St. Francis was a completely unexpected man: suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, came a unique figure, perhaps the most Christ-like of saints in the two millennia of Christian history, beloved ever since by peoples across the globe of all creeds or none at all. That a St. Francis could happen at all is a reminder that God is full of surprises – for it was God who raised up this singularly Christ-like figure – and that history often takes unexpected turns.
In so many ways, it’s appropriate we find his statue in the middle of our yards and gardens. For he was sure smack-dab in the middle of the world, reverencing life (he would genuflect in front of a pregnant woman, and only walk barefooted on the spring soil lest he crush the fragile new life of nature), serving the poor, seeing the divine hand in the environment, and calling for peace and justice, even traveling to Egypt to confer with the Sultan in the cause of reconciliation.
Those Americans who have faith in God, and in His Son, Jesus, and venerate saints such as Francis, also find themselves in the middle of the world, and cherish our freedom to bring the teaching of Jesus, which we hear both in the Good News proclaimed in the Bible and in the life of Francis, to the public square and political process.
We’ve certainly been reminded of that these past 10 months, which have seen the religious community in the United States engaged in a major conflict with the administration over the first freedom – religious liberty, our “first and most cherished freedom.” I am deeply grateful to the Catholic people of the United States, to my brother bishops and priests, to men and women of all faiths or none at all, for accepting this challenge, and for rising to the defense of religious liberty in full. In that defense, we stand for every man and woman of conscience; we seek no special favors, but we insist that the inalienable rights of religion be respected and honored in law and federal regulatory practice.
In the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” published by the bishops of the United States, we are reminded that, “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do.” And so, as I leave for Rome, I want to share with you some of the concerns that I will bring with me to the tombs of the apostles, SS. Peter and Paul, and to Assisi, the town of St. Francis.
I am concerned about a culture that has become increasingly callous about the radical abortion license, and a legal system that affords more protection to endangered species of plants and animals than to unborn babies; that considers pregnancy a disease; that interprets “comprehensive health care” in such a way that it may be used to threaten the life of the baby in the womb (and, it should be noted, to exclude the undocumented immigrant as well). I am concerned as well for the infirm and elderly who are nearing the end of life, that they will not be treated with the respect, dignity and compassion that is their due, but instead be encouraged to seek a hasty death before they can become, according to some, “a burden to society.”
I am worried that we may be reducing religious freedom to a kind of privacy right to recreational activities, reducing the practice of religion to a Sabbath hobby, instead of a force that should guide our public actions, as Michelle Obama recently noted, Monday through Friday.
I am bothered by the prospect of this generation leaving a mountain of unpayable debt to its children and grandchildren, whose economic futures will be blighted by the amounts of the federal budget absorbed by debt service.
I am anxious that calls for a fiscally responsible society are met with claims that those calls come from men and women who don’t care about the poor; that we may be tempted to write off the underprivileged as problems to be solved, or as budget woes, rather than treating them with respect and dignity as people with potential and creativity; that we’re at times more willing to cut programs to help the sick, our elders, the hungry and homeless, than expenditures on Drone missiles.
I am concerned that our elections increasingly resemble reality TV shows rather than exercises in serious democratic conversation.
I am bothered that we are losing sight of voting as an exercise in moral judgment, in which certain priority issues – especially the life issues, with the protection of unborn life being the premier civil rights issue of the day – must weigh heavily on our consciences as we make our political decisions.
I am worried by attempts to redefine marriage, and to label as “bigots” those who uphold the traditional, God-given definition of marriage.
I am anxious that we cannot seem to have a rational debate over immigration policy, and that we cannot find a way to combine America’s splendid tradition of hospitality to the stranger with respect for the rule of law, always treating the immigrant as a child of God, and never purposefully dividing a family.
I am worried about the persecution of people of faith around the world, especially with the hatred of Christians on a perilous incline; and the preference for violent attacks upon innocents instead of dialogue as the path to world peace.
I expect that many of you share these concerns. In the words of “Faithful Citizenship,” how we should respond is clear. The document says, “Our focus is not on party affiliation, ideology, economics, or even competence and capacity to perform duties, as important as such issues are. Rather, we focus on what protects or threatens human life and dignity.” As you consider these concerns, I will be praying for you in Rome that the humble, joyful Poverello of Assisi intercede for us, and that Mary Immaculate, patroness of the United States and Star of the New Evangelization, will inspire in us wisdom, prudence, and courage.
Reprinted with permission from the Catholic New York, official newspaper for the Archdiocese of New York.
His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan is the Archbishop of New York City.