Catholics prayed the Rosary for the United States of America July 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Fourth of July observances looked a little different this year. Catholic Americans added prayer and fasting to their traditions of picnics, barbecues, parades and fireworks.

Many saw it as a necessary step to honor martyrs who remained faithful despite political persecution. They found it equally important to gather at church to pray for the welfare of the country.

The nationwide Fortnight for Freedom, a 14-day vigil that ended July 4, marked only the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle for religious freedom.

“Today more than ever, all persons of faith need to be aware of how our federal and state governments are encroaching upon our religious freedom,” Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares said during a July 4 Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.

“The federal government wants to redefine religious freedom to be freedom of worship. That means free to practice the faith as long at it’s in church.”

That would be a huge loss to Christians and the countless underprivileged they serve, the bishop said. For it is by Christian charity that eternal judgment is based, the bishop reminded a full cathedral.

It’s that same charity for which Christian missionaries have died in recent years for living their faith outside of church walls.

But the persecution isn’t only overseas. In Mississippi and Alabama, the bishop said, it is now a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants. So Christian churches can’t send out buses to bring them to worship on Sundays. Nor can they transport undocumented immigrants to the doctor, hospital or school.

Catholic Charities in California, Massachusetts and Illinois ended their adoption and foster care programs rather than comply with state rules to allow same-sex and cohabiting couples to participate. Other local governments are stepping in too. A New York City rule bars small churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services. Nonreligious groups remain unaffected.

If that were the case locally, St. Henry parishioners in Buckeye would have to find a new spot for Sunday Masses. Three other parishes would have had similar trouble in recent years.

The struggle for religious freedom will soon grow tougher for some employers. The Health and Human Services mandate will require all employers — except a narrowly defined group of religious employers — to include contraception, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs under its health plan. It won’t matter if the employer is morally opposed to such services.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for many Catholic Americans, especially Manny Yrique. He was the driving force behind the Rosary for the USA, which followed Mass.

“I love my country more than I can ever express,” Yrique said, fighting back tears.

What he doesn’t like is the nation’s divisiveness. It’s his hope that praying a rosary for the country and its leaders consecrates the nation to the patroness of the Americas and restores the nation under God. Each Hail Mary was dedicated to one of the country’s 50 states.

“We’ve been promised by the president change. But the hope and change we’re looking for can’t be found in men and women. It can only be found in Jesus Christ,” Yrique said.

He challenged those gathered to make the rosary a heartfelt prayer —  first individually and then as a family. Yrique also encouraged the crowd to prayerfully consider its citizen responsibilities — such as the right to vote.

“We can no longer stand idly by because it’s a personal attack,” Yrique said.

Local Catholics heeded his message, even if they didn’t directly hear it. Parishioners at Sacred Heart in Prescott offered the Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty at every Mass during the fortnight. They also offered a Novena for religious freedom.

Other Catholics spent time in eucharistic adoration. St. Joan of Arc Parish held a special bilingual devotion nightly during the Fortnight for Freedom. Christine Accurso and her family twice counted themselves among the crowd.

The St. Mary Magdalene parishioners made the trek from Gilbert and found other ways to make the fortnight a family affair. The family of five prayed the rosary for the United States nightly together and spoke to and wrote their elected officials, including the president.

“God provided it,” Accurso said. “If we saw them, we talked to them. If we ran across their email, we emailed them and we wrote some.”

Accurso blogged about her efforts. Entries included a providential craft project at a local hardware store. The kids, ages 6 to 12, made and decorated a wooden vehicle. They dubbed it the “Fortnight for Freedom mobile.” Each wheel said “act” with front and back plates reading “pray” and “study.” They drew a bishop in the driver’s seat.

“It has heightened our awareness that if you rally people together with prayer and public witness, that people really can cleanup the conversation,” Accurso said.

She later blogged about how moved she was singing “America the Beautiful” during the liturgy’s opening procession.

“There is always something special about Americans gathering to sing that song, but as we united together as Catholics to celebrate the highest form of worship, in this trying time in our country, the song was sung with a strong sense of prayer, not just patriotism,” she wrote.

Earlier chapters

There was a similar feeling at St. Steven Parish in Sun Lakes July 3. Roughly 100 parishioners of all ages gathered for a freedom rally and rosary. They sang patriotic songs between each mystery of the rosary that was offered specifically for the Supreme Court and various levels of government.

