The Fifth Sunday of Easter (B)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today Saint Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles, presents us with two opposite dispositions: one of fear and one of boldness. Whereas the disciples lived in fear, Saul “spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:29). Indeed, he even “spoke and debated with the Hellenists” who wanted to kill him (Acts 9:29).
The fear of the disciples in Jerusalem is – in some way – understandable. It was Saul, after all, who stood by at the stoning of Saint Stephen and “was consenting to his death” (Acts 8:1). Who could fault the disciples for “not believing that [Saul] was a disciple” when they saw the man “whose very look inspired fear” (Acts 9:26). Finally, through the efforts of Saint Barnabas, whose name appropriately means “Son of Encouragement,” the disciples come to accept Saul as one of their own (cf. Acts 9:27-28).
This situation of the early Church is not so different from the context in which we find ourselves today. I ask you: When was the last time you spoke out boldly in the name of the Lord? When did you last proclaim the Gospel to your family, friends, co-workers or even strangers? When was the last time you defended the Catholic faith from assaults or misconceptions? To put it another way: Are you bold in your faith or fearful?
To be bold is not an expression we commonly use these days. When we do speak of someone being bold, it is usually not as a good thing. For example, “That was rather bold of him,” we might say of someone who has overstepped his bounds to offer a suggestion or make a request. But of the meanings which the dictionary gives to the word bold, this is the fifth meaning. The primary meaning of the word bold is “not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible rebuff; courageous and daring.” Indeed, the word itself comes from the Old English word meaning “brave, confident, or strong.” Are you brave, confident, and strong in your faith?
Faced with mounting threats to our religious freedom, our Bishops have called us to a Fortnight for Freedom. Some of these threats to our religious liberty include:
• The federal mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services that would force Catholic institutions to provide contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in violation of our religious beliefs;
• State immigration laws that would make it illegal for a priest to baptize or even hear the confession of an illegal immigrant (such a law has been passed in Alabama);
• Government attempts to alter the structure of the Church, such as happened in 2009 in Connecticut when the legislature attempted to restructure parishes according to a congregational model and to redefine who a Catholic “religious minister” is;
• Discrimination against student groups because of their faith, such as at the University of California Hastings College of Law or at Vanderbilt University where student religious groups cannot require their leadership to be of the same faith as the group;
• In Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the State of Illinois Catholic Charities has been forced out of adoptions and foster care;
• In New York City and in other places, Christian groups are not allowed to rent public schools on weekends even when other groups may do so;
• And the federal government has recently discriminated against Catholic humanitarian services by refusing contracts with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services only because it will not provide abortions and contraception.
These are just some of the assaults on our religious freedom and they will only grow unless we speak up.
Beginning on June 21st, the vigil of the Feasts of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, through July 4th, Independence Day, this Fortnight for Freedom called for by our Bishops is meant to be “a great hymn of prayer for our country. ”
Since the founding of these United States of America, Catholics “have been staunch defenders of religious liberty” and “we have a solemn duty to discharge that duty today. We need, therefore, to speak frankly with each other when our freedoms are threatened. Now is such a time.”
This is the time for us to follow the example of Saint Paul who spoke boldly in the name of the Lord and spoke and debated with the Hellenists. The Hellenists with whom Paul debated likely included “Jews and Christians in a city-wide constituency.” It is time for us also to speak boldly in the name of the Lord and to debate with the Hellenists of our own day, who are both within and without the Church.
In our efforts to defend our religious liberty, we must make it clear that we are not seeking special treatment, but rather the freedom to live our faith freely and that this right is guaranteed by the First Amendment; in fact, it is the first of our freedoms. We seek not a sacred public square, but “a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square.”
In their statement on religious liberty, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, our Bishops wrote:
As bishops we seek to bring the light of the Gospel to our public life, but the work of politics is properly that of committed and courageous lay Catholics. We exhort them to be both engaged and articulate in insisting that as Catholics and as Americans we do not have to choose between the two. There is an urgent need for the lay faithful, in cooperation with Christians, Jews, and others, to impress upon our elected representatives the importance of continued protection of religious liberty in a free society.
They went on to remind us that
this ought not to be a partisan issue. The Constitution is not for Democrats or Republicans or Independents. It is for all of us, and a great nonpartisan effort should be led by our elected representatives to ensure that it remains so.
To be sure, the task before us is neither easy nor simple and it will require much boldness on our part even when we may be afraid or feel intimidated in the face of such strong opposition. But we must remember the words of Saint Paul: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self-control” (II Timothy 1:7). Or, as William Shakespeare put it, “Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.”
All of our efforts and all of our words must be grounded in prayer, which is why our Bishops have called us to this coming Fortnight for Freedom to pray for our country. It is a way of reminding us that we seek to remain always attached to the vine that is Jesus Christ, because “just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can [we] unless [we] remain in [him]” (John 15:4).
By receiving strength from Jesus Christ who has given us his Spirit and who nourishes and strengthens us with his Body and Blood, we, too, can and should speak boldly in the name of the Lord. When we do so, we, too, with Saint Barnabas, become sons and daughters of encouragement, because “what is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society – or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it.” We must not forget that an assault on religious liberty is an assault on civil society.
May the Lord see fit to bless our efforts to defend religious liberty so that we may truly sing with the Psalmist: “I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people” (Psalm 22:26). Amen. Alleluia!