Bishop's Column

Freedom, Fasting, and the Courage to be ‘Set Apart’

Holiness means being "set apart." The Church’s holiness comes not from us, but from God, who has set us apart through faith and baptism. God says to us, what he said to the ancient Israelites: "You shall be holy, for I am holy."

When God’s people start living like everyone else, there is trouble in store. The loss of holiness, and the embrace of a worldly lifestyle, can cause us to lose our freedom and come under oppression.

We see this pattern in the Old Testament: God lets affliction come upon Israel, when they choose to live like the other nations. These same pagan peoples become God’s instruments of chastisement, taking away the freedom his chosen people have abused.

The Lord takes no pleasure in the oppression of his people. But he permits it, to call us back to faithfulness. Moses makes this clear in the book of Deuteronomy: "Because you did not serve the Lord your God … therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you."

God’s character has not changed, and neither have our temptations. It is easy for us to forget that we have been set apart for God’s sacred purpose.

But the warnings of Moses and the other prophets are not obsolete. If the Church does not serve God, she risks becoming captive to hostile powers.

We know what it looks like when the Church forgets her holiness: Daily discipleship gives way to rote weekly churchgoing. Tough demands of the Gospel are ignored. Prayer, fasting, and penance are bypassed. Christ’s holy Church becomes indistinguishable from the world.

This, I suspect, is the deeper cause of the many present threats to religious freedom in America. When Catholics spend six days of each week living like everyone else, we find that our right to practice our faith in everyday life starts to come under threat and even disappear. The prophets tell us that this is no coincidence.

Last summer, the Church in America held its first "Fortnight for Freedom" – a two-week period of prayer, fasting, and public action, in response to grave threats facing the Church and the nation.

Those dangers are still with us, and so we are renewing our efforts with a second Fortnight from June 21 to July 4, 2013.

The worst of these ongoing threats to religious freedom is the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. As of Aug. 1, business owners and many religious ministries will face massive fines if they refuse to provide services that violate our faith and the natural moral law. Every citizen’s rights are in jeopardy if this mandate stands.

We are also alarmed by the push to redefine marriage, a move that will inevitably conflict with religious believers’ rights. Some Catholic adoption and foster care agencies have already been forced to close, rather than compromise the truth about marriage and the family.

Similarly, my brother bishops and I are concerned about anti-immigration measures that could restrict the Church’s ministry, by penalizing those who provide charitable help to illegal immigrants.

God does not want these afflictions to come upon the Church. But he may choose to allow them, if we choose worldliness over holiness and fidelity.

Prayer, fasting, and penance are the first things to disappear, when God’s Church decides to live just like the rest of the world. We must restore these practices, if we are serious about defending religious freedom.

Fasting is a powerful means by which God sanctifies his people and delivers them from oppression. Everyone who is able should practice it to some extent especially during the Fortnight for Freedom – particularly on Fridays, the Church’s traditional day of penance.

Fasting means taking only one meal over the course of the day, together with two smaller "collations" which add up to less than a full meal. This is often combined with abstinence from meat, and a preference for simple fare over elaborate or costly items.

On the two Fridays of the Fortnight for Freedom, June 21 and 28, Catholics nationwide are urged to fast and abstain from meat. I will be fasting and eating a meatless diet on those days, and I hope all Catholics and people of good will in southern Nebraska will join me.

This is a modest sacrifice, but a very meaningful one, especially when undertaken in a spirit of prayerful humility. Through fasting, God’s Church shows her willingness to be what God calls her to be: "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people" (1 Peter 2:9).

To further punctuate the seriousness of the threats to our religious freedom, I will be issuing a letter about this threat to be read at all Masses during the Fortnight. And I will urge my brother priests to preach on the threat as well.

This second Fortnight comes at a decisive time, for the Church and the country. As we offer our public witness to our neighbors, we will present our prayer and fasting to God. By our sacrifice, we affirm before him that we will use our freedom rightly – to walk in the Lord’s ways, and do his holy will.

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