St. Celestine marks ‘Fortnight for Freedom’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, July 15, 2012

St. Celestine marks ‘Fortnight for Freedom’

Gratitude for living in the United States mingled with anxiety about threats to religious freedom abounded in the congregation of about 100 people who assembled for a prayer service at St. Celestine Church in Elmwood Park July 3, the penultimate night of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Fortnight for Freedom.
Bishop Francis Kane preaches during a prayer service for religious freedom on July 3 at St. Celestine Parish in Elmwood Park. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Parishioners from St Celestine Parish joined guests from other parishes in song during the vigil. Bishop Francis Kane was the principal celebrant during a "Prayer Vigil for Freedom" on the closing day of events for "Fortnight for Freedom" at St. Celestine Parish in Elmwood Park on July 3. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Gratitude for living in the United States mingled with anxiety about threats to religious freedom abounded in the congregation of about 100 people who assembled for a prayer service at St. Celestine Church in Elmwood Park July 3, the penultimate night of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Fortnight for Freedom.

The service, which included Scripture readings and talks by Bishop Francis Kane and Richard Spada, state deputy for the Illinois State Council for the Knights of Columbus, had been planned for outdoors but moved inside the church as temperatures remained in the 90s even as the sun went down.

This service was just one of many events held at parishes around the archdiocese for the nationwide Fortnight for Freedom.

Bishop Kane said that it was appropriate to reflect on religious freedom on the night before the nation’s birthday.

“This has been a burning issue for the bishops, for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and indeed for the whole of the Catholic Church throughout the world,” Bishop Kane said. “When the Illinois bishops were in Rome last February for our ad limina visit, religious liberty was a topic of discussion in several of our sessions with the curial offices, and when we did meet with the pope, he spoke about religious liberty very specifically. He was very concerned.”

He noted that there are really two faces to the question of religious freedom: what is happening in the United States now, and what is happening around the world, where in some cases Catholics and other Christians face hostility and violence for their very presence. “Sometimes it takes great courage to be Catholic,” the bishop said, recounting the story of a young girl he met while touring one of the Catholic schools in his vicariate.

The child — a Chaldean Catholic — had only recently come to Chicago from Iraq, and when the school principal asked what she liked best about being in the United States, she said it was the absence of bombs and explosions. Those bombs and explosions had targeted her school and church in Iraq, because some people wanted to drive the Christians from their village.

He also told the story of an Indian priest who now serves in the Archdiocese of Chicago, who once remained barricaded in his rectory in northern India as the men of the parish defended the church compound from radical Hindus who also did not want Christians in their midst, and who had decided that the way to get rid of the Christians was to get rid of the priest.

“I know how fortunate I am to be in the United States and enjoy the privileges our country offers,” Bishop Kane said, noting that religious freedom in many cases was the reason people came here.

That freedom is now being threatened, not by the Affordable Care Act itself, Bishop Kane said, but by the regulations the government is using to implement it.

Indeed, the Catholic Church in the United States has advocated for affordable health care for all for the last 90 years, he said.

But nothing about providing health care gives the government the right to decide what organizations and institutions are Catholic, he said, and that is what is happening when the government determines who can and cannot qualify for an exemption to regulations that violate Catholic moral teaching. The exemption as written would apply only to organizations that exclusively hire and minister to people of their own faith; Catholics, as part of our faith, minister to everyone, Bishop Kane said.

The health care regulations promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services are symptomatic of the trend in other areas, including the state of Illinois’s decision not to contract with Catholic Charities agencies to place foster and adopted children because Catholic Charities will not place children with unmarried couples, including opposite sex or same-sex couples with civil unions.

The federal government, meanwhile, stopped contracting with Catholic agencies to provide services to refugees and victims of human trafficking because the agencies would not offer abortions.

“Can the state fire a bishop, or a pastor?” Bishop Kane asked. “Can the state order a Catholic priest to witness the marriage of a same-sex couple? Can the state order a Catholic hospital to refuse treatment to someone, or to use euthanasia? What place does the church have in public life or in a public forum?”

Spada suggested that everyone see the movie “For Greater Glory,” about the Mexican Cristero War in the 1920s, where the government turned on its own citizens when they publicly expressed their faith.

The difference in the United States, Spada said, is that citizens can make their voices heard, not only in protest, but also in the voting booth.

At the same time, he said, Catholics must remain true to their faith, which means loving and caring for their neighbors.

“We’ve been helping people who hate us, as well as people who love us, for a long time,” he said.

Many of those in attendance did not need any convincing that this is a dangerous time for religious liberty.

“This is a direct assault on religious liberty,” said Dave Krupa, a member of St. Walter Parish.

“We’re scared,” said Helen Ponce de Leon, also a St. Walter parishioner.

But Robert Mitchell, a secular Franciscan who is a member of St. Celestine, said the current controversy could be a blessing for the church, “if it wakes us up and makes us venture out.”

Bishop Kane made clear that the church is not engaging in politicking; it does not advocate for or against any political party or candidate.

“Rarely is there a candidate that agrees with the church’s positions on a wide variety of public issues,” he noted.

He did suggest that everyone present read “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document put out by the USCCB to help Catholic voters consider all the issues before making their choice, and that everyone make his or her voice heard.

“This is not just a fight between politicians and the bishops,” he said. “This is your fight. This is your fight if you believe in religious liberty. You have to make your voice heard.”