This weekend, I’ve leased my weekly column for an appropriate message.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami preached this homily at a special Mass on June 19, 2016 (It has been edited for the sake of brevity).
The Church of the Little Flower is blessed today to receive relics of two great English saints: one, St. Thomas More, was a statesman, an intellectual, a Catholic layman who took his baptism seriously; the other was a bishop who also took his office as bishop seriously. Both were martyred by King Henry VIII because they would not consent to his making himself the head of the Church in England, (which he did because the Pope would not allow him to divorce his wife [to remarry]). In order to have his way, he shattered the unity of the Church in his nation by separating it from Peter and Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome. St. Thomas More’s life is recounted in a famous play, made into a motion picture called, “A Man for All Seasons.”
St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher are men for our season, for the times in which we live. Today, a regime of “political correctness” wishes to impose itself on us and force us to conform our values, our beliefs and ourselves to the ascendant secularism of our time. When “peer pressure” convinced almost everybody in Tudor England “to go along” with the King in order to “get along,” Thomas More and John Fisher dissented. Imprisoned and tortured, they refused to break away from the Church founded by Jesus Christ on the rock of Peter. As More famously said, “I die, the King’s good servant, but God’s servant first.”
For some years now, the Catholic bishops here in the United States have wanted to focus our attention on threats to religious freedom both at home and abroad. So, beginning with the feast days of John Fisher and Thomas More, and ending with our July 4th celebration of our nation’s independence, we observe a “Fortnight of Freedom”- two weeks of prayer petitioning Our Lord that this most basic human right and the foundation of all other human rights – the right to religious freedom, the right to freedom of conscience – be protected. If anyone thinks that religious freedom is not under assault in our world today, or that our concerns are a bit overwrought, I would remind you of the ongoing genocide against Christians in the Middle East. We have seen images of Christians beheaded, crucified or burned alive, simply because they professed what Peter professed: that Jesus is the “Christ of God.”
In the second decade of the 21st century, some 150,000 Christians are [being] killed for their faith every year. Like St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, and like Sts. Peter and Paul, St. John the Baptist and the first martyrs of Rome, these modern-day martyrs are victims of despotism in its hardest and harshest form.
Yet, in this country and in other liberal democracies, people of faith are being increasingly subjected to a soft despotism in which ridicule, ostracism, and denial of employment opportunities for advancement are being used to marginalize us. A new religious intolerance is being established in our country. We see this when Christian pastors are stalked and threatened for being “Christian” pastors; when social scientists are expelled from universities for having turned up “politically incorrect” facts; when charitable organizations and confessional schools are harassed if they take seriously their faith’s moral precepts and require their employees to support their missions. We see this in the refusal of the [current] Administration to accommodate Catholic institutions and businesses because of their conscientious objection to subsidizing contraception and abortions.
Sometimes, we are told, “Keep your religion to yourself” – that faith is something to be practiced in the privacy of one’s home. Religious faith is personal, but it should never be “private.” Professing a religious faith should not make anybody a second-class citizen or worse. But to stand up for the rights of conscience could require us, as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, “to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily.” This is the cost of discipleship — a cost that Thomas More and John Fisher paid courageously with their lives.
Of course, the tragic events in Orlando saddened and shocked us all. We grieve for all victims and their families. Yet, in our confusion and anger, we must be careful, lest we make truth another casualty in the aftermath of this lone-wolf terrorist attack; to blame a particular religion or religion in general for this atrocity would do just that. CNN’s Anderson Cooper rejects Pam Bondi’s expressions of sympathy because she opposed same sex marriage. The New York Times editorialized that the victims were “casualties of a society where hate has deep roots.” They weren’t talking about ISIS’s caliphate but America! One bishop, who should know better, even opined: “It is religion, including our own, which targets and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgendered people.” Where in our faith, where in our teachings do we target and breed contempt for any group of people? St. Paul teaches us: “Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek… there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Our faith, our religion gives no comfort, no sanction to a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe. In any case, Christians who support traditional marriage did not kill 49 people; Omar Mateen did. Religion and freedom of religion did not enable the killing and the maiming last Sunday; an evil ideology – a corruption of Islam – did.
The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person. [It] is the right that guarantees all other rights. Peace and creative living together will only be possible if freedom of religion is fully respected.
Yet, even in the face of a growing intolerance of religion, we must, as Catholics, give witness. To fail to do so would be to fail in the charity we owe our neighbor. “Authentic witness,” Pope Francis reminds us, “is one that does not contradict, by behavior or lifestyle, what is preached with the word and taught to others.”
If we honor the memories of Thomas More and John Fisher, if we invoke their intercession today, it is because they would not contradict, by behavior or lifestyle, what they preached and what they believed. [They] are “Men for this season.” May their example inspire us and their prayers sustain us. As Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice… I know them and they follow me.” (John 10: 27)