Cardinal Wuerl Celebrates Mass for Fortnight for Freedom

Friday, July 4, 2014

Addresses Importance of Religious Freedom on Independence Day

WASHINGTON – For the third consecutive year, thousands of people spent part of Independence Day in the nation’s capital at a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception celebrating and praying for religious freedom. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, was the principal celebrant, and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, archbishop of Louisville, was the homilist for the Mass, which brought to a close the 2014 nationwide Fortnight for Freedom: Freedom to Serve.

The Fortnight, an annual two-week period of prayer, education and awareness, was first called by the United States bishops in 2012 to focus on preserving religious freedom. Dioceses throughout the United States were encouraged to arrange special events and Masses during this period to highlight the importance of defending the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the fundamental freedom to serve others in accord with human dignity and the Church’s teaching.

At Friday’s Mass, Cardinal Wuerl recounted how religious liberty first took root in this land, while emphasizing the need to be vigilant in protecting our first freedom. “In the midst of this year’s Fortnight, I celebrated two Masses at the reconstructed Brick Chapel in historic St. Mary’s City and on St. Clement’s Island,” he said. “It was at these two historic sites where the first Catholic settlers arrived and established a community that was the birthplace of religious freedom in this part of the world. Their purposeful founding of colonial Maryland on grounds of religious freedom, a place where all could live together in harmony, each being free to live their faith without restraint, in many respects anticipated the founding of our nation on the principle of liberty for all, which Americans celebrate today.”

These two sites stand today as reminders of the enduring American value of religious freedom as well as the fragile nature of that freedom and how easily it can be compromised. When the Ark and the Dove carrying those intrepid pioneers landed on St. Clement’s Island in 1634, the colonists read aloud Lord Baltimore’s instructions, which included the first policy of religious tolerance in America. The first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies was celebrated by Jesuit Fr. Andrew White and afterward the settlers erected a large cross. Today a 40-foot white cross stands at the southern end of the island, honoring the establishment of religious tolerance in America. A few years later, however, when those who did not share this perspective gained political control, they revoked freedom of religion in the colony. Father White, who was instrumental in establishing the settlement at Saint Mary’s, was seized and banished.

The original Brick Chapel, built by Jesuit missionaries, was both the grandest building in Maryland at the time and a sign of religious freedom in the colony, as inscribed in Maryland’s original charter and codified in the Toleration Act in 1649. However, the chapel was closed in 1704 by order of the royal governor. The chapel was then dismantled and measures were enacted restricting the practice of the Catholic faith, thus eliminating the religious freedom that had been established by the colonists when they first arrived.

Despite these harsh obstacles, Catholics in Maryland remained firm in their resolve and thanks to their contributions to our nation’s founding, the blessings of religious liberty would be restored in Maryland and secured in the Constitution. In 1997, the Historic St. Mary’s City Foundation initiated a project to rebuild the Brick Chapel and in 2009, the current sheriff of St. Mary’s City and Cardinal Wuerl together unlocked the doors of the reconstructed chapel.

In the Masses at both historic sites in Southern Maryland, which were celebrated as part of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl said that these celebrations were “a visible, tangible testimony to an inalienable right – our inherent human right to religious liberty and the blessing of freedom of conscience.”

Those who participated in the Fortnight for Freedom bore further witness to the fundamental and inalienable religious freedom to live one’s faith, to worship God freely and to express that faith publicly, serving others in truth and charity and advancing the common good. While history shows how easily that liberty can be compromised, no matter the difficulties faced, together with many other good people of faith, the Catholic Church remains committed in steadfast defense of our first and most sacred freedom.

The Archdiocese of Washington is home to over 620,000 Catholics, 139 parishes and 95 Catholic schools, located in Washington, D.C., and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.

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