Two years before he was elected Pope, John Paul II was invited to give a homily at the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. He preached at a Mass on August 3, 1976 on the topic of "The Eucharist and Man’s Hunger for Freedom."
It was a fitting theme for his homily, as the United States of America recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Paul II (Cardinal Karol Wojtyła at the time), was well aware of the significance and sought to clarify for those present what was true freedom.
He first explained where freedom originates, proclaiming, "Freedom has been given to man by his Creator in order to be used, and to be used well (cf. Gen 4:7)."
Wojtyła further explained that "man may not abuse his freedom (cf. Gal 4, 31-5, 1), for, as we know perfectly well from sad experience, he can abuse his liberty. He can do wrong because he is free (cf. 1 Pet 2:16)." (emphasis added)
While freedom is a gift from God, we can abuse that freedom, but that is not why God gave us freedom. Wojtyła continued, "But freedom has been given to him by his Creator not in order to commit what is evil (cf. Gal 5:13), but to do good."
Freedom does not give us license to do bad things. Freedom is given to us by God so that we may do good things.
Wojtyła gives us the key to using our freedom correctly, "The greatest commandment — that of love — leads the way to the fullest use of liberty (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-22; 13:1-13). Freedom has been given to man in order to love, to love true good: to love God above all, to love man as his neighbour and brother (cf. Deut 6, 5; Lev 19, 18; Mk 12: 30-33 par).
Love wins when freedom is used to love God above all things and to love those around us, especially the most vulnerable. Love holds the key to true freedom, but it must be a love that places God first. As Saint Thomas More famously said, “I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first."
When love fails and freedom is abused, Wojtyła warned America of what will happen. He remarked,
"May we not even speak today of actual persecutions of those who confess their religion, especially Christians, persecuted as they were in the first centuries after Christ?
This is what the Declaration on Religious Freedom says on the subject: "Forms of government still exist under which, even though freedom of religious worship receives constitutional recognition, the powers of the government are engaged in the effort to deter citizens from professing religion and to make life difficult and dangerous for religious communities" (Dignitatis Humanae Personae, 15)." (emphasis added)
Freedom, even though outwardly protected, becomes a right that only a few possess. It is only given to those who agree with the actions of the State and results in a persecution of those who desire to use their freedom to do good things.
Wojtyła urged those under persecution to stand-up and proclaim,
"In the name of Jesus Christ we have the right and the duty to demand true freedom for men and for peoples."
This July 4th, let us reflect on true freedom and heed the words of St. John Paul II, that were addressed specifically to the United States of America. Let us realize that our freedom does not give us license to do whatever we want, but that it gives us the freedom to do good things for God's greater glory.
I will end this article with the final words of John Paul II's homily:
"Live as free men;
not however as though your freedom were there
to provide a screen for wrongdoing,
but as servants in God's service (1 Pet 2:16)."