We come to enjoy true freedom when our restless hearts find rest in the truth. The great twentieth century philosopher, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – or, Edith Stein – discovered truth in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, and sought freedom by entering the Discalced Carmelites. The convent didn’t stop her from reaching out. During the rise of Nazism, Stein spoke up. She wrote to Pope Pius XI asking the Church to speak up on behalf of persecuted Jews, and she wrote her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, “as a way to combat racial hatred.” She was captured in 1942 and taken to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber shortly after arrival. Stein was executed primarily because she was Jewish, and the Catholic Church considers her a Christian martyr, because she bore witness to her faith in Jesus before her executioners.
Having spent much of my life in the university, I admire Edith Stein. Her intellectual vocation led her to faith, her relationship with God led her to prayer, and her life of prayer was bound up with her outreach to others. She enjoyed an interior freedom that opened out to service.
We can grow in both interior freedom and solidarity with others through prayer. In prayer, we express our dependence on God, and we take on the burdens of those for whom we pray. During this Fortnight, here is how I will be praying:
- For Bishops and all Catholic leaders. Many Christians may not realize religious liberty is an issue, because they don’t experience an infringement on their own freedom. But the issue is real for medical professionals like Cathy Decarlo, a nurse who was forced to participate in an abortion, or for ministries that serve immigrants in states prohibiting the “harboring” of undocumented persons. Pastors and leaders face serious challenges, and they need the wisdom and courage of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for them.
- For Christians facing violent persecution. In the West, we are dealing with what Pope Francis calls “polite persecution.” Polite persecution is real, but it pales in comparison to the struggles of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, and other places. In the face of this suffering, it can be difficult for most of us to know what we can do. Certainly, we can support organizations, like Aid to the Church in Need, that work to assist Christians under extreme duress in places like Iraq. We can also pray for our brothers and sisters, as well as for the conversion of the persecutors.
- For non-Christian fellow Americans. Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, rooted in the nature of the human person. So all people must be immune from coercion, free to pursue the truth and live the truth as best as they understand it. Many Americans are impeded in their search. For example, Muslims have faced challenges in recent years. Several states have passed anti-Sharia laws, local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of houses of worship, and the White House has imposed a travel ban that courts have found is aimed at preventing Muslims from entering the country. These actions give rise to a culture in which Muslims are treated as second-class citizens. As Catholics, we should be aware of these challenges, as we ourselves have been the target anti-Catholic bigotry. That bigotry gave us Blaine Amendments that we are still fighting today. Religious freedom for all does not mean we are resigned to relativism; it simply means that governments do not get to coerce people in matters of faith. It means that the state recognizes a space for non-state institutions, and this is the same space we Christians enjoy to propose the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Please join me in praying for our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow Americans, that we all will be free to seek and live out religious truth.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is Religious Liberty Program Specialist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.