Starting tomorrow and continuing through the Independence Day holiday two weeks from today, Catholic institutions across the United States will observe a special “Fortnight for Freedom,” in the hope of focusing attention on one of our most fundamental American constitutional rights — our freedom of religion. In a recent 12-page statement, the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has asked that these coming two weeks be a “special period of prayer, study, catechesis and public action” to “emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.”
Fittingly, this “Fortnight for Freedom” will begin on the eve of the Church’s annual commemoration of two famous 16th-century English martyrs for the freedom of the Church - St. John Fischer (1469-1535) and St. Thomas More (1478-1535). Both were martyred by order of King Hencry VIII in 1535 (on June 22 and July 6, respectively) for their refusal to accept the English Parliament’s Act of Supremacy, which had repudiated the Pope’s universal jurisdiction over the Church and declared the King the new Head of the Church in England. Also included within this two-week period are the Church’s annual celebrations that honor important early martyrs who witnessed to their faith in the face of persecution by reigning political power – St. John the Baptist (June 24), St. Irenaeus (June 28), SS. Peter and Paul (June 29), and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome (June 30). This “Fortnight for Freedom” will conclude on Independence Day. Nowadays, July 4 may be mainly a day for picnics and fireworks, but it remains an especially appropriate occasion for us to recall, celebrate, and emphasize, both as Catholics and as Americans, our distinctive national history and our constitutional heritage of religious liberty.
Reflecting on that history and heritage in The Catholic World, in July 1879, Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote:
“[A]s Catholics, the idea of religious tolerance flowed naturally and consistently in the minds of the first settlers on the shores of the Potomac. It was a noble act on their part to proclaim hat within the province and jurisdiction of Maryland not Christian man should be molested in worshipping God according to the dictates of his conscience … Honor, then, to the pilgrim Fathers of St. Mary [Maryland]! who, when the other settlements had a state-supported church and were intolerant to all others, asked for themselves no favor, but offered equal rights to all; thus excluding the secular authority of the state from interfering in matters of religion.” (“The Catholic Church in the United States: Its Rise, Relations with the Republic, Growth, and Future Prospects”)