rallies taking place the same day in 49 states across the country, organizers said, and it included a series of speakers and plenty of opportunities to share public prayer, notably when the entire crowd paused to say the “Our Father” together, as one voice.

There was also a strong sense of unity as those gathered placed their hands on their hearts and sang along in a rendition of the national anthem, and “God Bless America.”

“It is refreshing to be here on these steps,” said Father Thomas Ryan, pastor of Our Lady of Victories Parish, Sayerville, of the Diocese of Metuchen, as he addressed the crowds. “Thank you for your presence and thank you for your prayers today.”

Praising the young men and women who have fought for our country, Father Ryan said, “They put their lives on the line for the same principles we stand for today,” he said, drawing applause and cheers.

Others spoke of the importance of protecting those most vulnerable in our society – including the unborn and the elderly and disabled – and to fight to stop the government from taking away what it was created to preserve. They were supported by chants, including, “I want God” and “Obama mandate must go.”

Julie Stymacks of St. Theresa of Avila Parish, Summit, could hardly contain her sense of joy as she made her way from the cathedral to the State House and reflected on the masses of believers who came out.

“It is so energizing to be among like-minded people,” she said, adding that it was also incredibly moving to see the dozens of clergy who took part in the Mass and rally.

 “They are here, and they are spreading the truth,” she continued, “and we are hearing it, and we are feeling it. It just makes you happy.”

John Hencinsky, Respect Life Activities director for the New Jersey State Council of the Knights of Columbus, said that the number of believers at the State House was nothing short of incredible.

“I think everyone here believes that our faith is what is being attacked,” he said, adding that their presence shows that there is strong support for religious freedom. He said the message they are delivering to lawmakers is clear: “We want to practice our faith.”

Madeline Meshanko, a member of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton, said that the Mass and rally were equally moving.

“I think it is wonderful to see so many people be here and come out to glorify God,” she said. “I would love to see every church as full as the cathedral was today. When I was a kid that is the way it was.”

The 86-year-old lamented the many distractions in the world today that take away from faith. For her, what she is fighting for is well worth it.

“(With God), everything falls into place,” she said.  “When you have God, you have everything.”