“Answer to the Lament of the Irish Emigrant”

Many of our immigrant ancestors set off on arduous, expensive and potentially life-threatening journeys to the United States for various reasons, very few of them trivial. They left their homelands in search of opportunities for work, chances to own land, and other ways to better their lives.

Like the first pilgrims that set foot in what would become New England, many immigrants over the centuries also came to America in search of religious freedom, Catholics included.

Today is the first day of the Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period designated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.  It was inspired by recent challenges to this freedom in the United States, as Pope Benedict XVI describes: efforts to “deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices” and the “tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience”. (Ad limina address to Bishops of the United States, January 19, 2012)

The Bishops have challenged Catholics to focus their thoughts and prayers during this two week period on the importance of the right to a living, active faith unhindered by the restrictions of government.

We need, therefore, to speak frankly with each other when our freedoms are threatened. Now is such a time. As Catholic bishops and American citizens, we address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad. – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, April 14, 2012

This topic is vitally important to people of all faiths, not just Catholics.  Here at The Catholic Gene – where we gather to share the stories of our Catholic family history – we would like to hear your stories. What has religious freedom meant to your family? Did your ancestors flee a country that would not allow them to worship freely (like many 20th century Mexican immigrants)? Did they meet with persecution because of their faith? Or did they play a role in preserving and strengthening their community of faith during times in history when religious freedom faced no obstacles?

Prayers written in the 17th century by Jesuit priest Andrew White, first Catholic missionary to the Maryland colony

As with many of our American values, the commitment to religious freedom has seen its ups and downs.  Do you have Catholic ancestors who first settled the Maryland colony later to be impacted by new laws against Catholic education and the destruction of Catholic schools? Do you have family members who told stories about anti-Catholic sentiment against political candidates? Or did your ancestors worship in other faiths and face religious persecution in other countries? Share your stories with us in the comments section here at The Catholic Gene.

The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people’s awareness of the importance for society of religious freedom; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith.  And it is vitally necessary for the very survival of the American experience, to transmit to the next generation the precious legacy of religious freedom and the convictions which sustain it. – Blessed John Paul II, Baltimore, Basilica of the Assumption, 1995

Help us take time to remember the stories of some of those who risked their lives and their livelihoods for the ability to worship and practice their faith freely, and the stories of those that lived inspiring lives of faith during the springtimes of religious freedom. We hope that readers will be inspired to look at the history of our religious freedom in the United States, and join in prayer for the continuation of this vital liberty that is so important to us as Americans.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights

For more information about the history of religious freedom in the United States, you might be interested in reading Liz O’Connor’s article Approaches to Religious Freedom Have Developed Over Time on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.