Fortnight for Freedom Mass makes note of critical need for religious freedom

by Jennifer Brinker |

(This story can be also found on the St. Louis Review website

On the eve of Independence Day, Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis put aside their holiday planning to pray for the protection of the thing the Fourth of July celebrates — freedom.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson celebrated a noon Mass July 3 before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,500 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in the Central West End. Bishops across the United States held similar events for the past two weeks as part of the June 21-July 4 Fortnight for Freedom, which was designated as a period of prayer and action to address current cultural and government challenges to the issues of life, marriage and religious liberty.

On June 28, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the final rule on its contraceptive mandate, which requires many employers to provide contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans. The bishops have said that despite several attempts by the government to accommodate religious employers, they still have concerns about the religious freedom of the Church and the ability of individual Catholics to carry out Christ’s mission in their daily lives.

In his homily, Archbishop Carlson noted that for decades, Catholics in the United States — through the leadership of the bishops — have pushed for adequate health care coverage for all, adding that “basic medical care of a matter of social justice and human dignity.”

But the HHS mandate “violates our moral and religious convictions with its focus on contraceptives, abortion inducing drugs and sterilization,” said the archbishop, who received several rounds of thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the end of his homily. “We are defined by our faith, which has to do with an understanding of God, human dignity and the world in which we live. The most important thing we can do now is pray, and in the public square present, argue for and act on the Catholic understanding of the sacredness of life from conception to natural death.”

“We need to ask the question of our culture — does your thinking work in the shadow of heaven? And we say no,” said the archbishop at the conclusion of his homily.

Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis have been doing that in their own small ways. Greg and Elizabeth Brunner of Assumption Parish in O’Fallon have been stepping up their prayers during the bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom. The couple brought their two children, Miriam, two-and-a-half, and Cecilia, 2 months, to the July 3 Mass at the cathedral basilica.

“It’s almost as if freedom has become a subjective matter rather than objective,” said Greg Brunner, who took time away from his job in St. Charles to come to the Mass. Elizabeth Brunner, who stays at home with the children, said she had been going to Mass daily during the fortnight. “We have to be more unified as a Catholic community” if we want to defend religious freedom, Greg Brunner noted.

The bishops have been joined by other religious leaders in speaking out against current threats to religious freedom. On July 2, a diverse group of 58 faith representatives released an open letter urging the U.S. government to “expand conscience protections” in the mandate.


In a July 3 statement, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and head of the Archdiocese of New York, responded to the HHS’ final rule, noting that on first analysis, it does not eliminate “the need to continue defending our rights in Congress and the courts.”

The bishops have noted three areas of concern regarding the mandate, including a narrow definition of “religious employers” that are exempted, the “accommodation” of religious ministries excluded from that definition, and the treatment of businesses run by people who seek to operate their companies according to their religious principles.

“We are concerned as pastors with the freedom of the Church as a whole — not just for the full range of its institutional forms, but also for the faithful in their daily lives — to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ,” Cardinal Dolan said in the statement.

Jim and Jackie Spellmeyer of St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville brought their two sons, Joseph and John Paul, to the Mass. They also brought with them Rosalia Vazquez, a foreign exchange student from Spain whom the family is hosting for six weeks. Jackie Spellmeyer was trying to explain to Rosalia about the current threats to religious liberty.

“It’s like we’re becoming more of a socialist nation, where we’re all supposed to be the same,” said Spellmeyer. “But God created us all individually, and we should celebrate our individual talents — it’s as if they’re slowly being taken away from us. We want the archbishop to know that we stand behind him, and we want our religious freedom back.”

After Mass, Archbishop Carlson hosted about 400 teens for an ice cream social and tours of his Central West End residence. He told the teens that the issues the Church faces could be compared to salmon swimming upstream.

“Some of them get caught along the way on the rocks, and others get caught by bears on the way,” he said. “But some of them make it, and if they make it all the way they produce life. Thank you for helping me make that happen.”

Judy Krenn and about a dozen teens from Holy Name of Jesus Parish in North St. Louis County were taking refuge under the canopy of a large tree in the archbishop’s backyard as they enjoyed their Ted Drewes and conversation. Several of the teens said the issue of religious liberty was new to them; others, like Shayla Wilson, said the challenges the Catholic Church faces now remind her of the discrimination that good, practicing Muslims have experienced following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“We have our own religious beliefs, and I think people look at us like, ‘Oh, here you are preaching again.’ We get judged for believing what we want to believe,” said Wilson.

Krenn noted that as Catholics, it can be hard to take a stand on these issues, “but we have to have a standard to live up to,” she said. But above all, disagreeing with facets that are being embraced by the current culture — including same-sex marriage, abortion, contraceptives coverage and more — doesn’t make Catholics love those with whom they disagree any less.

“People should know that just because you say something is wrong doesn’t mean you can’t love them,” said Krenn.

Catholic News Service contributed some information to this story.