Before I begin my preaching, I want to say how grateful I am to all of you who have come to the Cathedral this afternoon to join me in prayer and in this observance, which is the principal occasion for keeping the Fortnight for Freedom here in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Thank you all.
The Church keeps the birthday of John the Baptist as a way of marking what we might call the rhythm of salvation. Even at a human level this feast day falls into a rhythm. Perhaps you recall that three months ago on the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, we all heard the Gospel as the angel Gabriel told Our Lady her kinswoman Elizabeth was with child and was six months pregnant. And today we celebrate that birth. In fact we are six months and one day from Christmas. I hope that doesn’t scare anyone.
But this very human rhythm, this most natural rhythm that’s part of human existence, is a manifestation, a gift of an even greater rhythm of grace. The rhythm of God making a promise, sometimes waiting a long time to fulfill it, but God always keeping his word. God promised that there would be a Messiah and God had even foretold that there would be a forerunner. There would come before the Messiah, Elijah, to prepare the hearts of the people to receive the Good News of the Messiah. And that’s what we celebrate today. If Christmas is the celebration of the great Son of Jesus Christ, the great Light coming into the world, the nativity of his precursor, John the Baptist is that first pink light on the horizon foretelling the dawn to come.
We celebrate today that God has planned to deliver us and he has kept his plan. That God planned and promised to set us free and he has kept that plan. John the Baptist is the herald and witness given by God that God’s gift of freedom has come. We celebrate fidelity and we celebrate what he has accomplished. In every year this is the Church’s prayer on the 24th of June, but in keeping this year, the feast day of the birthday of John the Baptist, we are right particularly to notice how the Baptist’s coming, the work of God through the arrive of the Baptist, is about liberation, about the gift of freedom.
We didn’t hear the text today in the Gospel but perhaps you know it many of you by heart. After Zachariah’s tongue had been loosed as we heard in the Gospel and he was able to bless God, three times he speaks of freedom. Zachariah blessed God and said about him that the Messiah would come to set his people free and in that fulfillment was the fulfillment of the oath of our father, Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies. Then Zachariah repeated that notion, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight, all the days of our life.
When the Messiah came into the world according to God’s promise, a promise already made to Eve and Adam within hours after their first sin according to the Book of Genesis, when the Messiah came into the world according to God’s promise he restored to us by God’s grace a gift that belongs to us by nature. He restored our freedom. And in this year, I, along with all my brother bishops in the United States, have asked us in these days to take again possession to once more claim this precious endowment of our nature, which has been restored to us by God’s grace – our religious freedom – and to pledge once more that we will be good stewards of this freedom, not taking it for granted but claiming it and living it.
Today we have a particular challenge of course to which we bishops are responding, to which the whole Church is responding. But we are faced with a variety of laws and ordinances which would force us to enter into actions and become partners in actions which we judge contrary to God’s plan for us. We want to be saints; we want to do right; we want to live according to God’s plan. It’s wrong for others, no matter what their status or pedigree or power, to ask something other of us. The mission of the Church is to teach right from wrong, to help people understand not because we think this is what we want to do, but Christ wants us to do this. To teach how we ought to live according to God’s plan. How can we be the Church of Jesus Christ if we should be forced by our actions to betray our witness, to be seen to say one thing but seen to do another?
Religious liberty is a right that belongs to us by nature. It inheres in us simply because we’re human beings. It’s not granted even by the Constitution – it’s recognized there. We recall that every year on the 4th of July and this season, all men are endowed by their creator not by the Congress. We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Nobody can take them away from us. Religious liberty is the first of those rights, Blessed John Paul II reminded us because it’s based on our very identity as God’s creatures, that God made us to know him and love him and serve him, and nothing should or can get in the way of our responding to that duty.
Other people have other explanations for this right. In the history of our country there’s a very practical understanding, almost all of the original colonies were founded by people who came here to seek religious freedom. How would’ve it been possible for the infant United States not to have recognized that freedom? And our Founding Fathers understood that to preserve our democratic republic the people must live in virtue. How would they know and be trained, informed, in virtue without religion?
What does this mean this right to religious liberty? It means we should be free to do what our religion tells us is right. This is what we mean when we speak of the free exercise of religion, and it means we should be free to determine within the Church what we understand to be the nature of the Church. No government has the right to tell us that our service to the poor, our teaching of children who might not be of our same faith because we do it for non-Catholics and we work with non-Catholics in these great services, that somehow this is not part of our religion. It is for us to make this free determination. This is the freedom that we rightfully claim again this year. If we are not vigorous in our defense of our freedom then perhaps we don’t really deserve it. Isn’t that one of the lessons of the history of our nation?
We understand that this Fortnight of Freedom is an act of deep patriotism. Some people try to present it as a partisan act, as if we bishops were somehow naïve or perhaps even we had plotted some hoax by which we might make the life of one party or one person more difficult. Not so. We didn’t choose the time or the issue over which there would be this concern. It isn’t about persons; it’s not about parties; it’s about principle. Woe to us if we do not stand on the principle to seize and preserve the gift that God has given us. John the Baptist was herald and witness of God’s gift of freedom, how he came to his people and set them free. How he came as he promised he would to set his people free from the hands of those who oppose them.
Our celebration of this liturgy, as is every Eucharist, is always also an affirmation that whatever the law may say and however we might be coerced, we are free. In our hearts we are always free, free to make a gift of ourselves to God and to serve him first. This liturgy is a petition. We’re here to ask God to give us the strength to do our duty, to be patriots, to serve our country, to serve him, but above all, today, on the birthday of the Baptist, we’re here to thank God, to thank God that he keeps his promises, that he has never lied to us. Sometimes he delays; sometimes those whose hope is eroded will even think that he will not answer. But God does not lie but keeps his word. He preserved his son Jesus Christ even from the power of death, and marvelously restored to him life on the resurrection as he promised. And God keeps his promises always. John the Baptist is the witness and herald of that truth and John the Baptist in our midst today invites us to join him in praising and thanking God for his fidelity and for the gift of freedom that he bestows on his human family.