WASHINGTON — The Fortnight for Freedom began with burning questions about whether an urgent threat to religious freedom would be removed by an immanent Supreme Court ruling.

But the two-week period of prayer, fasting, public action and study closed with that threat still present: The high court upheld the constitutionality of disputed elements of the Affordable Care Act, which authorized the “contraception mandate" opposed by the U.S. bishops as “unacceptable.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, the fortnight, an initiative of the U.S. bishops’ conference, appeared even more critical as the Church sustains the First Amendment battle over the months and years ahead,  as legal challenges to the contraception mandate wend their way through the courts.

On the 4th of July, the Church's resolve to stay the course was affirmed at the closing Mass for the fortnight at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and featuring a homily delivered by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia — two leading figures in the battle for religious liberty.

Thousands of Catholics from the Washington-metro area, Baltimore and Philadelphia filled the huge Basilica and spilled out beyond its doors. The enthusiastic congregation repeatedly gave standing ovations to Church leaders, and applauded the service of local priests, women religious and seminarians.

Rico Estrada, a Nicaraguan immigrant who recently retired from the military, expressed the diverse congregation's palable sense of unity with the U.S. bishops.

"These values are non-negotiable: freedom, marriage between a man and woman and life," Estrada, a Shrine  parishioner, told the Register.

Standing in the packed aisles after giving up his seat to a late arrival, Estrada applauded when the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, read a message from the Holy See for the occasion.

"Conscious of the grave challenges of the present moment, the Holy Father encourages the American Catholic community, and young people in particular, to continue to bring the wisdom and insight born of their faith to the task of building a society worthy of America's highest moral and constitutional principles," the message said.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, spoke briefly at the Mass, and urged Catholics to stay focused on the defense and preservation of religious freedom. He asked them tosubscribe to receive text message updates on religious freedom issues by texting "Freedom" to 377377.

In his homily, Archbishop Chaput cited passages from the day’s scriptural readings to remind both the congregation that filled the shrine and a national television audience that the court’s ruling did not change perennial truths about whether believers owe their primary allegiance to God or the state and why religious liberty remains the “first freedom” in any just society.

“Most of us know today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew. What we should, or should not, render unto Caesar shapes much of our daily discourse as citizens. But I want to focus on the other and more important point Jesus makes in today’s Gospel reading: the things we should render unto God,” said Archbishop Chaput, in a reference to Matthew 22:15-21.

“The point of today’s Gospel passage is not how we might calculate a fair division of goods between Caesar and God. In reality, it all belongs to God, and nothing — at least nothing permanent and important — belongs to Caesar. Why? Because just as the coin bears the stamp of Caesar’s image, we bear the stamp of God’s image in baptism. We belong to God and only to God.”

If the faithful owe God and his laws ultimate allegiance — even as they fulfill proper duties of citizenship — then they must be free to worship him and follow his laws, said the archbishop, who also cited 1 Timothy 6:6-11 and its reflection on the nature and purpose of human freedom.

“This is the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. It’s the freedom of Miguel Pro, Mother Teresa, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and all the other holy women and men who have gone before us to do the right thing, the heroic thing, in the face of suffering and adversity,” he noted.

“This is the kind of freedom that can transform the world. And it should animate all of our talk about liberty — religious or otherwise.”

An Anxious Church

The homily offered a reprieve from recent headlines that left many of the faithful shaken and anxious about whether the Church would ultimately prevail in its battle to overturn the federal law requiring virtually all private employers, including Catholic social agencies, universities and hospitals, to provide co-pay-free contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization in their health plans.

The fortnight provided a spiritual framework for addressing the political challenge, affirming the need for common prayer and action.

Those who participated in fortnight activities throughout the country learned that they are fighting for the soul of a nation that has been a beacon of liberty and a haven for persecuted people from around the globe. Further, believers have been reminded that the experience of U.S. Catholics inspired the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.

Faced with a new political context, the faithful pondered the lessons of the past, when their forbears experienced religious persecution in this land, with state laws banning Catholics from elected office.

In Washington, where the U.S. Supreme Court and elected officials routinely weigh the proper allegiance owed to Caesar in church-state contests, fortnight activities included lay-organized educational programs and a “Celebration of Freedom” spearheaded by the archdiocese that drew about 2,000 Catholics.

“The Fortnight for Freedom is … a time for us to count our many blessings. The greatest gift humanity has received is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who through his life, death and resurrection brings us eternal life,” Cardinal Wuerl said during his address before an assembly that included the papal nuncio, archdiocesan leaders and staff, students and people served by Church social programs.

“How do we come to know and encounter Jesus today? There is only one living witness to the Lord Jesus, only one witness who can say, ‘I was there when Jesus died, when he rose, when he ascended into heaven and when he sent the gift of the Spirit on us.‘ That one remaining living witness is Christ’s body, his Church.”

During an engaging two-hour program that highlighted the contributions of religious orders and parochial schools, Catholic Charities and pro-life organizations, the cardinal affirmed Catholics’ right to serve the common good in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Acknowledging the particular challenge of addressing such issues during an election year, Father William Byrne, the diocesan priest who helped organize the event, told the assembled Catholics to “check your politics at the door.”

The Celebration of Freedom offered Benediction and hymns led by a parish choir; it was clearly designed to bridge the partisan divide plainly on view since the contraception mandate was approved by Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a cradle Catholic who graduated from a Catholic college in the District of Columbia. This May, after learning that Sebelius had been invited to speak at a Georgetown University graduation event, the archdiocese issued statements that questioned whether the Jesuit university could still call itself Catholic.

‘The Only Question That Matters’

Indeed, the battle against the HHS mandate has forced local Catholics in a deeply politicized part of the world to reassess their political loyalties and exposed fissures within parishes.

While a number of local Catholic plaintiffs, including Catholic Charities, have challenged the HHS mandate in court, media coverage has featured attacks on the bishops’  crusade from skeptics in the pews. These Catholic critics assert that the federal law poses no serious threat to believers.

During the celebration, however, a film produced by the archdiocese challenged such complacency. The film documented the arrival of Catholics fleeing persecution in England and traced the development of anti-Catholic bigotry on these shores. The archdiocese plans to make the film available to the public through a website, built to share and identify resources on the issue.

Meanwhile, the nuncio’s attendance at the June 24 Celebration event, and at the closing mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, reminded local Catholics that Pope Benedict XVI shared their concern about emerging threats to religious liberty in the “land of the free.” When the U.S. bishops participated in their ad limina visits to the Vatican during the past year, the Pope repeatedly stressed the need to defend religious freedom amid rising secularism in the West and fears that the United States will ignore the rights of religous minorities abroad.

The fortnight, then, served as an opportunity to clarify the clear and present danger now facing religious believers throughout the world. But, even more important, Church leaders wanted to remind their flock that there is no easy solution. Even if the Supreme Court had overturned the Affordable Care Act, and thus the contraception mandate, Catholics can expect to witness future threats in the years and decades ahead.

Yet, at the National Shrine on the Fourth of July, Archbishop Chaput told the congregation that “the political and legal effort to defend religious liberty — as vital as it is — belongs to a much greater struggle to master and convert our own hearts and to live for God completely, without alibis or self-delusion."

“The only question that finally matters,” he concluded, “is this one: Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world. If not, nothing else will do.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.