'Let Religious Freedom Ring' diocesan initiative to celebrate 'Fortnight for Freedom'
By TARA CONNOLLY
A celebration coinciding with a series of feasts of great martyrs who faced political oppression is set to ignite a fire in the Diocese of Allentown casting light on the importance of defending religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops suggestion to celebrate a "Fortnight for Freedom," the diocese will steer the local initiative "Let Religious Freedom Ring" Thursday, June 21 through Wednesday, July 4.
The 14-day period of prayer, education and action was created to support religious freedom that is being threatened by several government initiatives
The most well-known action is the Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to cover contraception, abortifacients and sterilization services that violate the moral consciences of Catholics and other citizens.
The initiative will be guided by the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty recent document "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty" that summons fellow Catholics and U.S. citizens to be on guard as religious liberty is under assault.
Father Thomas Dailey, associate chaplain of the diocesan St. Thomas More Society and director of the Salesian Center for Faith and Culture at DeSales University, Center Valley, said the effort is primarily designed to celebrate religious freedom – the foundation of all other freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights.
"Unfortunately, that religious freedom is in jeopardy today, as both legislation and rhetoric threaten to reduce it to a private, individual matter. So, this diocesan and national campaign seeks to bring attention to the present-day situation and move citizens of every faith and none to recognize what's happening so that they may join together to protect and promote 'our first, most cherished liberty,'" he said.
"As we see it, preserving religious freedom is something 'too sacred for silence,'" which is the tagline of the diocesan initiative.
Fortnight for Freedom will open with a Mass on Thursday, June 21, the vigil of the Feast of St. Thomas More, who lost his life opposing King Henry VIII's plan to subordinate the church to the English monarchy.
St. John the Fisher, another martyr who shares the same feast, was executed for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as the supreme head of the church. The Mass will be celebrated by Bishop John Barres at St. Thomas More, Allentown at 6:30 p.m.
"It is fascinating how the lives of saints who lived in centuries before us are still so relevant. St. Thomas More, the patron of statesmen, politicians and lawyers, and St. John Fisher, are martyrs who teach us about courage, fortitude, perseverance and a love for the truth and a love for the cross," said Bishop Barres.
On Sundays June 24 and July 1, parishes throughout the diocese will pray for the intention of preserving and promoting religious freedom.
"We are seeking to motivate the faithful to make use of our best resource, namely, prayer," said Father Dailey.
Mary Fran Hartigan, secretary of the Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization, explained that while the fortnight will provide opportunities for people to come together to witness, study and learn about Christian and American liberty, prayer is the critical aspect of the event.
"Most of all we want to encourage people to pray. For those who cannot participate in person, you can unite in prayer. We must never underestimate the power of prayer. It is through prayer and God's abundant grace that hearts can be changed. Our freedom is found in God, and Jesus is the true source of our freedom," said Hartigan.
The fortnight will also offer two public seminars Saturdays, June 23 and June 30 at Alvernia University, Reading and DeSales. The format for these events will include a presentation on the USCCB document, a panel discussion, an open forum and the prayer for liberty. Panelists will include academic experts such as a historian, a theologian and a lawyer.
In addition, five catechetical events sponsored by the Knights of Columbus (KOC) are scheduled Monday through Friday, June 25 to 29 in each deanery. These events will include a presentation on the USCCB document, a talk by a local attorney and/or local pastor, and the prayer for liberty.
The catechetical events are:
Schuylkill Deanery – Monday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at KOC Schuylkill Council No. 0431, 106 N. Sixth St., Pottsville.
Berks Deanery – Monday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at Berks Catholic High School, Reading.
Carbon Deanery – Tuesday, June 26 at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph, Summit Hill.
Northampton Deanery – Wednesday, June 27 at 7 p.m. at Notre Dame of Bethlehem.
Lehigh Deanery – Friday, June 29 at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph, Limeport.
Catechesis on the subject of religious freedom will also take place during meetings for diocesan organizations, including the Lehigh Valley Chapter of Legatus, the Catholic Business Owners Alliance and the St. Thomas More Society.
Public action is being spearheaded by the diocesan Commission for Women, which will sponsor a physical and electronic petition/letter signing drive at all campaign events and deliver the results to the appropriate legislators.
"This is an opportunity to inspire people to act on behalf of our freedom," said Father Dailey.
Bishop Barres said Catholics and all citizens are invited to the fortnight.
"It is a reminder that Catholics and all Americans need to be vigilant and proactive in prayer and sacrifice for religious freedom, and in proactive activity in every sphere to raise consciousness about protecting and defending our country's rich legacy and heritage of religious freedom," he said.
The signature and closing event of the two weeks will be the "Ringing of Bells" on Wednesday, July 4 at noon. Any and all individuals and institutions within the five-county diocese are invited to join the bell-ringing on Independence Day to show support for religious freedom.
"The fortnight is about celebrating, which is why we are inviting everyone throughout the diocese, wherever they are, to ring bells at noon on Independence Day and make joyful noise about our first freedom," said Father Dailey.
Bishop Barres will celebrate the Closing Mass Wednesday, July 4 at 9 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, Allentown. Homilist will be Msgr. Andrew Baker, pastor.
Other feasts that will be commemorated during the two weeks include the feast of St. John the Baptist (June 21), who was beheaded for reproving Herod for taking the wife of his brother, and the feast of SS. Peter and Paul (June 29), who were martyred in Rome during the persecution of Christians.
Bishop Barres reflected on G.K. Chesterton, an English writer, who foresaw the reverberation of the lives of saints in the 21st century.
"I have always appreciated Chesterton's words written in 1929: 'Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying. But he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years' time,'" said Bishop Barres.
Resources for the initiative and for continuing education about religious freedom will be available on the website, letreligiousfreedomring.org, by mid-June. A special feature of the website will be the digital countdown to the signature bell-ringing event on July 4.