Fr. Isaac Hecker, a convert and founder of the Society of Saint Paul (Paulist Fathers) once remarked “I am a better American because I am Catholic; I am a better Catholic because I am an American.” He came to the faith and the life of preaching during a time in which Catholics were held in great suspicion and Catholicism was thought to be something from the “old world” that did not really have a place in the new world that was the United States. These words crossed my mind as I prayed and sang and celebrated the gift of faith and freedom with Catholics from all over the archdiocese at the Archdiocesan “Celebration of Freedom” held Sunday, June 24.
The afternoon (and you can see the video that framed our celebration here) was meant to be a reflection on the source and meaning of freedom. One can only be free if freedom is rooted in truth. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it “Freedom accords with the sense of what is true and the good that God has put in the human heart” (CCC, 1742). Our founding fathers agreed with the Christian principle that the right to the exercise of freedom, especially in religious and moral matters is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person and that natural right has been protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Sunday was a day for me to give thanks that I am a better American for being Catholic. Belonging to a church that is universal makes me appreciate and value the cultural diversity that is woven into the fabric of our country. I want to live in a community that reflects the face of the world. The United States garners enormous respect throughout the world for its generosity to other nations in the face of adversity. Making a contribution to a disaster relief fund or contributing time to a neighborhood project is an opportunity to practice a work of mercy. My Catholic faith is stronger for the commitment of the Christian disciple to service and the United State’s heritage of voluntary service for the greater good of the community. Service opportunities abound and any would agree it is part of being a good citizen.
And I am a better Catholic for being American. I was raised in an era in American history in which communities of faith were free to publicly practice the faith. May Processions wound through the church neighborhood. Public displays to celebrate certain feasts were never questioned. At community events at where people of different faiths and Christian communities were present, prayer was welcomed. It seems a natural part of life to practice one’s faith publicly and so today, I both welcome the opportunity to do so and want to live in a community in which people of every faith can do the same.
I have lived in countries in which class distinction, even among people of the same faith colors relationships both professionally and personally. In Italy, I remember the shock of an electrician who was finishing work in our house around lunch time and we invited him to have lunch with us. He commented that this kind of thing would not happen in an Italian household. My Christian sense of hospitality and my American sensibility of the unimportance of class distinction made the invitation a natural response.
As I watched the video that traced the story of the Catholic Church in the United States, I appreciated that it was the promise of freedom that brought the first Catholics to the U.S. It is the protection of freedom that drove and drives Catholics to serve in every branch of the armed services and fight in every conflict. American Catholic faith was strengthened in the face of discrimination and perhaps made Catholics all the more desirous of opening the doors of our schools, hospitals and social service agencies to anyone seeking our services, not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic. Catholics have made huge contributions to every aspect of American life, and our faith is what gives us the courage today to stand for religious freedom..
During the afternoon we asked people to tweet what religious freedom means to them. We are still asking people to tell us what religious freedom means to you! You can add your thoughts via a tweet at