Sunday, June 24, 2012

Free for All

Bonne fête à tous!

   The Nativity of St. John the Baptist   

June 24th is a big day for our neighbors to the north,
as the province of Québec celebrates la-Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
No one’s quite sure how John the Baptist
became so beloved among French Canadians.
Saint Joseph has been the official patron of what would become Canada
since the 1600’s…but his feast day is in March,
and it’s not the best time of the year to have a party.
So with John the Baptist’s birthday
happily coinciding with the start of summer,
I guess he was an obvious choice for a fun-loving people!
The early observances of the feast in Québec
carried over traditions from Europe:
lighting bonfires, for example, during the night preceding June 24th
one of the shortest nights of the year.
But the celebrations grew over time—
in particular, during the mid-1800’s.
Festive parades began to spring up,
often including a small boy 
dressed up as a young Saint John,
escorting a lamb through the town.
A flag was designed for the festivities,
which looks an awful lot 
like the provincial flag of Québec today,
except with a large image 
of Jesus’ Sacred Heart at its center.
(You can still see this flag 
in one of the stained glass windows
upstairs at Notre Dame.)
Everything, of course, led up to the celebration
of a solemn, sung High Mass 
in the principle church of each region.

But times have changed.
The stirring sermons of old began to be replaced
by patriotic speeches concerning national identity and pride.
The sung Masses in the churches faded away
as concerts and dancing sprang up in the parks.
The flag of fleur-de-lis still waves…
...but lacks the Sacred Heart.
And the parades continued…
...but without a little John the Baptist.
In fact, since a government decree of 1977,
June 24th is now officially known 
as La Fête nationale du Québec—
the National Holiday of Québec.
Even in name, 
it’s become a pretty thoroughly 
secular observance.

Faith, it seems, 
has gradually given way to politics.

This past Thursday, Catholics in the United States—
at the urging of our Bishops—
began observing a “Fortnight for Freedom,”
leading up to our own national holiday on the 4th of July.
Most people who’ve heard of it
have scratched their heads wondering,
“What in the world is a fortnight?”
That’s an old-fashioned word for fourteen days.
But we’d do much better during these two weeks
—in my opinion—to spend our time considering, 
“What is freedom?”
We live in an age 
that often confuses liberty with license.
Despite popular notions to the contrary,
everybody getting to do everything they want
is not the definition of democracy;
it’s the definition of anarchy—
a proven recipe for chaos.
A truly free people is governed not by the principles of majority rule,
but by the principles of the common good.
According to its founding documents,
our nation was intended to be one
where the law of the land is determined
not by what will help keep our elected officials in power,
but by what’s in accord with our human nature—
and our human nature, of course, is determined
by the God who made us.

The current troubled nature
of the relationship between faith and freedom
is not—though some who portray it so—
because religion is under violent political attack.
If that were the case,
then both the enemies of the Church and her plan for defense
would be abundantly clear.
The real danger we face today is one of neglect.
Many of the Catholic faithful in America
are—to put it bluntly—unfaithful.
They do not come to Mass with regularity;
they do not give Church teaching much influence over their lives;
they are overwhelmingly uneducated in the faith,
whether from lack of information or from misinformation.
Ignorance and apathy are the real enemies the Church now faces…
…and they are some of the most difficult to defeat
because they do not launch a full frontal assault,
but foster a slow, downward slide.

The goal of the prayer and penance, the education and action
that make up the current Fortnight for Freedom
isn’t that the U.S. become a Catholic nation,
nor even an explicitly Christian one.
This is not an attempt to impose our religious doctrines or discipline.
(A quick look around the world reveals
how such efforts regularly degenerate into violence.)
But what the Church hopes for American Catholics
is that we’ll make an honest examination of our national values:
how they’re established, and then how they’re expressed in law.
It’s a rather foolish—though frequently repeated—thing to say
that faith and politics must never meet.
We can’t give God sway—as he desires—of every aspect of our lives
and then make an exception for this one.
And I don’t think it’s too much to aim for
a respectful and reasoned dialogue between the two.

In the history of Israel,
prophets arose at the same time 
as did kings.
Even divinely anointed rulers 
had a tendency to forget
that their kingdom was to be governed by the law of God
rather than selfish human interests.
Prophets were appointed 
to remind kings of this.
Needless to say, 
it’s always been a tense relationship!
John the Baptist—
even from his birth—
arrives on the scene
as a prophet to the nations 
and a light for Israel:
preparing a way for the Lord 
who comes to set all people free.
But the freedom announced by John 
and won for us by Christ
is clearly not primarily 
a political reality—
not a matter of self-rule;
not the elimination of all government interference and restrictions.
The Baptist, after all, 
died at the hands of a puppet king,
and Jesus himself was sentenced 
under the laws of Roman occupation.
Thus the freedom for which 
we are to work and pray 
during these days
is not simply the ability to choose the manner in which we worship—
even whether we worship at all.

It’s an inner freedom—a freedom of conscience—
which naturally seeks outward expression:
the freedom to pursue the truth and live our lives according to it.
True religious liberty is not so much a matter of what we’re free from.
(Faith, you’ll remember, has generally best flourished
when it’s been most aggressively oppressed.).
No, true religious liberty is a matter of what we’re free for:
free for virtue; free to live by a higher law;
free to do good, and free to be good;
free to know God, and free to love and serve God in all things.
Such a freedom ought to always be protected by civil authorities…
…but even when it isn’t,
such a freedom can never really be taken away
because it’s part of our innate human dignity—
a freedom which has been granted,
not by the Constitution, but from above.

It is of this freedom that we—like Saint John the Baptist—
are called to be courageous prophets in the world today.

Unlike our neighbors in Québec,
our national holiday was never an explicitly religious one.
And it’s not the purpose of our Church to make it so.
But during this Fortnight for Freedom leading up to Independence Day, 
we are reminded of our duty as Catholics
to be a real force for good in our beloved country.
Following in the footsteps of Saint John the Baptist,
let us courageously seek and speak the truth
which alone has the power to set all people free.

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