More than 1,000 people gathered in the nation's capital on June 24 to celebrate religious liberty and recall its importance in American life.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C. observed that "the history of the United States is the story of the struggle for religious freedom."

"Each one of us individually and all of us collectively need to be free simply to be who we are, people of faith," he said.

The cardinal spoke at the "Celebration of Freedom" rally at George Washington University, which featured videos and speakers, along with music from the local St. Augustine parish choir.

The rally highlighted the rich heritage of religious freedom in America, as well as the contribution of Catholics in building and supporting the nation through various ministries, including schools, hospitals and charitable agencies.

The event drew large numbers of lay Catholics, including many families. Numerous local priests, bishops and consecrated men and women also attended.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, papal nuncio to the U.S., led the crowd in prayer for the protection of religious liberty. He told those gathered at the rally that Pope Benedict XVI supports efforts to promote and defend religious freedom in the U.S.

The archdiocesan event – which concluded with Benediction – was part of the Fortnight for Freedom called for by the U.S. bishops in a statement by their religious freedom committee.

The bishops have voiced concerns over growing threats to religious liberty both at home and overseas. Chief among these threats is a federal mandate that will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their consciences.

Bishops from every diocese in the U.S. have joined individuals and organizations from a wide variety of religious backgrounds in protesting the mandate for infringing on the religious freedom of those who object to it.

During the Fortnight for Freedom, which runs June 21-July 4, activities at the local and national levels encourage Catholics and others of good will to engage in prayer, education and advocacy in support of religious liberty.

Cardinal Wuerl told the crowd that in addition to working to protect freedom, the current fortnight "is also a time for us to count our blessings."

"The greatest gift that humanity has received is the Son of God, Jesus Christ," he explained, and it is in Church – the "living witness" – that we embrace Christ today.

"We look to the Church, alive and active, as the presence of Christ in our world today, just as when he walked among us, they felt his touch," the cardinal reflected.

He added that Christ's followers must be "free to embrace" the Gospel message and live it out.

Religious liberty is therefore "our freedom not only to worship God but to follow Christ, his Gospel and live according to the demands of conscience," he said.

This is not a right given by the government, he stressed, but is rather "from God."

In discussing the great need to protect religious freedom, Cardinal Wuerl highlighted the importance of prayer.

He also emphasized the role of the laity, pointing to Pope Benedict XVI's remarks to a group of U.S. bishops in January. The pope said that the best defense against the growing "radical secularism" in American culture is a "engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity."

The faithful must be active participants in the New Evangelization, growing in their own faith so that they can confidently share the truths of this faith through their lives, said the cardinal.

While the challenge to live out our faith "may at times seem daunting," we are a people of hope, he said, adding that when we feel overwhelmed, we can remember that "Jesus already has won the victory."

Cardinal Wuerl urged the faithful to remain strong in faith and hope as they continue in the ongoing struggle for religious freedom.

"There's a time to be on one's knees," he said, observing that his remarks would be followed by Benediction and all would kneel to acknowledge the "presence of our Lord."

However, he added, there is "also a time to stand up."

"Today, we are reminded as we look back over our history and we look at our freedoms, that there are some things worth standing for," the cardinal said. "And religious liberty is one of them."