Bishop Conley's Writings

Martyrs, Witnesses, and Public Life: Catholics at the Capitol

Bishop James D. Conley
Address to "Catholics in the Capitol" annual Legislative Advocacy Day
At the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln
March 24, 2015

Dear friends in Christ,

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you, during this day of lobbying and advocacy at the State Capitol. The “Catholics at the Capitol” initiative has a wonderful history in Nebraska, and I’m glad to see so many of you here.

I want to thank each of you for choosing to be here today. You are here to be witnesses to the Church’s faith and life in the halls of our state government. You are here to speak for children, for the unborn, for the poor, and for the forgotten. You are here to speak for Jesus Christ.

Thank you for choosing to be witnesses today.

In the Church’s calendar, yesterday was the memorial of St. Felix, a monk who lived in the 5th century, more than 1500 years ago. I think we might begin today by asking for his intercession. By the way, yesterday was the 87th birthday of my mother and I was privileged to spend the day with her in Kansas City.

Felix lived in the 5th century, in North Africa, which at that time was a part of the world inhabited by a vigorous and active Christian community. During Felix’s life, his homeland was conquered by Vandals, a group of loosely affiliated Germanic tribes who wreaked havoc wherever they went. This is where we get the English word vandalism.

The Vandals were warriors, who had moved from central Europe through the Italian Peninsula and down into Africa. They battled as they traveled. The Vandals fought the Roman Empire in Iberia, and Gaul, and Italy. They would lay siege to cities, and starve out the people before sacking and plundering each place.

For the most part, the Vandals kept on the move. But 80,000 Vandals arrived in Africa in the year 429, and lay siege to the city of Hippo. St. Augustine, the famous Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Church, died while his city and diocese were under siege. When the Vandals conquered Hippo, they established a kingdom, and ruled the North African coast.

The Vandals were followers of a Christian heresy- Arianism. The Arians denied that God is a Trinity, and they denied that Jesus Christ was the eternal Son of God. They denied Christ’s divinity. In North Africa, the vandals imposed Arianism on their entire kingdom. They exiled faithful priests and bishops. They shuttered monasteries, and denied freedom to faithful Christians.

Felix, and many of his companions, lived as faithful Catholic monks in the midst of this persecution. They refused to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. They refused to deny the Most Blessed Trinity. For their faith, St. Felix and his companions were made martyrs. They were killed for faith in Christ, but they died with the name of Jesus on their lips.

Felix and his companions died because they were denied the liberty to live according to the truth. They are witnesses to faithfulness in the face of persecution. St. Felix and his companions are martyrs, and they are models for us today.

The word martyr is a Greek word that means witness. A martyr witnesses to the truth. Each of us today is called to be a witness to the truth, and to imitate the holy faith of the holy martyrs.

Across the globe, Christians today face serious threats to the freedom to live according to the truth. None of us in this room is yet required to die for our faith. But in North Africa, and the Middle East, in central Asia and in China, faithful Christians still face death because they live according to truth. Today, in a sickening reality, Christian martyrdoms can be watched on YouTube or on the nightly news.

The freedom to practice the faith is threatened by aggressive unchecked secularism, which stops at almost nothing to establish what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Relativism today is veiled by words like “tolerance” and “non-discrimination” and “progressivism.”

Today, our lives are not threatened in the state of Nebraska. But our liberties are. But in our state, faithful Christians face threats to their livelihood, to the education of their children, and to their family life. The kinds of persecution we face inevitably leads to even greater persecution of believers.

That is the context in which we are called to be witnesses. We are witnesses for truth, and for freedom. Most especially, we are witnesses for Jesus Christ.

I’d like to make three points this morning about the role of Catholics in public and political life.


1) My first point is this: as lay Catholics, the Lord calls you to bring Christian values to public life. This is your vocation.

In Christifidelis Laici, Pope St. John Paul II’s major encyclical on the role of the laity in the Church, our late Holy Father and canonized saint said that, “political life calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.

The Second Vatican Council said that your task is to “animate the temporal order” with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This means that our civil laws should reflect truth: the truth about the dignity of every human person; the truth about the sovereignty of families; the truth about the rights of children, and the disabled, and the elderly. You’re called to bring our communities, our state, and our nation to the truest and deepest kind of justice.

Public life has to be more than a hobby or an interest. Public service—through days like this, through voting, through military service, or even through election to public office—is a part of the everyday vocation of Christian. John Paul said that, “the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in public life.”

I thank you for engaging in the work of your vocation today. And I urge you to continue to work with the Nebraska Catholic Conference to build true, just, free Christian culture in the state of Nebraska.


2) My second point is that successful democracy depends on the participation of Christians.

The Founding Fathers believed that well-formed believers were essential for maintaining the social contract underlying the US Constitution. In 1797, John Adams wrote that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Public religious faith provides the ability to make moral judgments, which are rooted in a sense of the common good, rather than individual good.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the great 19th century French political philosopher and historian most famous for his book Democracy in America, said that “where education and freedom are the children of morality and religion. . . democracy. . . makes better choices than everywhere else.” A religiously informed sense of the common good allows us to make better choices for public governance.

The challenge in any democracy, particularly our contemporary American democracy, is identifying and agreeing upon what common good the law should pursue. It is dispiriting to believe that law exists merely to protect ourselves from one another—that the common good we pursue is a basic certitude and guarantee that we won’t kill each other. Our common good is more than just protection from barbarism. Our common good creates an environment where the human person can flourish.

In fact, law can free us to pursue more for ourselves. Law can point us in the right direction and help us to achieve it. That direction is the common good: the human flourishing of every member of our society.

Religious faith, and Christianity in particular, provides an external standard of justice and truth, as well as a clear sense of authentic human dignity. Promoting human dignity is the common good. Promoting the family is the common good. Protecting truth and preserving justice is why we make law.

We need to bring that perspective to bear in the public square. Democracy depends on us.


3) My third point is that our political adversaries are not our enemies. The enemies of believers are the minions of the evil one. Their goal is the ruin of every human soul. Our political opponents our not our enemies—they are God’s beloved children.

We need to remember that those who disagree with us are created by God for salvation with him—and we are called to be missionaries to them, in order to invite them to a transformative religious relationship with Jesus Christ.

Our Lord commanded us to make disciples of all nations. Our fundamental aim should be that every human heart encounters the merciful love of God. And therefore, we must conduct ourselves as Christians in the public square. Our efforts to establish just laws must be charitable and honest. They must be predicated on the premise that human dignity extends to our opponents. They must proclaim the truth, and honestly invite those who disagree with us to experience freedom from sin through Jesus Christ.

This is easier said than done. It’s easy to be consumed by our political fervor. It’s easy to mimic the tactics of the world. It’s easy to develop anger, resentment, or even hatred towards our adversaries. We need to distinguish between evil ideas and the beloved children of God who promote them.

Good citizenship requires that we fight for the soul of our nation. But we are first citizens of a heavenly city. And being good citizens of the heavenly city requires that we invite every person to freedom: to renewal of heart and mind through Jesus Christ.

Almost 2,000 years ago, Tertullian said that, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” — sanguis est semen Christianorum. Because of the martyrdom of men like St. Felix, the Gospel spread throughout the world, even to us today. Christian witness is a powerful thing. We are here to be Christian witnesses today. May St. Felix intercede for us. And may Christ use our witness to establish justice, peace, and the conversion of hearts and minds.

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