Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

How to be free in the Lord

November 10, 2013

In the last seven months, Pope Francis has seized the imagination of the world and fascinated many who usually pay little attention to a pope. There are many reasons for this marvelous development, but one reason that most fascinates me is the personal freedom he enjoys and models in a role that is steeped in tradition. Freedom as a Gospel virtue is lived personally when a disciple of Jesus identifies himself first of all as a sinner, as the pope recently did. Then it is clear that the fascinating and joyful personal freedom we see in him is a gift, not a claim.

In the past several months, Pope Francis has expressed what he means by freedom in several areas of concern to the church’s mission. At the end of September, he issued a letter for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. He situated immigration from one country to another in the context of the multitude of people who are part of the mobility of a global society. What impedes their freedom?

“Not infrequently,” the pope writes, “the arrival of migrants, displaced persons, asylum-seekers and refugees gives rise to suspicion and hostility. There is a fear that society will become less secure, that identity and culture will be lost, that competition for jobs will become stiffer and even that criminal activity will increase. The communications media have a role of great responsibility in this regard … A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization — all typical of a throwaway culture — towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”

The pope is not speaking to the situation of a particular country, but the attitude he encourages is the basis of what the U.S. bishops have asked everyone to work toward for many years now: a reformed immigration law that will permit the 11 million illegal immigrants who have been part of our society for many years to follow a path toward legalization of their status. The details depend on legislators, but the goal is freedom for everyone, for those of us who were born here as well as for immigrants. Freedom is a gift we give to each other in a culture of encounter.

Genuine marriage is also a global human institution that challenges any sense of freedom that pits one individual against another. Pope Francis at World Youth Day shared with the young people gathered there his vision of marriage built on the freedom of self-sacrifice: “Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion. Is it out of fashion? In a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of ‘enjoying’ the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘for ever’, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide: yes, I am asking you to rebel against that culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love … Have the courage ‘to swim against the tide.’ And also have the courage to be happy.”

Killing another obviously deprives him or her of freedom as well as life. The Respect Life message of the U.S. bishops this year has been built on Pope Francis’ call this past month to “Open your hearts to life!” This means that the church, as the pope explains, must be a field hospital on the battleground of a broken world. This is the spirituality of the Good Samaritan that Pope Paul VI urged at the end of the Second Vatican Council. For Pope Francis, living freely means protecting those at the margins of society, especially the unborn who are “jettisoned in a throw-away culture.”

In speaking to the Brazilian bishops during World Youth Day in Rio last summer, the pope spoke about the relationship between freedom and the church’s mission: “In the context of society, there is only one thing which the church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide. In so doing, she defends treasures of which she is merely the custodian, and values which she does not create but rather receives, to which she must remain faithful.

“The church affirms the right to serve man in his wholeness, and to speak of what God has revealed about human beings and their fulfillment. The church wants to make present that spiritual patrimony without which society falls apart and cities are overwhelmed by their own walls, pits and barriers. The church has the right and the duty to keep alive the flame of human freedom and unity.”

Freedom is lost when a person captured by self-righteousness demands approval of anything he or she does. Freedom is found when a person asks humbly for the righteousness of God to fill his or her life. This is the virtue of freedom developed in line with the church’s moral and social teaching. Like Pope Francis, we personally enter the way of freedom with the confession of sin we make at the beginning of every celebration of Mass and in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. We find the gift of freedom in the reception of the Eucharist that fills our hearts with the joy of being intimately united with Jesus, whose truth sets us free.

Pope Francis can’t make us free, but he effectively shows us how to live freely as disciples of Jesus in his Body, the church. God bless you.


  • bishops
  • pope francis
  • refugees
  • immigrants