Like the rosary at the cathedral, they also prayed specifically for the souls in each state. The Lamb of God prayer group through Catholic Renewal Ministries, which played a key role in the rally, has been offering a patriotic rosary for more than a year.

Ed Orillo from the Lamb of God prayer group at St. Anne in Gilbert gave a short talk on the importance of protecting religious freedom. He reminded those gathered of Pope Benedict XVI’s caution against “radical secularism.” It threatens the core values of American culture, the pope warned U.S. bishops visiting him in January.

Orillo also cited the film, “For Greater Glory,” to remind fellow Catholics that earlier chapters in recent history also feature those who gave their life for the faith. The film portrays Mexico’s persecution of Catholics in the 1920s.

Leonardo Defilippis delivered an all-too-real performance of “Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz.” St. Luke Productions debuted the multimedia, one-man drama at Mount Claret Retreat Center July 2-3. He performed to a nearly full house both nights drawing some 600 people.

“It’s dealing more comprehensively with all the issues we’re talking about,” Defilippis told The Catholic Sun.

There’s an underlying theme in both the drama — which ends in a concentration camp — and the HHS mandate that immoral activities are being forced upon the populace, he said. That leads to the corruption of morals.

“We’re really seeing the attack against the tenets of society. The Church can’t genuflect to what will allow you not to serve God,” Defilippis said.

He hopes the drama and the fortnight inspired Americans of all faiths to have the courage to follow their convictions and unite in one voice.

On the vigil of the feast of St. Thomas More, Bishop Nevares delivered a homily about men who died for their convictions. The June 21 liturgy at St. Thomas More in Glendale opened the Fortnight for Freedom. St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher died in the 1500s for defending the indissolubility of marriage.

“Our struggle to defend religious freedom is not a new phenomenon,” the bishop said. “In every age, in one way or another, people of faith have been persecuted and, at times, given their lives in defense of their religious beliefs.”

He challenged Catholics to pray that the Holy Spirit pour its gifts upon the nation and its civil leaders.

Mary Ann DeLuca, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes in Sun City West, attended the opening Mass. She said she was doing her part through prayer, action and fasting to change the heart of others.

“You have to bring the love of Christ to all you meet. It could be a smile. It could be a handout,” she said. “Make sure there’s always a smile. A smile says everything. You have a smile and it brings joy to people.”

Fr. John Lankeit, rector of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, called St. John the Baptist “a perfect example of speaking the truth in charity without fear,” during a June 24 Mass celebrating his feast day.

“The time is coming when the people will not endure sound teaching,” Fr. Lankeit said.

He echoed Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori’s comments during the opening Mass for the Fortnight For Freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption. Archbishop Lori said that some call the Catholic Church a primary obstacle that stands in the way of creating a secular culture.

“We must never tire of speaking the truth about freedom and the dignity of life as a human person,” Fr. Lankeit said.

Even if others ignore it, the truth still speaks to them at some conscious level, he said.

“It’s not a question of success. It’s a question of faithfulness,” Fr. Lankeit said.

It’s that faithfulness to the Church and America’s other liberties that many Catholics remember their ancestors seeking as immigrants. Mark Shoban and his daughters spoke briefly to a small crowd of fellow parishioners at St. Steven during a July 3 freedom rally. His great-grandfather emigrated from Lithuania in 1902.

“His greatest gift of all was the love of our faith. He gave us love of country and love of religious freedom. There are no places to go after this,” Shoban said, fighting back tears.

His pre-teen girls also spoke. One of them explained how she chose Michael as her confirmation name because she knew she’d have to fight evil like he did. The other said in earnest that her great-great grandfather came to America to protect his Catholic beliefs.

“If we lose our religious freedom, we will be forced to flee the U.S. just like our ancestors,” she said.

Fr. Pierre Hissey, their pastor, stressed the importance of standing in solidarity with the bishops, their own conscience and Church teaching.

“We must pray for that change of heart to that mandate to which we cannot follow in good conscience,” he said.

And Catholics will. Accurso, who participated in many Fortnight for Freedom activities with her family, called the fortnight the “springboard for all of us,” especially as election season nears.

U.S. bishops also asked that the solemnity of Christ the King — a feast born out of resistance to totalitarian incursions against religious liberty — be a day specifically employed by bishops and priests to preach about religious liberty, both here and abroad.