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‘God’s servant first’

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This month we observe Religious Freedom Week, which begins every year on June 22, the memorial of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More. Thomas More, the patron saint of our diocese, was a lawyer and governmental official who fought for the freedom of the church and for freedom of conscience. While he was a dedicated civil servant, he remained “God’s servant first.”

Religious Freedom Week 2020 is taking place against the backdrop of a turbulent election year that has challenged Christians to consider prayerfully how we can be faithful citizens who remain God’s servants first. Acts of racial discrimination and other injustices, hardships arising from the coronavirus pandemic, and failures to protect human dignity and religious liberties in our state’s legislature and the Supreme Court have given special urgency to Catholic action and advocacy in the public square.

In these trying times, St. Thomas More’s martyrdom reminds us to remain steadfast in the faith that our final home is with God in heaven. As pilgrims journeying toward the heavenly city, we await in joyful hope that time when “the human race as well as the entire world … will be perfectly reestablished in Christ” (Vatican II, “Lumen Gentium,” no. 48).

At the same time, St. Thomas More’s life exemplifies how our earthly pilgrimage requires working to eradicate the evils in our world. Striving for heaven “increases the importance of (our) obligation to work with all humans in the building of a more human world” (Vatican II, “Gaudium et Spes,” no. 57), and as the U.S. bishops emphasize, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” no. 13).

The virtue and obligation of Christian engagement in political life is grounded in the Incarnation and in Christ’s redemptive death. As Pope Francis teaches in “Evangelii Gaudium,” “To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being. Our redemption has a social dimension because ‘God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men’ ” (no. 178).

Christ continues his redemptive work through the church, guiding us on our pilgrim way. In a political atmosphere clouded by power struggles, personal attacks, and narrow partisanship, the church calls instead for political engagement that is “shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable” (“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” no. 14). The church accompanies each of us in forming our conscience so that we can better discern the many issues of varying moral weight that affect human dignity, justice, and peace, as well as candidates’ integrity, philosophy, and performance on these issues (cf. “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” no. 41).

Developing a well-formed conscience takes dedicated time and prayerful effort. Every person is called to be open to truth and goodness, and the church invites us to open our hearts to God by praying with Scripture and studying Catholic teachings. Forming our conscience also requires examining the facts and background information about the various choices presented to us, guided by the prudent advice and good example of trusted leaders. Finally, “prayerful reflection is essential to discern the will of God” (“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” no. 18).

Therefore, I invite the faithful of the Diocese of Arlington to consider prayerfully two practical steps toward developing a well-formed conscience in these months leading up to important local, state and national elections.

First, actively engage in Religious Freedom Week, in which we pray, reflect and take action on concrete issues related to religious liberty. Most especially, the last day of this week —  on the theme “Civilize It” —  invites us to renew our Christian commitment by pledging civility, clarity and compassion in the public square. Consider making the pledge at civilizeit.org.

Second, as a family, as a community, or on your own, pray over the U.S. bishops’ call to political responsibility in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” With an open mind and heart, consider the church’s reasons for engaging in the political arena, how we each participate according to our own vocation, and how the church accompanies us as we discern our political responsibilities and our responses to concrete issues.

In a special way this year, we ask God to confirm in faith and charity his pilgrim church on earth so that, following the example of St. Thomas More, we may carry out our earthly duties according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and come at last into our Father’s kingdom.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020