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Here is Bishop Murphy’s homily given during the June 22 Evening of Prayer that marked the Fortnight for Freedom proclaimed by the U.S. bishops in response to current threats to religious liberty. June 22 is the feast day of SS. Thomas More and John Fisher, both martyred in the 16th century for their defense of the Church against the usurpations of King Henry VIII of England.
One book that stayed with me from my teen years was a biography of one of the martyr saints of today: St. John Fisher. All of us are very familiar with the other saint, Thomas More, who with Fisher became the two martyrs of faith and conscience whom we honor this evening. More, a great writer and true Renaissance man, is the more dramatic story. But Fisher, the quiet and unassuming bishop of Rochester, holds a fascination precisely because he was just that, a holy priest and bishop, who cared for his people, preached the truth, celebrated Mass, and was a true pastor and firm but gentle bishop in union with the pope. Because he was faithful, he was strong. And because his strength depended not on himself but on God, he was fearless when the day of testing came. While in prison, awaiting his execution, this holy bishop learned that Pope Paul III had named him a cardinal. He went to his death clad not in the robes of a cardinal. The scarlet blood of a saint became his noble vesture.
While we think of those days as historic, and thus a time when everyone was acutely aware of what was going on and what was at stake, there is no reason for us to assume that was actually the case. Probably most people then knew little of what was going on. Probably the issues were discussed then as they are now, without, however, the instantaneous information world that constantly barrages ours senses and clouds our minds. People lived, went to work, came home to families. Yet around them was swirling a challenge that would lead to a crisis and a crisis that would lead to the supremacy of the king over the Church. We know the implications of that.
We do not know now what will happen in these next months and future years of what is testing us now as a nation. But our gathering this evening to pray the psalms, listen to St. Paul’s words and reflect on the future for freedom in our country is a crucial element in our attempt to champion human dignity, religious freedom and freedom of conscience in the very nation which first proclaimed these as inalienable rights for all humankind. While the words of the Health and Human Services mandate are cloaked in bureaucratic doubletalk, the definition of religion is so clearly narrow and so dismissive of religious life in our country as to render religious people second class citizens. It is a cold irony that a definition crafted by an organization called the American Civil Liberties Union is now to become the standard to judge what is permissible and what is not permissible for religious institutions and the men and women who seek not just to believe but to profess and live out the faith they share.
The mandate that compels the provision of contraceptives, elective sterilizations and abortifacients such as Bella and Plan B, allows no exceptions except to transfer the means of providing them from the institutions to the insurers who will have to use the money from the same institutions to cover things that are contrary to the teachings of our faith and the consciences of true Catholics.
We are not seeking to scuttle any law. We are not seeking to reverse any progress made in providing sound and legitimate health care to all Americans. We are praying tonight that the narrow definition of religious institutions be changed. We insist that persons of faith have a right in conscience not to have to violate their consciences. We insist that the government cannot divide the Catholic Church into two: giving us freedom to worship and act inside the Church; but effectively telling us we have to leave our faith at the Church door and never let it be a norm for our lives or a guide for the good of society. We cannot accept this. We will not accept this.
Some try, and many have succeeded, in convincing our fellow citizens that this is all about contraception. They make a big deal that surveys show that Catholics make use of contraceptives. They caricature us bishops as old men who are stupidly obsessed with sex. Yet all we are saying is NO to a NO. Our teaching is based on a YES, a YES to life, to marriage, to the mother and to the child, a yes to the good of our society! But this mandate is dangerous not just because it imposes on us cooperation in things that are against our faith and moral teaching. It is dangerous because if the state can impose mandates against our faith and conscience in one matter of faith and life, of teaching and action, they can extend that to one imposition after another, a dictate against one religious group and every religious group, because they want conformity to their vision of a state-controlled society. In effect this means that we must accept what the state deems best for all even if religious freedom and religious belief are trampled underfoot by this kind of state control.
Our response during this Fortnight for Freedom is to pray and to learn. Blessed John Paul II once told me that, whenever we offer the witness of prayer, we witness to God’s sovereignty over human life and we offer to every person of faith or no faith an alternative to violence, hatred and division. We are one this evening in our trust in the power of prayer, our trust that our true strength comes from on high. We are one, and we will remain one, as a Church defending the rights of conscience of every human being and the full meaning of religious freedom for every person and every institution based on faith, here in our country and all around the world.
We know how we will be treated. Just like Paul! He tells us what to expect! There are many who want to dismiss us; but they keep coming back to acknowledge us. Some media tell us that we are dying but behold we live! We have to put up with the scorn of so many, being chastised because we do not follow the crowd or the messages of the elites; but they have not yet put us to death! They portray us as sad and sorrowful, not enjoying all the world offers; yet we are always rejoicing! They make fun of us and think we are poor and without power, their kind of power; but we by our lives and our works are enriching many. They think we have nothing and, by their standards, they are right. Yet we know we possess all things because we possess the love of God, the source of all things in our hearts and in this, our Church.
This evening we stand under the banner of the two great witnesses of the truth of the Church and the rightness of conscience: John Fisher and Thomas More. This evening, we commit ourselves to pray and learn, to speak and act as Church guided by the Teacher of the Gentiles, the Apostle of the Truth. He tells us that we must work together by accepting the grace of God as the basis for our making this time a day of salvation. Commending our every effort to God, we are ready to endure, as Paul did, affliction and hardships, misunderstandings and rejections. But we will do it always in purity, knowledge, patience and kindness, in a holy spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God!
May this be our prayer, this be our standard, this be our solemn commitment in the unity of God’s truth and love! May HE be with us always as we witness to God’s gift of religious freedom. May He be with us as we proclaim His truth. May He strengthen us to be faithful in our words and actions, our life and witness, even till the end of the world!