The Fundamental Freedom - Freedom of Religion

(Homily for Thanksgiving)

Bottom line: This Thanksgiving Day we express gratitude for all the blessing we have received and the freedoms we enjoy. We recognize freedom of religion as being the foundation stone for the other freedoms. And we re-dedicate to preserving that precious gift.

We have many reasons to give thanks today: For our families, our country, our parish - you can make your own list. On this Thanksgiving Day, I would like focus on one specific motive for gratitude: Freedom of Religion.

Many people do not realize that freedom of religion is starting point for other freedoms. You can verify this by reading the Magna Carta, the document that launched the modern democratic experiment. Its first clause states "that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate..."

Our own Bill of Rights gives first place to freedom of religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." The American founding fathers knew that the other rights - freedom of speech of or the press, right to peaceable assembly, and so on, depend on priority to freedom of religion.

Religion represents the deepest core of the human person - that place where we meet God and where our relationship with him touches every aspect of a person's life. If a government can violate or encroach on that core, then no other freedom is safe.

We see freedom of religion under attack in many part of the world - countries that allow no Christian Church and punish those who convert to Christ. For sure, these countries allow "freedom of worship." They allow people to, more or less, do what they want in their homes and in their hearts, but when people express a faith different from state norms, they come down hard.*

In this country we take freedom of religion for granted. It is hard to imagine that our government could start dictating what churches can teach or how they carry out their religious practices. Nevertheless, when the U.S. Bishops met last week, they sounded an alarm. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is the president of the Bishops' Conference, addressed the issue of religion freedom. I would like to quote him at length because what he says deserves our attention - especially on this national holiday, Thanksgiving day.

Archbishop Dolan began by quoting Pope Benedict: “in the finest traditions of the Church in this country, may you also be the first friend of the poor, the homeless, the stranger, the sick, and all who suffer.” Then he added:

"These are our finest traditions, but recent years have given us several occasions to worry about whether that tradition will continue. By means of unprecedented federal regulations, state directives and municipal ordinances, Catholic agencies have been repeatedly told that they cannot continue their grand tradition of service if they don’t compromise their faith. Catholic adoption agencies, for instance, have been driven out of adoptions if they do not assent to same-sex marriage. Overseas development agencies have had their outstanding work in combating human trafficking cut short because they refuse to facilitate abortions. Catholic hospitals, schools and universities have been told that they must provide insurance that covers services contrary to the basic good of love and life. And, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders in Alabama are protesting a state law forbidding them from feeding, clothing, and providing first aid to undocumented immigrants."

"As Catholics we have never asked that others be forced to believe as we do. We serve people because we’re Catholics, not because they are. We don’t ask the children we teach, the sick we heal, the homeless we shelter, the hungry we feed for a baptismal certificate or a passport. Nor do we ask for privileged treatment. But in turn we should never be forced to sacrifice our beliefs in order to participate fully as citizens in our common life, especially in regard to our service to the poor, the suffering, and the afflicted.

"It is not an accident that religious liberty is listed as our first freedom. If a citizen is not free in his own religious practice, in the sanctuary of his conscience before God, then how can he be free elsewhere? If the state claims that government is the king of my conscience, the ruler of my relationship with God – then is there anything the state cannon claim as its own?

"This is not a conservative/liberal issue, nor a Republican/Democratic issue. It is hardly a denominational issue. It is a human rights issue. The intrusion upon religious liberty doesn’t just scare us as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or Mormons; it frightens us as Americans."

These are strong words from Archbishop Dolan. He is hardly a prophet of doom. In fact, he is one of the most upbeat, hopeful leaders in the American church. Still, he calls us to vigilance. As Americans we are grateful to God for liberties that our fathers - and mothers - fought to establish.**

This Thanksgiving Day we express gratitude for all the blessing we have received and the freedoms we enjoy. We recognize freedom of religion as being the foundation stone for the other freedoms. And we re-dedicate to preserving that precious gift. Amen.


*By an interesting coincidence, this year Thanksgiving falls on November 24, the Feast of St. Flora of Cordoba:

Born to Muslim parents, she and her mother converted to Christianity - Flora was raised Christian, her brother Muslim. She was often abused at home for her faith. She took a private vow of chastity, and ministered to Christian prisoners. When her parents announced an arranged marriage to an Islamic man, Flora and her Christian friend Mary ran away, briefly hiding with the home of Flora's sister. The sister, however, feared being accused of harboring Christians, and threw the two out. Her brother publicly betrayed her to the Islamic authorities. She was imprisoned and scourged for her faith, escaped, was recaptured, and martyred. St. Flora was tortured and beheaded by Moors in 851.

**Here is President Obama's Thanksgiving Proclamation:

One of our Nation's oldest and most cherished traditions, Thanksgiving Day brings us closer to our loved ones and invites us to reflect on the blessings that enrich our lives. The observance recalls the celebration of an autumn harvest centuries ago, when the Wampanoag tribe joined the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony to share in the fruits of a bountiful season. The feast honored the Wampanoag for generously extending their knowledge of local game and agriculture to the Pilgrims, and today we renew our gratitude to all American Indians and Alaska Natives. We take this time to remember the ways that the First Americans have enriched our Nation's heritage, from their generosity centuries ago to the everyday contributions they make to all facets of American life. As we come together with friends, family, and neighbors to celebrate, let us set aside our daily concerns and give thanks for the providence bestowed upon us.

Though our traditions have evolved, the spirit of grace and humility at the heart of Thanksgiving has persisted through every chapter of our story. When President George Washington proclaimed our country's first Thanksgiving, he praised a generous and knowing God for shepherding our young Republic through its uncertain beginnings. Decades later, President Abraham Lincoln looked to the divine to protect those who had known the worst of civil war, and to restore the Nation "to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union."

In times of adversity and times of plenty, we have lifted our hearts by giving humble thanks for the blessings we have received and for those who bring meaning to our lives. Today, let us offer gratitude to our men and women in uniform for their many sacrifices, and keep in our thoughts the families who save an empty seat at the table for a loved one stationed in harm's way. And as members of our American family make do with less, let us rededicate ourselves to our friends and fellow citizens in need of a helping hand.

As we gather in our communities and in our homes, around the table or near the hearth, we give thanks to each other and to God for the many kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives. Let us pause to recount the simple gifts that sustain us, and resolve to pay them forward in the year to come.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 24, 2011, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to come together whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors to give thanks for all we have received in the past year, to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and to share our bounty with others.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand eleven, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-sixth. General Intercessions (Prayers of the Faithful) for Thanksgiving Day Mass

From Archives (Thanksgiving Day Homilies):

Without Gratitude
The Fundamental Freedom - Freedom of Religion
Great Dividing Line
The Power of Gratitude
Thanksgiving and Salvation
Howard Hughes vs. Dostoevsky
The Radical Virtue
Thanksgiving Day 1988

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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Billings Retreat on Amantani Island

(Oct 2007)

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