BALTIMORE — Just a few hours before one of the most important nights in recent history for the Church in the United States, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore walked quietly on the grass in the shadow of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary alongside his golden retriever Noble.
Even in the oppressive heat and with the responsibility of launching a nationwide 14-day campaign of prayer, fasting and penitence against federal government policies, Archbishop Lori seemed to be a man at peace, prepared to address the packed congregation at the basilica and a vast television audience tuned into EWTN’s coverage of the Fortnight for Freedom.
People began arriving more than an hour early to the basilica, the country’s oldest cathedral, worried they wouldn’t have a seat. While the dozen or so protesters across the street were mostly senior citizens, the people attending Mass included many young people, including several young families with babies in strollers.
Matthew Gray, a 29-year-old public-school teacher said, “The HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate is forcing people to act against their conscience. We all need to stand up.”
Mary Giesey of the Church of the Crucifixion said she was there specifically to support the archbishop.
Almost 1,000 people eventually packed the pews, and dozens filled the balcony and stood in the back of the cathedral.
And June 21, in a nationally televised homily on EWTN, Archbishop Lori brought every one of them to their feet.
The Fortnight for Freedom, called for by the U.S. bishops, provides Catholics with an occasion to reflect on the precious fundamental right of religious liberty that is now being infringed upon by the Obama administration and our secular culture.
Archbishop Lori, in his remarkable homily, invoked the martyrs. “We have gathered on the eve of the feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, martyrs who laid down their lives rather than violate their consciences or their sacred principles,” said the archbishop, who heads the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. “Their courageous witness of faith continues to stir the minds and hearts of people yearning for authentic freedom and, specifically, for religious freedom, just as it inspired those who came to Maryland a century later in 1634, seeking not only to worship God freely, but, indeed, to practice their faith publicly.”
He reminded the congregation that on Aug. 1, less than six weeks from now, the Health and Human Services mandate will go into effect, forcing private employers to violate their consciences by funding and facilitating morally objectionable acts.
“As the United States bishops recently indicated, the HHS mandate violates the personal civil rights of those who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and values,” said the archbishop.
Archbishop Lori has continuously defended the rights of individual Catholics against the HHS mandate, even as many seek to focus on the defense of Catholic institutions.
But Archbishop Lori seems to insist on the conscience rights for small businessmen and other employers who oppose the inclusion of contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization in private employee health plans.
“Though only a few could claim St. Thomas More’s influence and integrity, this great saint stands for the individual believer and citizen who seeks, in the words of United States bishops, ‘[to] connect worship on Sunday to work on Monday’ ... ‘[to] carry the values of our faith into family life, the market place and the public square.’”
Only then did he expand his argument to the administration’s exceedingly narrow definition of a church as a body that hires mostly its own members and serves mostly its own members and that exists primarily to advance its own teachings. “In a word, so long as a church confines itself to the sacristy, then it is exempt from having to fund and facilitate in its health insurance plans government mandated services which are contrary to its own teachings.”
He concluded his homily with an exhortation for Catholics throughout the nation: “If freedom is a system based on courage and if the motive of democracy is love, then let us strive in God’s grace, throughout this fortnight and beyond, to be men and women of courageous love for the glory of God, for the good of the Church and for love of country.”
As he finished speaking, there was a moment of silence.
And then the applause. Loud and insistent. Until everyone in the basilica stood and applauded for about three minutes.
After Mass, Archbishop Lori was thronged on the steps of the basilica by those wanting to meet him. He stood there smiling, laughing and posing for pictures with people for more than an hour until, finally, he was virtually alone on the steps.
There were sirens in the distance. A banner from a Universalist Church next door read: “Civil Marriage Is a Civil Right,” and the threat from the HHS mandate was one day closer to taking effect.
But Archbishop Lori, once again, seemed to be a man at peace.
Register correspondent Matt Archbold writes from Philadelphia. He blogs at NCRegister.com.