There are a lot of people that stand out in a crowd, and I’m sure you can think of at least one example of this. For the Cardinals, it was Steve Kline, with his dirt and grime-covered hat, or Jason Motte with his nasty thick beard. In the NCAA basketball tournament in March, it was Baylor University’s neon yellow jerseys, which looks like they were derived from the color of a marshmallow peep after a nuclear meltdown. Maybe for All Saints it could be Msgr. Whited, with his solar-powered safari hat. In a way, that’s what John the Baptist was like – he was someone who stood out. Everybody knew that this guy was about something different by the way he lived his life – from the way he spoke, to the camel skins he wore, to the bugs he would eat. And today we celebrate that even from the very beginning, he was born to be a herald of Christ, a messenger for Christ, a witness for Christ. He bravely and courageously spoke the truth even when others didn’t want to hear it.
In a sense, we’re all called to be little “John the Baptists”. Now, I’m not telling you that you have to stop shaving and grow a nasty beard, or that you have to bring your kids to church with a bag of grasshoppers instead of cheerios. Please, by all means, do not eat bugs before Mass – you’d be breaking the communion fast anyways! But each of us, like St. John the Baptist, are called to be heralds of the Gospel by what we say and what we do. And as real heralds, we speak not just to those closest to us, and not just to other Catholics, but to the whole world. As Archbishop Carlson remarked recently, “we serve others because we are Catholic, not because they are.”
But in our quest to be heralds of Christ like St. John the Baptist, there are two big challenges that we run into today, and as I’m about to tell you, the first is becoming a bigger and bigger concern for all of us, whether we realize it or not. Of course, what I’m referring to here is the fundamental right of religious liberty. Now – before I even get started saying what I’m saying, I’m going to start by saying what I’m not saying. First, this is not a partisan statement. I’m not trying to get political on you. I’m not trying to support one political party or individual over another, because this affects all of us, no matter what political side of the fence you’re on. And keep in mind, it’s also under threat not just by one political figure or organization, but by events trending in a certain direction and the choices being made by many people in authority. So that’s the first point. The second is that despite what many people in the news agencies or politics are saying, this is not about abortion or contraception! While obviously these issues are important for the Church, they are not what’s concerning the Church in this argument. What is the issue is the fact that the Church is slowly losing its ability to hold these and other such teachings in the first place, no matter what they are.
Here in the United States, we live with such freedom and opportunity. This is a country founded by people fleeing persecution or seeking opportunity, and it became that safe haven for them. Unlike the places these refugees were fleeing, this is a country dominated by no religion, but open to the beliefs and teachings of all. We are truly blessed to be here, to be Americans, and probably each of us has our own reasons for loving our nation. So really, it’s not out of hate for our country that we show our concern, but out of love for it. Religious liberty is that gift of freedom which God gives, and which our country safeguards and protects.
There have been a number of disturbing trends against religious liberty developing lately. There has been discrimination against church congregations, with some small New York City churches being barred from renting public facilities even as other non-religious groups are free to do so. There have been issues regarding state immigration laws, in which states are forbidding simple pastoral care and basic Christian charity to immigrants because it is considered “harboring.” There has been oppression of Christian groups on campus, with the University of California Hastings College of Law denying student organization status to the Christian Legal Society there for requiring members to live as witnesses and be chaste outside of marriage. And of course, the most news-making issue currently, the Health and Human Services mandate that religious institutions like schools, hospitals, and humanitarian organizations carry insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, products which are contrary to the moral teachings of these organizations. In many of these cases, the government, not the people, are deciding which organizations are religious enough to merity the protection of conscience, and which are not.
Practice of our faith is becoming increasingly compartmentalized, with religious groups being forced to “preach to the choir” and no one else, all in the name of tolerance and opportunity. In some ways, the things that government is obligated to protect have become the very things they use to stifle this witness to the faith.
Now, it’s one thing for us to talk about the right to bear witness as St. John the Baptist did, but it’s another to actually use that right. If you’re like me, the temptation can be to see this as an “us vs. them” sort of affair. We can then be tempted to withdraw, to make our faith something private, something between me and God. We can pull back and only deal with those we know think or belief what we think or believe. But really, this is the exact opposite of what it means to bear witness, to be a herald, as this feast celebrating John the Baptist calls us to today.
We cannot afford to make our faith something strictly private. Faith is always intended to be shared, expressed, and witnessed to others, because that’s what real Christian love is in the first place – something received, but then shared, expressed, and witnessed to others through our thoughts, words, actions, and prayers. Otherwise, it’s just a lamp under a bushel basket, to use the Lord’s analogy. It becomes pointless, lifeless. We need to be witnesses of that right to take our lamps out from beneath the bushel and let them shine for others.
There are a number of things that we can do to accomplish this. First off, do what you can to educate yourself – read the page in this Sunday’s parish bulletin on religious liberty, or try the websites for the Archdiocese of St. Louis or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Also, try doing what you can to make your voice heard by your representatives. They can’t hear the voices that don’t speak up, so consider writing your state representatives or Governor Nixon, asking him to do what he can to protect religious freedoms. One important thing that we shouldn’t discount is to pray for religious freedom. The next two Tuesday evenings at 7:00, we will be having a special holy hour for religious freedom, including a reflection and praying the Litany of Liberty, in addition to your private prayer, adoration, and confessions. Or, if you can’t make one of those, take a copy of the litany home after Mass to pray privately or with your family. Most importantly, it’s important to defend religious liberty by living as a Christian witness. The greatest thing we can do to support religious freedom is to act in a way that shows why it’s important – where our lives are guided by Christ, and where our faith is part of our public life and everything that we do.
Brothers and sisters, this is not the time to cower or to withdraw into ourselves, but it is a time to become “loyal Americans by being bold and courageous Catholics.” (Abp. Lori) May we be guided by the zeal and courage of St. John the Baptist, and just as he was born to be a herald of Christ, so may we be Christ’s witnesses in all that we say and do.