Years ago, when I was Cardinal Hickey’s priest-secretary here in Washington, an old friend of mine came to visit me; I hadn’t seen him in years. He was curious about my service to the Cardinal and wanted to see where I worked. I tried to give him some idea about what a priest-secretary does – arranging and managing the Archbishop’s schedule, assisting with ceremonies, preparing for events, and helping with the flow of correspondence. I also introduced my friend to Cardinal Hickey who greeted him warmly. As my friend and I walked around the chancery office, he stopped and said: “You don’t know how good you have it!” To tell you the truth, I was surprised. It’s not that I thought I was in a bad situation, but it took someone with fresh eyes to make me aware of the many blessings God had given me. In essence, he said to me, “Don’t take your blessings for granted.”
I thought of my friend when Pope Francis visited the United States last month. Until then, Pope Francis had never been in this country. It was obvious to everyone that he prepared carefully for the visit by studying our language, history, and culture. But he didn’t merely read speeches prepared by advisors. He looked at us with fresh eyes. He reminded us of the blessings God bestowed on us and told us not to take them for granted. We should rather cherish them and use them to serve those the needy & vulnerable.
Reprising the Pope’s Message of Religious Freedom
The White House
One blessing that Pope Francis spoke about frequently is religious freedom. In his address on the South Lawn of the White House, Pope Francis spoke of the commitment of faithful people to build a society that is “truly tolerant and inclusive”, a society that rejects “every form of unjust discrimination.” Here we saw the Pope taking a second look at people of faith in the United States. He was pointing out to the President and to the Nation religious people are not, for most part, motivated by narrow self-interest but rather by a deep-seated desire to build our society upon respect for others, including those with whom we sincerely differ. And in seeking justice and tolerance people of faith are concerned that society “respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty.” He added, “Religious liberty remains one of America’s most precious possessions” and I was delighted that he expressed his support for the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ efforts to preserve and defend religious freedom.
In his remarks at the White House, the Pope did not mention any specific issue such as the Health and Human Services mandate that would involve many church-sponsored ministries and institutions in facilitating the provision of abortifacients, sterilizations, and contraceptives. Later that day, however, the Pope visited the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington who are prominent in their courageous resistance to that mandate. How grateful we should be to the Little Sisters of the Poor for their courage!
Address to the Congress
In addressing Congress, Pope Francis returned to the importance of religious freedom. Again, he helped us see ourselves anew, first by pointing to the image of Moses in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Through Moses we received the Ten Commandments, a privileged expression of the law of God written on the human heart. Just legislation that reflects God’s law unifies peoples and nations because it respects transcendent human dignity. Unjust legislation divides peoples and nations and tramples human dignity. Today we see this with stark clarity in parts of the Middle East where full-blown religious persecution, even genocide, is underway, an unfolding tragedy which Pope Francis has spoken about time and again.
The Holy Father also focused our attention on iconic figures in our culture, among them President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He called Lincoln “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly”, that “this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom.” Pope Francis reminded us that this “new birth of freedom” requires us to serve the common good with bedrock convictions about our shared human dignity and respect for institutions such as family and church that support human dignity. These convictions prompt us to defend God-given freedoms and rights while resisting efforts to use religion for unjust and violent purposes. Indeed, the Pope urged us to use our freedoms to build bridges of understanding and cooperation wherever possible. In that spirit, the Pope referred to Martin Luther King’s leadership “full civil and political rights for African Americans”. This, he said, should inspire all citizens of the United States to live up to the founding principles and ideals of our country. and to welcome immigrants who are seeking the blessings of liberty for themselves and for their families.
A few days later, the Holy Father spoke at Independence Hall in Philadelphia which he called “the birthplace” of the United States. Again the Pope held up for us anew the ideals on which we were founded, namely, that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.” Here too the Holy Father’s words helped us see with renewed clarity the political and social struggles that mark our own history as a nation. Fulfilling our country’s founding vision hinges on preserving of religious freedom… understood not just as freedom to worship but also as the right and duty of believers to be active in the public square, reminding everyone that we are made for God and that our dignity transcends this world.
The Holy Father went on to say that religious traditions have the right to “serve society primarily by the message they proclaim” and pointed out the danger of an overarching secularism that tries “to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity.” Here the Holy Father puts his finger on the nature of religious liberty struggles we are presently undergoing in the United States. At times government tries to force individuals to cease running their businesses according to their deeply held religious convictions; There are efforts to force religious institutions that serve the common good to compromise their deeply held religious convictions and moral teachings. And when people of faith seek to put their religious convictions into practice, especially those that pertain to the nature of marriage and the family, then they are sometimes labeled as bigots, as devotees of discrimination. Indeed, religious liberty is not real if we are unfree to proclaim and to live according to convictions that are culturally unpopular; or if it is said that we are free to advocate for such views but then we are fined, taxed, jailed, or otherwise marginalized when we try to act upon our convictions.
The Airborne Newsconference
When the Pope concludes his visits, his messaging is not over. We’ve all learned to tune in to his homeward bound airborne news conference. So, at 30,000 feet he spoke about conscientious objection in our culture, that is to say, the rights of conscience. He affirmed that conscientious objection is a human right that one does not lose just because one is government worker. Whatever else one may say, it is clear that the Pope knows his own mind on the subject of the right to conscientious objection. It is a right that protects not popular points of view but to protect those convictions that are unpopular, countercultural.
All of which brings me back to the observation of my friend of long ago who helped me see how God was blessing my life. The Pope, who bears in his heart the plight of refugees and persecuted Christians, helped us to see how blessed we are in the freedoms we enjoy. But he also spoke of our need to dialogue courageously with our culture so as to preserve our freedoms so that we may use them in building a culture that is just and loving, a true “civilization of love”.