With relics of two English martyrs currently touring the U.S., the Archbishop of Baltimore implored Catholics to follow their example by defending religious freedom.

Speaking at the opening Mass of the annual “Fortnight for Freedom,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, clarified that “we are not here tonight to argue a point of constitutional law nor are we here to re-argue what has already been persuasively argued in our courts.”

“No, we are here to honor the martyrs, to celebrate the freedom to bear witness, beginning with Jesus Christ, ‘the faithful witness’ of the Father’s love, for Christ and his sacrificial love are the very heart of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

The “Fortnight for Freedom” is an annual two-week period of prayer, fasting, and education for religious freedom, called for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The fortnight begins on the eve of the feast of English martyrs Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher — whose relics are currently touring the U.S. — and ends on July 4, Independence Day.

More, chancellor of England, and Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, were beheaded by order of King Henry VIII because they would not honor him as head of the Church in England. “Both Fisher and More died not merely for freedom of conscience in the abstract but for freedom of conscience in defending marriage and the rights of the Church,” Archbishop Lori said.

Yet they, and martyrs throughout the centuries, followed Christ’s example of meekness and self-sacrifice, he noted.

“All these martyrs faced unjust judgment yet responded truthfully and respectfully to their accusers,” he said, and they “re-produced in their own flesh the sacrificial death of Christ.”

Their witness to the Church’s teaching is an example for Catholics everywhere to defend freedom of religion, Archbishop Lori insisted, adding that Catholics should remember all the martyrs, particularly those of recent decades.  

“We may think that the days of the martyrs have ended but as Pope Francis points out there are more martyrs for the faith in our times than there were during the first centuries of the Church,” Archbishop Lori said, noting Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant martyrs under Nazism and Communism that formed an “‘ecumenism of blood,’ as Pope Francis says.”

Recent years have seen the martyrdom of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, he continued.

Yet religious freedom is now under siege even in the U.S., he said, noting threats like “the HHS mandate which seeks to force religious employers to provide in their employee health insurance plans so-called services contrary to deeply held teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Other threats include the marginalization of or legal action against people in fields of medicine, business, or charitable work because they obey their consciences and “uphold traditional marriage” or another Church teaching, he said.

“Let us indeed ‘read the signs of the times’ as we witness what Pope Francis calls a ‘polite persecution’ going on all around us,” the archbishop added.

He acknowledged that these threats “pale in comparison to those faced by our brothers and sisters in many parts of the world,” but then asked “who is served” by disregarding these threats. “Surely not those who remain strong in their witness in the face of violence and death!”

Christians in the U.S. might not be martyrs, but will have to uphold Church teaching in the face of an increasingly hostile secularism, he warned.

“We may not be called upon to shed our blood but we are called upon to defend our freedoms not merely in the abstract but as embedded in matters such as immigration, marriage, and the Church’s teaching on sexuality.”

When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, he was not a “rabble-rouser seeking confrontation with the state,” the archbishop said. Rather, Jesus was “the very personification of the Beatitudes he once proclaimed on the mountainside.”

He was “in the sovereign freedom of the Father’s love: poor in spirit with few possessions and no visible means of defense; full of sorrow and anguish for our sins; meek and mild, the Lamb of God, seeking only the Father’s will; a man of singlehearted love who came to bring us the peace of God’s kingdom, and who was now being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”

“No decision Pilate could render would deter Him from his mission. Caesar could not touch the things of God,” he said. Christians must live this same freedom of spirit, he insisted, if we wish to be catalysts of peace and justice in our land.”

Christians must be witnesses to the freedom of Christ and the martyrs, “by loving and praying for those who engage in violent persecution, as well as those who seek to limit our ministries and curtail our freedoms at home.”

“We know not what the future holds, but let us approach it as Jesus would, with ‘heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience’,” he concluded. “If we do so, then, no matter happens, we shall truly be free!”

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