BALTIMORE — The "Fortnight for Freedom" has launched into its third year in the United States. But the two weeks of the year dedicated by the U.S. bishops to religious liberty have made the greatest impact in places where laymen and women have seized the initiative with the support of their bishops behind them.
Hillary Byrnes, an attorney for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, told the Register that the levels of participation in 2014’s Fortnight for Freedom (from June 21 to July 4) were on track to match the past two years. At least 80% of the dioceses from all over the country were expected to participate, according to the latest USCCB figures.
This year’s theme is "Freedom to Serve," and many dioceses focused on promoting service days and opportunities to aid the most vulnerable of society as a way of raising awareness among Catholics about the threats to religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
"It’s a theme drawn from Pope Francis," said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who leads the religious-liberty committee, in an interview on Register Radio.
"It’s a recognition that our faith impels us to serve, that there is a bond between the word of God proclaimed and the sacraments we celebrate — and that this must issue forth in service.
"True religious liberty means not only the freedom to worship, but also the freedom to provide for the common good in accord with what we believe."
According to Byrnes, many people have rallied behind this year’s theme.
The HHS contraception mandate on Catholic entities, which has entangled dioceses, universities and religious orders such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, triggered the first Fortnight for Freedom in 2012.
But Byrnes said the Church’s concerns about the health of religious liberty in the country extend far beyond that issue.
"We want to be able to continue to serve victims of human trafficking and not have to refer them for abortion," Byrnes said. The Obama administration refused in 2011 to renew a well-regarded USCCB program aiding human-trafficking victims because the Church would not provide or refer abortion and contraceptive services to victims.
Some states, including the District of Columbia, have also forced Catholic Charities out of the adoption business or to end spousal benefits for employees over state laws on same-sex unions that do not carve out an exception for religious liberty or conscience.
"Those are two good examples beyond the HHS mandate situation," Brynes added.
"Another example would be in the immigration effort," Byrnes said, pointing to state laws that ban "harboring undocumented immigrants" — a violation of the tradition that the Church is a place of sanctuary.
Many dioceses have focused on getting Catholics involved in service to those on the margins of society. Such service is a way to engage the faithful in the ministries of the Church that will most profoundly be affected by the erosion of religious liberty and conscience rights.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore’s website has served as a template for many diocesan activities focused on this year’s theme: Serving hot meals to the homeless, volunteering at a women’s shelter and raising awareness about the situation of immigrants without legal papers were just some of the suggested activities.
According to Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori, these activities help the laity become "aware of what the Church is actually doing on the ground day to day to serve the very poor in our communities. [And] by becoming involved in that, then the idea of the freedom to serve becomes really concrete, and people get an idea of the tremendous work the Church does in helping individuals and contributing to the common good."
In Baltimore, these service opportunities combine with prayer through Holy Hours, Masses and Rosary events.
The participating dioceses have had their own variations on the theme. In the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., parishes, schools and other Catholic organizations were invited to provide opportunities for service to the poor and vulnerable in conjunction with diocesan events during the fortnight.
"This year, we’ve had really good participation," said Bonnie Toombs, director of the Office of Respect Life and Social Justice for the Diocese of Wichita, saying participation seemed slightly elevated over the previous two years.
Toombs said the diocese was beginning its fortnight with parishes hosting a Holy Hour, Eucharistic procession and litany for religious liberty. A diocesan Holy Hour and Rosary were scheduled for June 25 and July 1, as well as two Masses with Bishop Carl Kemme.
A major event was the 24 hours of confession, starting at 8am on June 26 and concluding at the same time the next day at the Church of the Resurrection.
A rally to protest the HHS mandate was to be held at the federal courthouse on June 27, and the diocese encouraged parishes to have Catholic family movie nights with films such as For Greater Glory.
"We want to help people understand that these three issues aren’t separate: defense of human life, protection of religious liberty and the defense of marriage," Toombs said. "They are tied to who we are, who we can be and who God created us to be."
This year’s fortnight showcases what can happen when the lay faithful take initiative with the enthusiastic support of their bishop and parish leaders. In Long Island, N.Y., lay Catholics under the banner of the non-partisan Catholics for Freedom of Religion (CFFR) spearheaded a massive educational effort.
"The enthusiasm has grown exponentially," said Barbara Samuells, CFFR’s president.
Samuells said Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre has been very enthusiastic in letting the new grassroots movement take the lead in the Long Island-based diocese. CFFR wrote six bulletin inserts, which the diocese distributed to parishes leading up to and including the fortnight. They also worked with Telecare TV to produce "Fortnight Minutes," a series of 14 announcements about the Fortnight for Freedom.
"The fight for religious freedom is a generational thing, like the right to life," Samuells said. "We’d like this to be a permanent thing, where it is something you’ll work on — and your children and grandchildren" will, too.
She added that many parents and families have become engaged with religious-liberty issues as a result of their children researching religious liberty for the group’s art and speech contests.
"If the laity don’t take this as their challenge and their responsibility, then we will see our freedom of religion gone," she said.
The bishops encouraged people to get involved both by visiting the website FortnightforFreedom.org, which has a variety of educational and prayer resources, and by viewing a video on religious-freedom challenges at home and abroad. It also had a document on 14 ways for parishes to celebrate the fortnight.
Two Masses, televised nationwide on EWTN, bookend the fortnight. Archbishop Lori celebrated the opening Mass at the Baltimore Basilica on June 21, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington will celebrate the closing Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on July 4. The USCCB’s president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., will be the homilist at the July 4 Mass.
Byrnes added that, as of press time, the USCCB had so far reached 1 million people through fortnight postings on social media.
She said, "We can show that religious freedom isn’t just about being in your house of worship, but is about being able to serve the community in accord with our Church’s teaching."