The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging the faithful to focus on religious freedom during June and July. This marks the third year the USCCB has called for a “Fortnight for Freedom” to draw attention to threats to religious liberties.
In 2012 and 2013, efforts were largely concentrated on opposing the Health and Human Services mandate that violates freedom of conscience and punishes individuals and businesses that do not want to participate in facilitating abortion or contraception.
While those concerns are still prominent, this year, the USCCB is turning its gaze to how religious freedom protects service to the poor and vulnerable in accordance with human dignity and Church teaching.
Noteworthy ‘Fortnight’ events
- Sunday, June 22, 9 a.m.: Feast of St. Thomas More/ Corpus Christi
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted will celebrate Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, 6351 N. 27th Ave. in Phoenix.
- Sunday, June 29, 10 a.m.: Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul
Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares will celebrate Mass at St. Peter Indian Mission.
- Friday, July 4, 8:30 a.m.: Independence Day
Bishop Nevares will celebrate Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. The Rosary for the United States of America will follow.
The Fortnight for Freedom kicks off June 21 and runs through July 4, a time when the Church’s liturgical calendar recognizes several well-known martyrs for the faith such as St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher as well as St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul. Each remained faithful in spite of persecution by a political power and was eventually put to death for his beliefs.
Among many cherished American freedoms is the ability to serve the poor and vulnerable.
Debbie DiCarlo, director of parish and community engagement for Catholic Charities Community Services in Phoenix, said the organization at the local and national level has long been at work serving the poor in the United States. She spoke of the complex relationship that exists between a Catholic organization, that can be viewed as counter-cultural, and the government.
“From the beginning, Catholic Charities as an organization has stood counter-culturally to the government often, in terms of abortion and immigration, but equally on the same hand, we have also partnered [with the government],” DiCarlo said.
“Communities were so overwhelmed by the basic needs that people weren’t having met, such as food, shelter and education,” DiCarlo said. Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society responded to the crisis with, “We can’t walk by these soup lines and walk into our faith communities and not feel a call to address this issue,” DiCarlo said.
Today, Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society feed, clothe and minister to thousands of the poor and vulnerable both here and around the country.
DiCarlo cited the example of Verde Villas, a housing community for low-income families and veterans in the Valley. Housing for Hope, an affiliate of Catholic Charities, helped establish the community by partnering with the Foundation for Senior Living, the City of Phoenix and Maricopa County.
Catholic Charities, DiCarlo emphasized, is dedicated to serving all those in need, regardless of religious affiliation. The call to serve is nevertheless a carrying out of a mission entrusted to the Church by Christ.
“What we do on Sunday nourishes us,” DiCarlo said. “We are then called to go out the other six days a week and really do the hard work of being present as Christ is present to us in the Eucharist.”
In Phoenix, Manny Yrique is one of countless “Vincentians” serving the poor through the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He said that serving the needy as a Vincentian, however, is about more than providing food boxes.
“It’s very difficult to serve the poor properly unless first we have a conversion of our own heart,” Yrique said. “The greatest ministry is not the food basket, but bringing prayer into the house.”
Mary Chou-Thompson, communications manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Phoenix, said the organization operates five dining rooms in the Phoenix metro area, serving some 3,500 meals per day.
“We served 1.2 million meals last year,” Chou-Thompson said. “The need is greater than ever before.”
On a smaller scale, Catholics are finding creative ways to help the needy. In Mesa, Judi Messer and her husband, Deacon Gene Messer, work with area homeless. Judi developed care packages motorists can distribute to the homeless individuals who often ask for money at freeway exits.
Threats to freedom
The USCCB’s website cites numerous instances of the freedom to serve the poor being thwarted by the U.S. government.
Catholic Charities in Boston and Illinois, for example, no longer has adoption programs because of its refusal to place children in same-sex couples’ homes. Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, a civil and canon lawyer, noted that, “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated.”
DiCarlo said the government’s actions regarding immigration at times runs counter to the guiding philosophy of Catholic Charities.
“Here in Maricopa County, we do struggle with the amount of undocumented families who are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” DiCarlo said.
Catholic Charities, she said, holds that “these people are here, they are our brothers and sisters and they deserve to feed their children.”
The U.S. Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services reaches out to those affected by human trafficking. Despite many years of administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, however, in 2011 the federal government began requiring contractors to provide or refer for abortion or contraceptive services, in violation of Catholic teaching. The federal government subsequently refused to award a grant to MRS.