85 years ago, our neighbors to the south were embroiled in a life and death struggle to maintain their freedom to worship as they saw fit. With laws that the were enacted with the ratification of a new Constitution but never enforced, The Church in Mexico thought it had found an uneasy peace with the government. However, as President Calles took office, he began a systematic implementation of the rules that previously existed. This resulted in the suppression of the rights of Catholics to gather for Mass and for priests and nuns to wear religious garb outside of a house of worship. Also, foreign born clerics were expelled from the country. (As a side note, this oppression and the resulting heroism is told dramatically in the new movie, ‘For Greater Glory,’ which is currently in theatres.)
Our brothers and sisters to the south did not sit by quietly to allow this oppression to persist, however. Bishops, priests, religious and lay men and women, Catholic, Protestant and Atheist, even, bonded together in a wide range of efforts to preserve the rights of Mexican citizens to express their religious liberty. And while it was a long and difficult struggle, eventually the government had to withdraw, eventually the struggle for freedom was won; through the power of prayer and an attitude that they would not succumb to the forces arrayed against them.
The atrocities committed in Mexico against the Church are not the first time in history that civil governments attempted to silence and/or marginalize people of faith. In the early Church, St. Justin Martyr was a great apologist and defender of the faith, even to the Emperor himself. During the English Reformation, Sts. Thomas More, John Fisher, Margaret Clitherow, and Edmund Campion stood against the reforms of Elizabeth and gave their lives in witness to the Catholic Faith. In the missionary countries of Africa and the Far East, the seeds of the Church were sown by the courageous witness of those who challenged the status quo and fought for the freedom to embrace this newly introduced religion, because it was true and resonated deep in the echoes of the heart.
Every time the Church is persecuted, it does not start with a full scale frontal assault, but rather slowly chips away at the fringes before, all of a sudden, there is no longer a freedom to do what our faith impels us to do: care for the poor and the elderly, teach and form the young, preach the Gospel, manifest Christ to the world around us. All of these are obligations not just of the priest, but of every Catholic.
The comforting aspect is that we do not do this alone. Recently, a Baptist woman came up to me as I was wearing my Roman Collar and affirmed: I support the Catholic Church! And we do not stand just in this time, as the saints who have gone before us give us the example and courage to follow in their footsteps, so that there might be raised up from among our very midst saints in the vein of those listed above, from every age and walk of life.
The founding fathers of this country purposely installed religious liberty as our first and most cherished right because they knew the power of a citizenry that was aware of a higher power to do great things. It is on all of us to embrace that call today.