At a time when Christians face heightened persecution particularly in the Middle East, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut pointed to John Paul II as a heroic example in the fight to protect religious freedom.
“In these days when the peoples of the Middle East are risking their lives for freedom, and in these days when we must be vigilant for our own hard-won freedoms, may the words of this great pontiff resonate in our minds and hearts,” Bishop Lori said at the annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. on April 27.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Live Action's founder and president, Lila Rose, also spoke at the event.
Bishop Lori said it was particularly apt to pay tribute to John Paul II as the day of his May 1 beatification in Rome approaches.
He noted in his remarks that the late pontiff had a “profound” understanding of the dignity of the human person and the fundamental importance of religious freedom.
“In his extraordinary life, Pope John Paul II experienced the full range of threats to human dignity and religious freedom: the totalitarianisms of the right and the left which oppressed his native Poland.”
“Even as Communism tightened its grip,” he added, “a young Karol Wojtyla heard and responded to the call of a priestly vocation. Risking both life and freedom to answer a vocation to the priesthood,
he entered the underground seminary.”
Bishop Lori recalled that throughout John Paul II's life, “he taught that no one brings human dignity and freedom into clearer light than the Eternal Son of God who assumed our humanity, united himself in a certain way with each person, and called each person, even those who do not yet know his Name, to freely embrace His Father’s love.”
However, the bishop noted that as a philosopher, defender of human rights, and a religious leader, John Paul II rejected any notion that religious truth should be imposed on others or that modern democracies should be dominated by the Church.
“Religious freedom, of course, belongs not only to individuals but also to churches, comprised of citizens who are believers, and who seek, not to create a theocracy, but rather to influence their culture from within.”
“We look to the State not to impose religion but to guarantee religious freedom, and to promote harmony among followers of different religions,” said Bishop Lori, who lamented current situations where citizens are not afforded basic religious freedom.
Citing recent waves of violence against Christians in the Middle East, he urged Catholics to not forget other believers “who are often denied the first of their human rights, freedom of religion, and, as a result, many other human rights.”
“We need to ask our own leaders as well as human rights groups and international organizations
to speak out for these, our fellow Christians, persecuted and even killed for professing the Name of Christ,” he underscored.
The bishop also pointed to the U.S. as fumbling in its duties to protect religious freedom and conscience rights for members of different faiths.
“Increasingly, religious freedom in our country is viewed as a 'carve out,' an exception built into laws which are otherwise an affront to human dignity,” he said. “This tends to reduce religious freedom to a grant, given by the State, rather than an inalienable right given by the hand of the Creator.”
He decried legislative efforts that seek “to limit the Church’s mission only to worship” and make “every other activity of the Church subject to laws that conflict with both human reason and the Church’s teaching, on the sanctity of unborn life, the dignity of human life at its conception,
and the role of marriage and family in Church and society.”
“And what should be our response to this?” Bishop Lori asked. “We have much to learn from the wise and canny manner in which Cardinal Wojtyla dealt with the Polish Communist authorities of his day,
that astute mix of subtlety and public pressure which those authorities came so to fear.”
“But what he never did and what we must never do is to compromise the truth for in so doing we would compromise our freedom,” he added. “Rather, we must proclaim the truth boldly.”
“'Be not afraid!' John Paul II says to us from his place in eternity.”