Our first reading from the Second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy contains a sentence that jumps off the page today as we gather to pray for the preservation and protection of religious freedom in our nation. St. Paul writes: “All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).” That letter was written almost 2,000 years ago. As the saying goes, “some things never change …” But do they? Can they?
I believe that we Catholics, we Christians have an obligation to be optimistic deriving from our baptism, an obligation that confronts the times in which we now live with a resounding “Yes, things do change. Things can change. Things must change.” St. Paul, again, gives us the positive encouragement which supports that answer: “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed because you know from whom you have learned (2 Timothy 3:14).” St. Paul warns, however, “Wicked people and charlatans will go from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived (2 Timothy 3:13).”
This reading just happens to be the reading of the day. It wasn’t chosen or selected for the reason that draws us together here in the Cathedral of the Diocese of Trenton. It demonstrates the marvelous providence of God, using what is ordinary to reveal something important and compelling that might have otherwise escaped our attention.
Yes, we come together to pray for the preservation and protection of religious freedom in our nation for people of all faiths. We do so as Catholics, as believers, as religious people from every tradition but we do so in the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the most important and the most powerful act of the Catholic faith, when the Lord Jesus Christ, by his death on the cross, brought us freedom from slavery to sin, from its oppression and from its claims upon us.
There is no greater reason for our optimism, no greater motivation for social change, no greater hope for the preservation of religious freedom than the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
That assertion of faith, however, does not diminish the threat to religious freedom we face in our nation today nor does it offer us an excuse for complacency. Neither should the fact that religious people have faced such threats in every society throughout human history give us any consolation, trying to downplay the situation with thoughts like “we have faced this before.”
Make no mistake about it. The stakes are high. The potential consequences are real and dire. The possible resolution favoring the current governmental direction will change our lives by restricting the freedom we have always enjoyed in our nation to believe as we do, as we want, as we believe God calls us to. St. Paul cautions us, “Charlatans will go from bad to worse.” They will and they are.
During the recent ad limina visits of the United States Bishops to Rome, Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI told us:
At the heart of every culture ... is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good and ... about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation's founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature's God.
It is that worldview that is threatened by the recent actions of a government created to protect what it now allows, or worse, seeks to destroy. Can anyone --- believer or not --- explain why?
Our Holy Father continued:
Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such. ... The Church in the United States is called ... to proclaim a Gospel which not only proposes unchanging moral truths but proposes them precisely as the key to human happiness and social prospering … To the extent that some current cultural trends contain elements that would curtail the proclamation of these truths ... they represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself...
We see these cultural currents at work on so many fronts: against life itself, from conception to natural death; against marriage and family as the world has understood and cherished both from the beginning of human society; unbridled greed and hearts hardened to the needs of the poorest among us; doors closed that once were the only doors open to people who sought a new way of life in our country. The list goes on.
The Holy Father said:
...It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church's public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres ... Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.
And that is what brings us here, to a church, in the middle of the day at the end of a week from all over the state of New Jersey and its five dioceses. We come to pray for an end to this unwarranted and unprecedented governmental assault on religious freedom, created by the unwarranted and unprecedented intrusion of the federal government upon our ability as a people of faith to be who we are and to believe, freely and without restriction, as God has invited us to believe, has called us to believe.
But let’s be clear, an opponent strikes only when that opponent senses or perceives weaknesses in the one to be assaulted. An opponent triumphs only when the opponent discovers that such perceived weaknesses are real. I worry that we ourselves, within the Church, may have set the stage for the “radical secularism” of which Pope Benedict has spoken by the way we have failed to hand on our Catholic faith, whole and entire, to this and to the next generation.
If less than 25% of Catholics attend Mass, if less than 50% of Catholics understand that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, if a majority of our young Catholics cannot understand why the Church is unwilling to re-define marriage, if it is permissible to call oneself Catholic while holding to every teaching except those proposed and held by the Church, if marriage on the beach is preferred to marriage in a church or a funeral Mass can be dispensed in favor of a tribute in a funeral home, if we drop off our youngsters at the church door for Mass just so they can be confirmed, but do not feel obliged to attend with them, if we recognize little as sacred or true or compelling within our Church, if there is no accountability, the fault, as Shakespeare wrote, may not be “in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Yes, the government has launched the current assault. But, as Abraham Lincoln once said so wisely, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Again, Pope Benedict reminded us:
...We see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity, endowed with a strong critical sense vis-a-vis the dominant culture and with ... courage.
Thank you for being that kind of laity. Thank you for your courage.