St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to observe that the saddest person is the one without gratitude, the one who feels he/she has nothing for which to thank God or somebody else.
We Americans would agree. The early pilgrims who arrived here at the beginning of the 17th century—they were not the first—found it appropriate and even essential to give thanks to the Lord, who, through many hardships, had brought them safely to a new home of promise and dreams. Thus, the first Thanksgiving!
We all have abundant reasons for praise. Might I propose one we dare not forget: religious freedom. This “first and most cherished freedom” acknowledges that essential to the dignity of the human person, and from which flows all subsequent rights, is our freedom to worship and practice our faith without “permission,” harassment, or interference by a government whose purpose is to protect our God given rights, not interfere with them.
Sadly, this freedom, celebrated by the pilgrims at that premier Thanksgiving event, and enshrined as the first liberty protected by the Bill of Rights, is under attack today.
Pope Francis proposes that there are actually two ways that religious freedom is threatened today.
One would be what he terms soft persecution. This happens when our religious liberty is slowly eroded by government decree. Why would our parishes, congregations, synagogues, and mosques, for instance, be denied government funds to assist people suffering in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico from recent shattering hurricanes? Why would the Little Sisters of the Poor be threatened with towering fines if they did not provide their employees with health insurance covering abortifacients and contraception? Why would two prominent senators hound a deeply committed Catholic and highly regarded jurist, nominated as a judge, about her faith?
This “soft persecution” noted by the Holy Father can come, not just from the government but from a dismissive secular culture which snickers at faith and religion, considering it superstitious at best, bigoted at worst.
Yet Pope Francis notes not only this “soft” threat to religious freedom, but, tragically, a hard and vicious persecution.
Your bishops have asked that we hold up in prayer this very Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, those millions in our world today who literally risk their lives to worship and profess their beliefs.
While many religious minorities suffer such hard persecution—we think of the perennial scourge of anti-Semitism leading to pogroms and the holocaust—Christians in the Middle East, Africa, China, India, and Asia are particularly singled out, leading President Obama to term the persecution of Christians a genocide.
Listen to this chilling statistic: every 60 minutes, somewhere in the world, a Christian is killed for his or her faith! If that doesn’t risk spoiling our pumpkin pie, I don’t know what will.
This Thanksgiving, I praise God for organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Aid to the Church in Need, Knights of Columbus, and Order of Malta, who never forget those today suffering from hard persecution.
I invite you to pray vigorously for those under attack. When I speak with my brother-bishops in areas where their people are burned, shot, and tortured, and ask them how we can help, unfailingly will they reply: Pray for us!
Let’s do that…