As we begin to reflect on the year soon ending, we have to conclude that followers of Christ are facing greater and greater challenges, particularly in the United States of America.

Threats to the sanctity of life, for example, both unborn and aged, seem to have multiplied over the past 11 months. Threats to the sanctity of marriage are not going away, in spite of successful referenda in a majority of states to uphold the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Further, will the Church always be allowed to speak out on these vital issues, or will its moral voice be silenced through legislation forbidding “hate speech”?

The Church has already seen its voice silenced to a degree. In Massachusetts, advocates of same-sex “marriage” won great strides in the early part of this decade, which happened to coincide with the revelations that bishops did not do enough to stop clerical sexual abuse. As the bishops themselves have repeatedly recognized, the pastors of our Church have lost a lot of credibility when speaking of sexual morality. Those advancing an agenda opposed to the Church’s went full steam ahead, with the help of the media.

More recently, various soldiers in the “culture of death” have tried to silence the Church. When lobbyists for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took part in an effort to pass a pro-life amendment to the U.S. House of Representatives’ version of health-care reform, some challenged the Church’s right to participate in public-policy debates. And when it became known that Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., had tried to guide a prominent member of his flock back to the sheepfold, critics were indignant that, in their view, a cleric would punish the legislator, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, by denying him the right to worship as he felt inclined to.

The bishops are merely defending what is right and just. But is it a battle they can fight alone? No, and it shouldn’t be so.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York certainly recognizes that, and he recently made an appeal to members of a fraternal order of Catholics, the Knights of Malta. The archbishop, to our mind, made several points that are relevant as America enters the last year of the first decade of the third millennium. Here are a few excerpts:

“Who will rise to defend the Church we love? I am forced to admit that balding Irish bishops of notable girth have nowhere near the credibility of an articulate, prominent, committed lay Catholic,” he told the Knights and Dames of Malta in New York Nov. 13.

“In our defense of the faith we love, we are unfailingly charitable, joyful, patient, reasonable and civil. To come off as angry, threatening, finger-wagging know-it-alls only gives ammo to our enemies who have caricatured us in precisely that way. The Church, to borrow from Pope John Paul II, never imposes anything. She only proposes what’s best in the human project. To those who claim that the Church is oppressive, medieval, corrupt and authoritarian, we respond the way Pope Benedict XVI does: with what has been called ‘affirmative orthodoxy.’ The Church, the Holy Father tells us, is not about No, No, but about Yes, Yes. The Church only says No to another No that negates human dignity and sacredness. And guess what? Two Nos make a Yes.

“We can learn a lot, I propose to you, from our Jewish, African-American, Islamic and gay neighbors, who will not, rightly and laudably, allow their sacred symbols, their normative values, their revered figures to be unfairly tarred or their people stereotyped.

“Now, in the past, [the Knights of Malta] have been asked to defend the Church literally, sometimes with force and arms. Thanks be to God, our weapons today are prayer, charity, witness, rational discourse.

“But the Church we love is still under attack. Free from criticism she’s not: She needs it and welcomes it. But scorn, coarse ridicule, impugning of our motives, relentless attack when every other group seems to be given a free pass; misrepresentation of genuine Church teaching; unceasing insults to our Holy Father, our Blessed Mother, our saints, our images, Our Lord himself, and a shrill chorus asking us to check our constitutional rights as Americans to give public witness to our faith at the door to the public square is not fair criticism at all but simple plain bigotry, and enough is enough.

“And I ask once again, ‘Who will rise to defend her?’”

Archbishop Dolan’s words should be taken to heart by all lay Christians. Whether we are prominent Catholics in exclusive fraternities or simple daily-Mass-attending workers, our baptism makes us sharers in the Church’s mission (see Catechism No. 1213), and our confirmation “gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith” (Catechism No. 1303). We need not be working “in the Church.” For most of us, our vocations are “in the world.” We might serve in public life or simply give witness by living the beatitudes and the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. We lead others to Christ through our faithful friendships and offer our prayers, works and sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. We use whatever influence we have to engage the culture. And when need be, we rise to defend the Church. It’s something we should commit to in 2010. For the sake of the faith we love.