CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl greets members of the Little Sisters of the Poor after the closing Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom July 4 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl greets members of the Little Sisters of the Poor after the closing Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom July 4 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The theme for the 2016 Fortnight for Freedom, “Witnesses to Freedom,” unfolded as 1,500 people spent part of their July 4 holiday attending the closing Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and also through the veneration afterward of the relics of two saints who died as witnesses to religious freedom, St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. After the Mass, people waited in a long line to kneel and pray before the relics displayed near the altar.

Welcoming the congregation, Msgr. Walter Rossi, the basilica’s rector, said those filling the National Shrine – which is the largest Catholic church in North America, offered “testimony that the freedom to live our lives according to our faith is fundamental to the life of believers.”

The fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom closing Mass included the participation of three of the petitioners in a recent Supreme Court case challenging the HHS contraceptive mandate, which they contended violated their religious freedom by forcing Catholic institutions to provide employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, which are prohibited by Church teaching.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington whose archdiocese and affiliated agencies challenged the mandate, was the main celebrant at the Mass, and the homilist was Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik, whose diocese also opposed the HHS contraceptive coverage provision of the Affordable Care Act, and whose name was on the Zubik v. Burwell consolidated case before the Supreme Court opposing Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A group of Little Sisters of the Poor – whose religious order also challenged the mandate – sat in a pew near the front of the congregation and received a long standing ovation at the end of the Mass.

On May 16, the Supreme Court in an unanimous ruling sent the contraceptive mandate legal challenges back to lower courts, vacated earlier judgments against those parties opposing the mandate and encouraged the two sides to resolve their differences, and attorneys for the plaintiffs expressed hope afterward that a compromise could be reached in the cases.

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who recently began serving as the new Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, was a concelebrant at the Mass. The other concelebrants, along with Bishop Zubik, included Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA; Auxiliary Bishop Richard Higgins of the Archdiocese for the Military Services; Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout;  and Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, the U.S.C.C.B. general secretary.

In his homily, Bishop Zubik commended the congregation for standing together and praying for religious freedom “on this 240th anniversary of our freedom in our United States,” dating back to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

He noted that just as footnotes in a term paper solidify the accuracy and strengthen the message of a point being made, “You and I are called to be footnotes, footnotes to the truth who is Jesus Christ himself.”

Then the faithful are called to be witnesses to Jesus, to be a living sign of his truth, adding that for some, that witness takes the form of martyrdom, the bishop said.

Bishop Zubik said “our ancestors in the faith” demonstrate what it means to be a footnote to Jesus’s truth, and then be witnesses and sometimes martyrs. He pointed to St. John the Baptist who was beheaded when he refused to give in to political power.

Pittsburgh’s bishop praised the example of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, whose relics were displayed at the National Shrine that day, as witnesses and martyrs “would not yield supremacy of power over faith, even to the king.” Those two saints were executed in 1535 after they refused to support King Henry VIII’s divorce and the king’s declared authority as the head of the Church of England.

In his homily, Bishop Zubik also highlighted the heroic example of other martyrs, including St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan friar who gave up his life for another man in 1941 at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and Blessed Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop and champion of the poor who was shot in the heart while celebrating Mass in 1980. Bishop Zubik also praised the witness of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS on a beach in Libya in 2015.

Bishop Zubik noted that the Little Sisters of the Poor in their service to the elderly poor and in their stand for religious freedom “are carrying the banner that we will not back off the truth that is Jesus Christ.”

He noted that the nation’s forefathers put forth religious liberty as the first freedom in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, giving people the freedom “to worship our God as the source of our strength,” and also to “live our faith outside our churches, synagogues and mosques.”

Opponents to the HHS mandate have charged that it offered exemptions to religious groups in houses of worship, but not to educational, health care and charitable ministries operated by churches, which they said are as essential to the practice of faith as prayer is.

Bishop Zubik concluded his homily by encouraging people to “pray that we may build on our ancestors of faith and our ancestors in our country and be witnesses to religious freedom.” That witness involves praying, speaking out and acting on behalf of religious freedom, and living that freedom, he said.

The intercessions included a prayer that the president, judges and lawmakers will uphold religious freedom and protect the conscience rights of all people, and that religious-sponsored educational, healthcare and charitable outreach programs will be free to fulfill their mission.

Cardinal Wuerl read a prayer for government written in 1791 by Baltimore Archbishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the new United States.

In remarks after Communion, Archbishop Lori said he hoped the saints’ relics venerated that day “will spur all of us on to cherish, protect and use wisely the gift of freedom.” He thanked dioceses, parishes and individual Catholics for their activities during the Fortnight for Freedom, which ran from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4. Archbishop Lori had celebrated the Fortnight’s opening Mass in Baltimore at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Archbishop Lori also encouraged people to pray daily for religious freedom, and to use that freedom to spread the Gospel, especially through the works of mercy, and to stand in solidarity with persecuted people around the world.

Cardinal Wuerl asked the congregation to thank the Little Sisters of the Poor “for their wonderful service and courageous witness,” and the people responded with a long standing ovation for the sisters.

People entering the National Shrine by its main entrance could see a 30-by-50-foot U.S. flag draped from the Knights’ Tower, which was provided by the Knights of Columbus. The flag was first draped there in 2002 on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Mass concluded on a patriotic note, with the singing of  “America the Beautiful.”

The closing Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom was telecast live by EWTN and also appeared on CatholicTV.