Next week, the Catholic Church in the United States will once again celebrate Religious Freedom Week (June 22 to June 29). This is a time to give thanks to God for the blessings of our religious freedom, while also learning more about the threats that exist to this freedom today.
The celebration of Religious Freedom Week overlaps the feast days of five saints who were killed because they stood up for what they believed: St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More.
In this column, I want to reflect on how this last saint, Thomas More, can be an example for us in our own times.
St. Thomas More lived in England in the 1500s. That century was a time of great change and upheaval in our church and in our world. This was the era of the Protestant Reformation, when Christianity split into numerous denominations. While many of these splits occurred as a result of differences of opinion about theological matters or the proper way to worship, the issues in England were different.
King Henry VIII was the leader of England at this time and, while he was Catholic and defended the church against Martin Luther and others who were criticizing it, he also felt that the church should not have a say in how he lived his life. Specifically, he was upset that the pope would not grant him an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry another woman, Anne Boleyn. So, he simply made himself the head of the Church of England. In doing so, he insisted that the people of England recognize his authority over the church.
In other words, he asked them to accept something as true which was not true.
St. Thomas More, one of the king’s closest advisors (Lord High Chancellor of England) and friends, was asked to sign a document acknowledging Henry as the head of the Church of England. When Thomas More, a lawyer, refused, he was beheaded for treason. His famous last words were, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Much like St. Thomas More, we live in a time of political, social and religious upheaval. As a result of this, Christians are sometimes asked or expected to accept things as true which are not true.
Our refusal to do so can put us at odds with the “majority” of people, in particular, people in power. What St. Thomas More understood, and what we need to remember, is that being a Christian doesn’t just involve going to church. We must also be prepared to stand up for the truth, even when doing so could cost us something.
Thankfully, we live in a country that grants us freedom of religion. But we must realize that this freedom is not guaranteed. If we are not prepared to defend our right to practice Christianity, it is possible that this freedom could be taken away.
In addition, there are some people who believe that freedom of religion only protects our right to worship. Some want to relegate our faith to the private sphere, where it has no influence on our behaviors in public. This view of religious freedom undermines Christianity, which defines who we are, both in private and in public.
Friends, our religious freedom is sacred and something we must be prepared to defend.
I hope you will join me next week in observing Religious Freedom Week. I encourage you to utilize the resources available from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, especially the daily reflection guides which focus on prayer and action. You can find these resources at usccb.org/religiousfreedomweek.
Take time to thank God for our religious freedom, pray for those who are persecuted for their faith, and pray that you will have the courage to stand up for your faith when others tell you to keep quiet. St. Thomas More, pray for us!
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.