This past weekend, my parish was visited by a priest from Nigeria for our annual Mission Appeal. While this annual appeal is something every parish in the United States is expected to take part in each year, I have learned from experience that it can sometimes be difficult, whether due to the heavy accent of the speaker, the logistics involved with travel and housing, ensuring that nothing else is happening in the parish that weekend which would take attention away from appeal itself, and of course the fact that so often the person preaching the appeal is unaware of time constraints associate with parish schedules and the real nightmare which can occur in the parking lot when one Mass time runs into the next one. While my parishioners and I certainly experienced a long homily this weekend, I can honestly say that I have never heard one that was more compelling or challenging. Fr. Joseph, who has lived in the United States for the past twenty five years, spoke of his own experience of persecution in his native Nigeria and the real danger which Catholics and other Christians face every time they gather for worship. In telling the story of his own imprisonment and his escape the night before he was scheduled to be executed for the capital crime of being a Catholic priest, he spoke eloquently of the need for us, here in the United States, to remember the freedoms which were won for us at great price by those who founded our nation, especially the freedom of worship. He reminded us of what it means to be grateful for what we have and to remember those who are not so fortunate as we are.
Of course, we are conscious that the possibility of religious persecution is a not so distant memory in Ireland but rather a part of the history which brought so many of our ancestors to America, whether it was the direct result of violence or the result, rather, of the anti-Catholic policies which left the majority of the Irish people destitute and even starving. But do we take the religious freedom we enjoy in the United States seriously? I was reminded as we recited the Nicene Creed just after Fr. Joseph had finished his long but moving homily that people have died for that Creed. People have died for the ability to proclaim that Creed and to live it as Catholic Christians—not just the martyrs of the ancient Roman world—people are dying for the ability to proclaim that Creed and live it even today. Are we even conscious that there are as many Christians dying for their faith in parts of the world today as died in what we commonly refer to as the Church of the Martyrs of the ancient world?
Perhaps we might take time over the next days to reflect upon what it means for us to enjoy the freedom of religion which is ours and what might be asked of us in the future. Perhaps we might take the time consider the depth of our own commitment to the Lord and our own participation in the faith that we profess. Do we really take our faith seriously, or do we treat it as something we do but which is not really a part of who we are on Sundays or even less frequently? And let us renew our commitment to the freedom of religion here in these United States. Let us renew our commitment to the faith which our ancestors held so dearly that they were willing to risk everything, including their lives, for the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and their ability to worship as Catholic Christians.