Today we remember the birth of John the Baptist, the greatest of all prophets. It fell to him to point others to Jesus, to give his people knowledge of salvation. And I think that each and every one of us has a bit of the John the Baptist within us. If we don’t, we should. Each of us should be pointing others, directing others to Jesus, both by words and example. Priests direct their people to Jesus. Parents point the way to Jesus for their children. Husbands do this for their wives and wives do this for their husbands. Brothers and sisters do this for each other and we do this for our friends.
Now all of us are familiar with the words of John the Baptist. Like, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” If we have a bit of the John the Baptist within us, some of his characteristics, we too prepare the way of the Lord. And we’ve all heard the words, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” We too behold the Lamb at every Mass. And finally John the Baptist once said this about Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” With these simple words, he must increase, I must decrease, John the Baptist summarized our life as a Christian.
In all things we want Jesus to increase, we want him to increase in our hearts, in our prayers, in our families, in our parishes, in our places of work, in our studies, in our leisure, in our entertainment, and finally in our society. We want Jesus and His ways to increase within our society. At the time of Jesus and John the Baptist the king decreased the space for all the things of God. The king did not want to hear the voice of religious truth; the king did not want to permit the preachers that freedom to preach. John the Baptist did not give in. He spoke the truth about the sanctity of marriage. And for his fidelity King Herod had him imprisoned and beheaded.
The Catholic Bishops of the United States have declared a Fortnight for Freedom, asking Catholics to engage in a great hymn of prayer for our country. The Bishops have asked us to look to the great saints of History whose courage we can emulate. The fortnight began on June 21st, the vigil of the Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, who like John the Baptist were beheaded by a king who didn’t want them to speak the truth about the Church and the sacred bond of marriage. During this coming week we celebrate the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, who likewise were martyred by the Roman emperor for their preaching of Jesus Christ. The fortnight ends on July 4th, the day when we celebrate our American liberty.
Our first, most cherished liberty as Americans is religious freedom. It’s the first freedom listed in the First Amendment. It’s the foundation of all our freedoms, and if Americans are not free in their consciences, in their religious faith, in their corporal works of mercy, then all freedoms are in jeopardy. When the government commands us to do what God commands us not to do, then our long history of freedom is in grave danger.
Our Bishops have identified several attacks on religious liberty. The mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services that all employers, including Catholic agencies, provide health insurance for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, is a national assault on religious liberty without precedent in our history. There are other worrying measures at the state and local level too, laws which prohibit the spiritual and charitable assistance given by the Church to undocumented immigrants.
When the government says that we must do what our faith forbids us to do, or when it says we cannot do what our faith mandates – then we too might be called to have the courage and the voice of John the Baptist.
Let us pray for religious freedom and let us be great witnesses for our faith. This is no private matter. In our lives who will increase?
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley