This month we observe a holiday to celebrate our nation’s independence, a privileged state in which, the dictionary tells us, we are “…self-governing; free from the influence, guidance or control of another.” Closely linked to our cherished independence are the notions of freedom, which the dictionary defines as “The condition of being free of restraints…slavery [or] oppression…”, and liberty, “The condition of being free from confinement, servitude or forced labor.”
In our moral and spiritual lives as Christians, our independence is relative, governed always by a willing submission to a loving God, and by our Baptism into the Body of Christ. Our Catechism reminds us that, once baptized, the Christian “…belongs no longer to himself but to him who died and rose for us. From now on, he is called to be subject to others, to serve them in the communion of the Church, and to ‘obey and submit’ to the Church’s leaders, holding them in respect and affection.” (CCC, 1269)
Our vocation as Christians may place limits on our independence, but it places none on our freedom or liberty. On the contrary, it challenges us to embrace these gifts and, in this Year of Mercy, to discern ways we may use them to benefit others.
During this Holy Year Pope Francis urges us to open our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society. And he admonishes us that these fringes are the creation of modern society. “How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich!” (MV, 15) Mercy is the remedy, and The Holy Father’s appeal to bind the wounds of those denied their dignity, and “to awaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty,” echoes the Prayer of our Order, which we offer each day. We may not often look beyond the immediate relief the food or medical care we provide (or underwrite) affords our poor and sick brothers and sisters, but to the extent we relieve their distress we help free them from the restraints and servitude of poverty.
Organized crime probably does not play a role in most of our lives, but as we rejoice in our nation’s independence we might offer a prayer for those who have forfeited their independence and freedom to criminal activity – and those whom they have entrapped with the promise of illicit financial gain. And lest we law-abiding citizens rejoice too heartily in our virtue, the Pontiff reminds us that any straying from the path of financial or civil good is a far-reaching ill, countered only by “prudence, vigilance, loyalty, transparency, together with the courage to denounce any wrongdoing.”
As we meditate on the Holy Father’s words for this Year of Mercy, we learn that true freedom is not simply freedom from but freedom to. Freedom to embrace the challenge to act in the manner of the merciful God in whose image we are created. Our Founding Fathers practiced varying degrees of piety and religious devotion, but they were agreed that political privilege demands responsibility. The same is true of mercy. “This is the time to allow our hearts to be touched!” Pope Francis urges us. Not only so we may rejoice in what we have received, but so that we, in turn, may touch the world with that same mercy.
By Father Reginald Martin, OP