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The ministry of the Word is a fundamental element of evangelization through all its stages, because it involves the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God.
“The word of God nourishes both evangelizers and those who are being evangelized so that each one may continue to grow in his or her Christian life”
(National Directory for Catechesis [NDC] [Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005], no. 17).
by Jayd Henricks
Executive Director, Office of Government Relations
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
On July 6, 1535, St. Thomas More, a Catholic layman and English lawyer, was martyred in defense of the Church, the Sacrament of Marriage, and the supremacy of the pope. Despite notable pressure from friends and loved ones, St. Thomas More was unwilling to vow allegiance to King Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England. He was thus tried and convicted of treason.
As St. Thomas More approached the scaffold before his beheading, he spoke his famous last words, "I die the King's good servant, but God's first." "I die the King's good servant, but God's first."
The martyrdom of St. Thomas More is one of the most famous examples by a lay Christian of both the truth of the faith but also the particular inviolability of the personal dignity of man.1 "And it was precisely in defense of the rights of conscience that the example of Thomas More shone brightly. It can be said that he demonstrated in a singular way the value of a moral conscience which is 'the witness of God himself, whose voice and judgment penetrate the depths of man's soul.'"2 While most of us lay Christians will not be called to make the ultimate sacrifice, we are and will be immersed in moral and social situations that present threats to the dignity of the person, especially our cherished religious freedom.3 And like St. Thomas More, we, especially in our call as baptized Christians, have a right and duty to defend the truths of the person, including our religious freedom.
Roots of Crises of the Human Person
In order to live a heroic witness of faith as laity, it is important to consider carefully not only the "signs of the times" but also the truths of the history of man. As Our Lord reminds us, we must be "shrewd as serpents and simple as doves."4 In this context, we must recognize that, while certain systems of power and governmental authority appear today to present challenges to human dignity, those threats did not appear overnight. Understanding the roots of our current struggles will allow us more truthfully to bear witness to the faith in the defense of the human person.
First, we should not forget that modern man, weakened by the effects of Original Sin, is continually enticed by the "very old [but] new temptation . . . of wishing to become like God."5 He thus finds himself adversely allured by impressive triumphs in scientific and technological development and becomes inordinately fixated on the secular world, adoring the "idols" of the earthly world, such as money, power, and fame, above God.6 It is unsurprising, therefore, that there is an "ever-growing existence of religious indifference and atheism" and its "most widespread form of secularism," most especially in countries of considerable affluence.7
The consequence of this religious indifference is real. For one, respect for the dignity of the person deteriorates.8 That is because culture develops in such a way that there is a dangerous separation not only from Christian faith but also from basic human values. This causes flagrant violations to the dignity of the human person, including the right to life, freedom of conscience, and religious freedom.
relevant here is secularism's attack on what Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic
Exhortation Christifideles Laici called
the heart of the mission of the lay faithful:The problem is that, when faced with the temptation of
secularism, the lay Christian often feels an enormous pressure to hide his faith
from the secular world, reducing it to the "sphere of the private and personal."9 In Evangelii
Gaudium, Pope Francis writes, "People of faith are needed who, by the
example of their own lives, point out the way to the Promised Land and keep
hope alive."10 Yet our Holy Father's urging can
seem quite difficult when placed in the context of the above struggles of the
human person. Thus, if we are to follow the appeal of our Holy Father and live
as people of deep faith, how can we keep hope alive while resisting the spirit of
discouragement when facing these difficulties?At all times—and especially in times of struggle—we must
place our trust in the power of Jesus Christ. Through his love, expressly found
in the gift of the Holy Eucharist, we find the strength to meet all the
"problems and hopes that life poses to every person and society."11 We should
therefore not view evangelizing as a "heroic individual undertaking" because it
"is first and foremost the Lord's work, surpassing anything which we can see
and understand."12 Relatedly, we must recognize also the power that flows
from the living reality of the "Christian bedrock"—the net effect of which is a
preservation of the values of authentic Christian humanism."13 Our Holy
Father, in fact, has noted the immense importance of a culture marked by faith that
must not be forgotten. "An evangelized culture," where great numbers of people
have received Baptism, "has many more resources than the mere sum total of
believers."14 For within an evangelized culture is contained a
solidarity that is capable of transforming culture into a more just and
The contribution of the Church in today's world is
quite extraordinary, as evidenced by the many Christians who daily give their lives
in love.15 In our current struggle to defend the
dignity of the human person, especially the fight for religious liberty, we should
look to examples from which to draw inspiration. Of course, we must engage the
public square in defense of religious freedom, and there are a number of good
examples of such work, but as a faith community, we must first and foremost
witness to the truths that we have an obligation to defend. As Blessed Pope
Paul VI famously said, "Modern man listens more
willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it
is because they are witnesses."16
One powerful example of faith in action is the good work of A Simple House. According to its mission statement:
Missionary volunteers visit families in project neighborhoods and the homeless in their camps. These visits aim to create an authentic friendship that benefits the poor and glorifies God. These friendships last for years, and the friendship may continue even after volunteers move out of A Simple House. We call our work Friendship Evangelization. While volunteers serve at A Simple House, they live a simple religious life. Each volunteer attends daily mass, says morning and evening prayer, and makes time for personal prayer and scripture study.
A Simple House puts flesh on the call to live in conformity to the Gospel. It is an example, albeit radical in many ways, of where religious freedom should lead. Religious freedom should not be merely an academic or legal exercise, although it must be engaged in those arenas. Religious freedom is ultimately about conforming our lives to Christ. Society has a duty to uphold basic rights to live according to one's faith, but in the end, it is up to each of us to exercise that right uncompromisingly to live for Christ and Christ alone.
Even though our individual calls may be different from the volunteers at A Simple House, we can draw great inspiration from their example of carrying outinestimable value of each human person. For, "no matter how often it is devalued and violated . . . it has its unshakable foundation in God as Creator and Father."17
In sum, recognizing that Christ is the ultimate source of our hope and consciously living in the reality of the eradicable dignity of the human person, we can unrelentingly testify to the mission of our lay state despite each and every struggle that might come our way. Yet, acknowledging these truths should not permit us to stand inertly on the sidelines, "secure" from making any sincere commitments. Instead, we must, with a sense of urgency, "take up . . . the way of gospel renewal" and respond to the individual call to holiness.18 Therefore, "making use of our responsible freedom [and] motivated by a sense of profound duty," we must testify to the authenticity of Christianity, becoming valiant co-creators of a new, more humane culture.19 In so doing, we will be able to proclaim at the end that we followed in the heroic legacy of St. Thomas More – remaining always God's good servant first.
Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.
Excerpts from documents of the Second Vatican Council are from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery, OP, © 1996. Used with permission of Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Excerpt from Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, copyright © 1988, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Veritatis Splendor, copyright © 1993, LEV; Motu Proprio, October 31, 2000,copyright © 2000, LEV; Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
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