December 6, 2013

Laity plays key role in defending religious liberty, archbishop says

Linda Loesch, left, a member of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County, takes a photo on Nov. 29 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany of Conventual Franciscan Father Ken Birch of Mount St. Francis, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and Ralph Nordhoff, a member of St. Michael Parish in Bradford. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Linda Loesch, left, a member of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County, takes a photo on Nov. 29 at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany of Conventual Franciscan Father Ken Birch of Mount St. Francis, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and Ralph Nordhoff, a member of St. Michael Parish in Bradford. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

NEW ALBANY—Archbishop William E. Lori grew up as a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. He was taught in the parish’s school by Franciscan sisters from Oldenburg.

And it was there that he first began to discern a call to the priesthood. He was ordained in 1977 for the Archdiocese of Washington, and became an auxiliary bishop of that archdiocese in 1995.

As the bishop of Bridgeport, Ct., he helped lead efforts more than a decade ago among the U.S. bishops to respond to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. And since 2011, he has been the bishops’ primary spokesman on religious freedom matters, chairing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

Last year, he was appointed the 16th archbishop of Baltimore.

On Nov. 29, Archbishop Lori returned to his home parish to give a presentation on religious liberty and the Church’s ministry of charity. (Related story: Archbishop Lori relates connection between religious liberty and charity)

In the reception that followed, Archbishop Lori reconnected with some relatives and childhood friends.

He later was interviewed by The Criterion about the effort to defend religious liberty, as well as how his experience growing up in New Albany laid the foundation for his current contribution to that effort.

The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q. You work with bishops on a regular basis on religious liberty issues. You’ve talked in the halls of Congress and with other advocates of it. What’s it like for you to come here and see the support of rank-and-file Catholics on this issue?

A. “Coming here to Our Lady of Perpetual Help is a wonderful experience for me because it’s my home parish. I’ve been with those with whom I grew up and others who are friends and acquaintances of my mom and dad. And also family members. Plus the Knights of Columbus, who could not be a more supportive group of people to be with.

“It’s a real joy to be able to share things that we all hold near and dear together and to do it in that context. But as I go around, I’m often speaking to groups like this. I’m not as close or as interconnected to them like this one.

“It’s always heartwarming to see the care, the concern, the thoughtfulness and the commitment of so many, many Catholics. Not enough. We wish that there was a groundswell. There isn’t. But we’re working on it.”

Q. How important is it for lay Catholics to take a leading role within their own sphere in advocating for religious freedom, not only for themselves, but for all people?

A. “It’s very important.

“The development of a truly just and humane society is principally the work of the laity. Their involvement in the political process, their involvement in the community, their role in establishing strong and loving families and their willingness to speak out as citizens and believers is critical.

“What I and my brother bishops are doing is simply trying to foster that because the bishops will not win this. The laity will win this. And that’s my daily prayer, hope and preoccupation.”

Q. The Year of Faith just ended on Nov. 24, the Feast of Christ the King. How do you think that what the Church has done in the Year of Faith, in seeking to renew people’s faith, is a way also to help us to defend the freedom that we have to practice it?

A. “The Year of Faith is a jumping off point. We should go from the Year of Faith to a life of faith.

“And Pope Francis is leading the way. I think he’s telling us, ‘First things first.’ And the first thing is opening one’s mind and heart to Christ and the Gospel and falling in love with God.

“Then, once that’s happened, the things the Church believes and teaches make sense. And the more that we embrace our faith, the deeper our relationship with God and with others in the Church becomes and the more we will value our religious freedom.

“Those who practice their faith cherish their religious freedom. And that is why the defense of religious freedom is also connected with the new evangelization.”

Q. It seems like what is getting most of the publicity in the effort to defend religious liberty is the attempt to attain legal remedies in the judicial system, to have regulations changed or to have laws passed. How important is the work being done to change hearts across the country so that people don’t just see this as a political issue but as a human issue?

A. “Of course, we have to act decisively to address immediate threats. And that’s what garners the attention.

“But you’re absolutely right. The more important and more fundamental struggle is to proclaim the Gospel robustly so that people will be drawn into the Gospel, into the Church and, both as believers and as citizens, be equipped to defend our religious freedom.

“So, that is job one. It’s evangelization. It’s who we are. That’s what we do. And what we are asking for is, as Pope Francis said in such eloquent simplicity, the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety—faith, worship, service.”

Q. Are you encouraged by some of these more recent judicial decisions involving challenges to the Health and Human Services Administration’s abortifacient, sterilization and contraceptive mandate? The dioceses of Erie and Pittsburgh recently gained relief from the mandate, as have various businesses, including one owned by the Grote’s, a Catholic family, in Madison.

A. “Yes. It’s very encouraging.

“Just to concentrate for a moment on the decision in the Erie and Pittsburgh cases. Judge [Arthur J.] Schwab wrote a magnificent opinion. It articulates the issues in a very thoughtful manner. It could not be more encouraging. Kudos to Bishop [David A.] Zubik, Bishop [Lawrence T.] Persico and Cardinal [Timothy M.] Dolan for what they did. Kudos also to those who defended the case for us. It’s very encouraging.

“The thing that perhaps could not have been predicted is how well the for-profits would do. When we were thinking about that a year and a half to two years ago, the experts would say that the for-profit companies wouldn’t have a chance.

“It turns out that they have a very good chance. Now it’s always dangerous business to predict what the high court might do, but it’s moving in a direction that is at least encouraging.”

Q. Judge Diane Sykes, in her majority opinion that gave relief from the mandate to the Grote family, used the analogy that you used in your testimony before Congress in February 2012 about a Jewish kosher delicatessen being forced by the government to sell pork. Like you, she used this analogy to show that a business owner’s faith can affect how he or she runs that business and that the government should not interfere in this. However, she did not cite your testimony.

A. “That’s all right. That she used it is fine.

“It’s actually had a bit of attention. People remember that. They may not remember the more abstract points. But they certainly remember a very concrete explanation like that.”

Q. When you were growing up here in New Albany, even when you were discerning a call to the priesthood, I suspect it would have been hard for you to have foreseen being at the center of a struggle for religious freedom here in the United States.

A. “When I was growing up here, we would say the prayers after Mass for the conversion of Russia. Father [Charles] Wagner would scurry down the steps and, before you knew it, we were saying those prayers. And we always thought of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, as it was called, as those whose religious freedom was being denied.

“Little did we ever think in those days [that our religious freedom would be threatened]. In 1954, for example, the words ‘under God’ were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, thanks to the Knights of Columbus. And the Church was strong and growing and more acceptable and assimilated into society. Little did we imagine when John Kennedy was inaugurated as the first Catholic president [that our religious freedom would be threatened].

“We thought everything was coming up roses. So, it would have been nearly impossible for me to imagine this. But the Oldenburg Franciscan sisters who taught me instilled in me a big interest in history.

“And reading history just as a hobby—I’m not a professional historian or have a degree in it—made me very interested in this subject. That has helped me a lot as I have tried to articulate some of the issues that we’re now facing.” †

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