A man prays amid the overflow crowd during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington July 4, the final day of the bishops' "fortnight for freedom" campaign. The observance, which began with a June 21 Mass in B altimore, was a two-week period of prayer, education and action on preserving religious freedom in the U.S. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Masses, devotions, rallies mark US church's 'fortnight for freedom'

By  Maria-Pia Negro, Catholic News Service
  • July 6, 2012

WASHINGTON - When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked Catholics to dedicate 14 days to the preservation of religious freedom through prayer, education and public action, they listened.

Catholics in dioceses across the United States participated in Masses, devotions, holy hours, educational presentations and rallies during the June 21 to July 4 campaign to support the nation's "first and most cherished freedom" and draw attention to actions Catholic and other religious leaders say are weakening religious liberty, including the federal contraceptive mandate.

The U.S. bishops' campaign began on the vigil of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More with Mass June 21 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore celebrated by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom.

He held up the two martyrs as a source of inspiration for American Catholics, saying "their courageous witness of faith continues to stir the minds and hearts of people yearning for authentic freedom, and specifically, for religious freedom," he said.

The fortnight closed on Independence Day with Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and the tolling of bells at churches across the country at noon Eastern time.

Fortnight events in dioceses around the country included an Independence Celebration Walk & Picnic in Des Moines, Iowa; a motorcycle "Rosary Ride for Religious Freedom" in Colorado Springs, Colo.; nonpartisan voter registration drives after Masses in Atlanta parishes; a religious liberty conference in Covington, Ky.; an outdoor Faith and Freedom Mass in a park band shell in Savannah, Ga.; and a prayer service with special petitions for the fortnight in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio.

In the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., Catholics participated in a 12-hour marathon of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament at the Church of St. Joseph in Brooklyn. Jocelyn Rodriguez, a teenager from St. Elizabeth Parish in Ozone, N.Y., organized youth groups to lead the faithful during the vigil.

In upstate New York, parishioners in the Rochester Diocese participated in a 14-day-long Festival for Freedom at a retreat house in Canandaigua. The free events include a speaker series on the topics of ethics, justice and natural law; Masses and prayer services; and plays and other activities.

Organizers described the festival as "a time and place to renew our commitments, to learn about our country's founding principle of religious freedom and to join with others who feel strongly that, unless current trends and mandates are reversed, the core principle of freedom of religion will be eroded."

At Holy Family Catholic Church in Orlando, Fla., students in grades 6 to 12 participated in an obstacle course and a scavenger hunt to find items representing faith and liberty.

"We are blessed to live in a great nation founded on religious freedom in which all of our natural freedoms are protected," Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito of Palm Beach told the Florida Catholic diocesan newspaper. "That is evident as we legitimately and respectfully gather today to join in prayer and make our voices heard in regard to the protection of religious freedom."

Morning rains did not stop 700 people from attending a June 23 rally where Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha, Neb., spoke on religious liberty issues. Across the archdiocese, parishes sponsored movie nights and "Faithful Citizenship" presentations.

In the nation's capital, more than 2,000 Catholics from all over the Washington Archdiocese prayed and sang patriotic hymns at a June 24 rally at George Washington University's Smith Center. The event highlighted the Catholic heritage of the United States. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington recalled Blessed John Paul II's first public Mass as pope when he called the faithful to put aside fear and to express their beliefs.

"The call is not just for priests to preach, but for the laity to respond. The response is threefold: prayer, education and action. The most important is prayer," Cardinal Wuerl said.

The Catholic bishops of Kansas sponsored a statewide rally for religious freedom in front of the state Capitol in Topeka June 29. Catholics in Iowa and Illinois also had marches to their respective state capitols in Des Moines and Springfield.

The Diocese of Allentown, Pa., sponsored a campaign called "Let Religious Freedom Ring," which included five catechetical talks presenting USCCB documents on religious freedom and public seminars at universities.

The Little Sisters of the Poor in Scranton, Pa., held a daily holy hour during the fortnight in the chapel of their Holy Family Residence.

At Mass June 24 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez urged Catholics to remember that the fortnight was not about politics.

"The greatest threat to our freedom of religion doesn't come from our government or from forces in our secular society; the greatest threat we face comes from our own lack of faith and our own lack of courage," he said.

The fortnight spurred ecumenical and interfaith celebrations across the nation, uniting Catholics and other people of faith.

On June 22, about 1,000 people gathered at Marist Catholic School's football stadium in Atlanta for an interfaith event.

Oklahoma City's Rally for Religious Freedom June 23 drew Christians of many denominations to the Cox Convention Center.

In San Antonio, the interfaith community celebrated freedom of religion with a televised prayer service June 26. The group included representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, Baha'i, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths.

"All people of faith must stand with the Catholic Church in protesting this mandate, which represents a slippery slope for greater government intrusion and control over religious institution," said an interfaith grass-roots organization called Conscience Cause.

In Wisconsin, events included a June 24 ecumenical hour of prayer and a presentation on the "unprecedented threats to American religious freedom."

In an email message, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki told Catholics that people of faith "have a right to take our faith outside the confines of the walls of our churches. Simply put, we will not demand a baptismal certificate to see if people in need of our services are Catholic when we distribute food in our soup kitchens."

"When the bishops speak up on other rights such as the death penalty, the rights of immigrant or the rights of the poor, we don't hear criticism that bishops are being too political," said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser with the lay-run Catholic Association.

The organization conducted a 14-day grass-roots campaign via social media to urge Catholics to heed the bishops' call to action to protect religious freedom. Originally created in 2007, Ferguson said the organization was relaunched in March to focus on religious liberty and mobilize laypeople to speak out.

"Some have tried to revive the tired paradigm that pits conservative and liberal Catholics against each other. But that misses the real story," said Kim Daniels, coordinator of Catholic Voices USA, another lay organization that supports the role of the church in the public square.

In Illinois, Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford called Catholics to stand together in opposing the contraceptive mandate issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "We are absolutely convinced that our freedom of conscience is at stake in this matter," he said in his homily for the annual Red Mass for Religious Liberty at the Cathedral of St. Peter.

"We hold the nonpartisan high ground in a fight that we did not choose and do not want. But it has been brought to the doorstep of our institutions and our consciences and we will not turn away," he said.

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