Catholics celebrate liberty at Mass in Forsyth Park, Savannah

More than 1,500 Catholics from all over south Georgia came together as church in Savannah’s Forsyth Park for a Mass celebrating religious liberty in the USA.

Many of those in attendance began their day early to find a nearby parking spot and place to sit. One couple, Randy Yon and his wife Joy, left Waycross at 5:30 am to attend the Mass. Yon heard about the Mass about a month ago and made plans to attend. He said about 12 to 15 fellow parishioners travelled from St. Joseph Church for the Faith and Freedom Mass.

“It was an historic Mass,” said Yon. “The music was fantastic and it was important to hold the Mass in public so non-Catholics could witness how we celebrate our faith,”  he said.

The July 1 Mass was a part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Fortnight for Freedom celebrating religious liberty in the United States of America. Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM, Conv. was the principal celebrant. Hartmayer’s homily centered on the God given right of religious freedom. The bishop used the opportunity to speak directly to his church in the public square.

Published below, in its entirety, is Bishop Hartmayer’s homily.

My dear friends,

A few weeks ago, I was invited to give the commencement address at a high school where I was principal in Buffalo, NY. The graduation took place on May 23rd. A few days before the graduation, I called my mother who lives in Buffalo and told her the time I would be arriving at the airport so that she could pick me up.

Now my mother is 87. She told me she would be at the airport to pick me up. And she also told me to bring my work clothes home because “we have planting to do”.

Sure enough, being close to Memorial Day, we went to the cemetery where my grandparents and my father are buried. We brought some flowers, watering can, trowel and grass clippers.

And so I knelt down in front my father’s grave and began, with hand clippers, to clip the grass in front of the head stone on which is our family name. As I was clipping the grass, my mind wandered to the last year of my father’s life when I used to clip his finger nails and cut his hair around his ears and now… I was clipping… the grass...  around his grave.
Then I heard my mother’s voice: “Don’t forget about this”. I turned around and she had a small American flag in her hand. “Don’t forget about this” she repeated.

And I took the flag and proudly put it into the ground in front of my father’s grave. My father was a World War II veteran.
Before we left, my mother and I said a prayer; she said it was an Irish custom. And I kept looking at the American flag ... and began to reflect on all that it meant and all that it represented.

And I thought about all those who fought for our freedom even before the flag was ever made; those who fought and died in the Revolutionary War in gaining our independence from England.

This week we will celebrate our 236th anniversary of our Independence. Since the Revolutionary War we have fought many battles to preserve the freedom that we have enjoyed for more than two centuries.

Many of our parents and grandparents immigrated to this country so that they and their families could live in a land that promised its citizens Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

We have gathered here today to celebrate our Freedom and pledge to never take it for granted; to never allow anyone to take it away from us.

In 1634, a mix of Catholic and Protestant settlers arrived at St. Clement’s Island in Southern Maryland from England aboard two boats named the Ark and the Dove. They had come at the invitation of the Catholic Lord Baltimore, who had been granted Maryland by the Protestant King Charles I of England. While Catholics and Protestants were killing each other in Europe, Lord Baltimore imagined Maryland as a society where people of different faiths could live together peacefully.

This vision was soon codified in Maryland’s 1649 Act Concerning Religion also known as the “Toleration Act”, which was the first law in our nation’s history to protect an individual’s right to freedom of conscience.

Maryland’s early history teaches us, like any freedom, religious liberty requires constant vigilance and protection, or it will disappear.

Maryland’s experiment in religious toleration ended within a few decades. The colony of Maryland was placed under royal control, and the Church of England became the established religion. Catholic chapels were closed and Catholics were restricted to practicing their faith in their homes. The Catholic Community lived under these conditions until the American Revolution.

By the end of the 18th century, our nations’ founders embraced freedom of religion as an essential condition of a free and democratic society.

James Madison, who is often called ‘The Father of the Constitution’, described conscience as ‘the most sacred of all property’.  He wrote that ‘the Religion the of every [person] must be left to the conviction and conscience of every [person]; and it is the right of every [person] to exercise as they may dictate.

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson responded to a letter from the superior of the Urusline Sisters in New Orleans, who were serving a mostly non-Catholic population by running a hospital, an orphanage and schools since 1727. The letter from Jefferson states, that the principles of the Constitution were a ‘sure guarantee’ that their ministry would be free ‘to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules without interference from civil authority.’

As a result, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, religious freedom had the distinction of being The First Amendment. Religious liberty is indeed the first liberty.

Religious liberty is not derived from the benevolence of government. It is not an option or a civic luxury. Religious liberty is an inherent right of the human person.

And yet 70% of the people throughout the world have their Religious liberty controlled and defined by their government. That is 3 out of 4 people in the world today, do not enjoy complete Religious Freedom. We must not allow that to happen to us.

The Catholic Church in the United States has grave concerns over the implications of federal regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services which will mandate that many Catholic organizations, including Catholic organizations in South Georgia, provide access to abortion inducing drugs, sterilization services and contraceptives for all employees, in direct contravention of our Catholic values and religious teachings. We are called to serve the people of South Georgia and we recognize an obligation to provide our employees with health care coverage but we cannot violate our conscience to comply with the Mandate from the federal government.

The Catholic dioceses, hospitals, schools and church agencies which filed lawsuits challenging the Mandate will effectively represent our interests and the interests of all dioceses and Catholic organizations throughout the country.

Let us be clear. Our challenge to the federal Mandate is not about whether people in this country should have access to the services covered by the Mandate; but rather, it is about the fundamental issue of whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to fund services which violate our religious and moral beliefs.

The exercise of Religious Liberty is not just about the freedom to worship in a church, temple, synagogue or the mosque. The exercise of our religion also includes actions of charitable service. Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the teachings of many other faith traditions are filled with the instructions that religious practice necessitates charitable action to aid others in society.

The prophet Isaiah condemned those who confined their religion to temple services but failed to actively assist the oppressed, the orphan and the widowed. Jesus, likewise, makes active service to the least of people the very criteria for salvation. Service to the poorest is service directly to Christ.

Our religious tradition demands that we serve all people, not just those who are Catholic. If we restricted our care to those of our own traditions, we would betray the very teaching of Jesus who set the compassionate Samaritan… an outsider to the local religious and political leaders of the time…as the paragon of religious practice. Compassionate service to all our brothers and sisters in need is fundamental to the practice of our faith.

Catholic agencies and ministries employ hundreds of Georgians who are both Catholic and not Catholic and they serve thousands of people without regard to their religious beliefs. We serve them, not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic and that is how Jesus Christ teaches us to serve.

This is how we live our Catholic faith and government should protect that exercise of religion, not create burdens to the exercise of our faith.

We ask nothing more than that our God-given right to religious liberty be respected. We ask nothing less than that the Constitution and laws of the United States which recognize that right, be respected.

We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens.

To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other.

Fly the American flag proudly and remember the cost of our freedom and who paid the price for the Religious Liberty we enjoy. We must not allow it to be taken from us, so help us God.

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