SOUTH BEND — Catholics came from all over the area to St. Matthew Cathedral the evening of Friday, June 22, to attend a special Mass beginning the Fortnight for Freedom observance in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated June 21-July 4 as a two-week period of prayer, penance, education and action to secure religious liberty. The Fortnight for Freedom was prompted by a federal Health and Human Services mandate requiring all employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs. The very narrow exemption for churches does not include church-sponsored social service, healthcare or educational institutions. The bishops have said they will not provide insurance that covers immoral services, and private individuals should not be required to do so either.
Bishop John M. D’Arcy, bishop emeritus, celebrated the 7 p.m. Mass at St. Matthew Cathedral. In his homily, he said the Fortnight represented “an invitation to understand the situation that is confronting our faith and our country.”
He noted that it was appropriate to begin the Fortnight on the feast day of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, two men who took their faith so seriously that they were martyrs for religious freedom. Both men were able to remain strong through intense prayer and study, the bishop said, so the Fortnight also embarks on a period of prayer and study.
St. John Fisher was a cardinal and Bishop of Rochester, England, while Thomas More was a layman and chancellor of England. Both men were beheaded in 1535 for refusing to swear to the Oath of Supremacy that declared King Henry VIII supreme head of the church in England. Bishop D’Arcy chose to concentrate on Thomas More in his homily, for Thomas More was a leader among laity, and the bishop said our present “struggle” calls for the leadership of the laity.
Bishop D’Arcy spoke about two instances in the life of Thomas More that would help the faithful understand the challenge to religious liberty today.
The first was that Thomas More was tempted to give into the king’s demands so that he could retain his high office and the power, prestige and financial rewards that came along with it; but instead More expressed his thanks and joy that God gave him the grace to overcome that temptation. The second was More’s resistance of the temptation to sign the Oath of Supremacy, even though he was told “Everyone is doing it.”
Thomas More referred to conscience as “the judge that cannot be bribed,” and More’s conscience was not affected by standing alone, nor was it formed by the culture around him, Bishop D’Arcy continued.
Just as Thomas More refused to let the king determine the nature of the Catholic Church, “So do we,” Bishop D’Arcy said. “The right to determine what constitutes a Catholic institution and what does not, is a prerogative belonging only to the Church herself,” but that right has been “seized” by the state.
“Thomas More saw the temptation, and so must we,” he continued. “It certainly is true that it is an infringement on the whole exercise of our religious freedom. More deeply, it is also an attack on life, an assault on truth. It is an attack on our ability to define ourselves. It puts many of our Catholic institutions of social care for the needy, the sick, the dying, at risk.”
Bishop D’Arcy said that some Catholic media had ridiculed the bishops for citing the relevance of St. Thomas More to today’s situation regarding religious freedom, but he pointed out three areas of high relevance: “First, his was a minority position; so is ours. Second, he relays the decision of the successor of Peter and the universal Church; so do we. Third, his position was a matter of conscience; so is ours.”
Following the Mass, Today’s Catholic asked some of the people at the Mass why they felt it was important to attend the Fortnight for Freedom service. Franciscan Sister Angela Mellady, provincial superior of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, attended with about 20 of her sisters and some young women who were visiting their community.
“We came to support the bishops in this Fortnight for Freedom,” Sister Angela said. “I think it’s powerful to be united not only with Catholics, but with many others who are so fervent in trying to preserve religious liberty.”
Mary MacDonell, a parishioner of Corpus Christi Parish, said she was concerned about the infringement on religious liberty by the government: “To have the help and grace of God on this issue is very important,” she said, “and I just wanted to come and be a part of it.”
Anita Hunckler, a St. Matthew parishioner and the mother of seven children, said: “Our religious freedom and our Catholic faith is the only important thing in our family. We don’t have a lot of other things, but that faith thing is everything, and if that’s taken away? We pray daily for this not to come to pass, and we love what Bishop D’Arcy had to say; it was incredible.”
Three University of Notre Dame students said they also had come to pray for religious freedom: Michael Bradley, a junior from South Bend; Madeline Gillen, a junior from Naples, Fla; and Sam Bellafiore, a sophomore from Albany, N.Y., who said he came to pray “that the Church can have courage, and I can have courage in the face of this threat to religious freedom.”
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