By Katherine Long & Connie Berry
Bishop Robert Cunningham marked the beginning of the Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period of prayer and advocacy for religious freedom called for by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, on June 21 with a Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. In a letter inviting people of the diocese to the Mass, Bishop Cunningham explained that the Fortnight is a “direct response to the federally imposed HHS mandate that will require most Catholic institutions to pay for employee health coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraception. Although this has been portrayed as a contraception issue in the media, the real issue is the attack on our religious freedom. The recent Health and Human Services mandate unconstitutionally attempts to define the nature of the Church’s religious ministry and would force religious employers to violate their consciences.”
More than 500 people from all parts of the diocese filled the pews, including Marianne Gilhooly, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville.
“I came to the Mass to support the bishop and to raise awareness of the issue,” she said, adding that people of all religions, not just Catholics, will be affected. Gilhooly also brought her children to Mass.
“It is a good lesson for them, because this will affect not just them but their children and grandchildren,” she said. “It is important to teach them to stand up.”
Bishop Cunningham began his homily by welcoming those joining him in prayer to protect “our first and most cherished liberty.”
“We look back with pride on a church and a country that has long advocated not only the freedom to gather in worship, but to practice our religion in the marketplace,” he said. “We value the freedom of conscience that permits individual Catholics the freedom to put into practice love of God and love of neighbor according to the teachings of our Church. Freedom of religion goes hand-in-hand with freedom of conscience and gives us the ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans.
“Religious liberty is inherent in our very humanity, placed deep within us by our Creator,” Bishop Cunningham continued. “Religious liberty is also prior to the state itself. It is not a privilege that the government grants us and that can be taken away at will.”
He closed by asking that all in attendance keep the cause of religious freedom in their prayers throughout the fortnight.
While Bishop Cunningham celebrated the 12:10 Mass inside, approximately 100 people were gathered outside the Cathedral. The group was affiliated with the newly-formed Faithful Catholics Concerned, and were holding a vigil in disagreement with the U.S. bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom campaign. The group says it “respectfully disagrees” with the bishops’ stance against the HHS mandate, which includes contraceptive services among those provided under the Affordable Care Act. They say the mandate does not constitute an attack on religious freedom.
Materials handed out by Faithful Catholics Concerned at the vigil claim the U.S. bishops’ position has “taken on a politically partisan nature thereby dividing the Catholic community and further diminishing the credibility of the Bishops as a moral voice in our American society.” They carried signs reading “The Bishops Don’t Speak for Us” and “We All Are the Church.”
Father Fred Daley, pastor of All Saints Church in the Syracuse University eastside neighborhood, is a spokesperson for Faithful Catholics Concerned. He said he was pleased with the turnout at the vigil and said, “It should be clear that no one representing Faithful Catholics Concerned is protesting this liturgy,” Father Daley said. “We’re here to make the point that there are a significant number of Catholics who feel the mandate does not pose a threat to religious freedom. These are people who love the church who feel loyal dissent is crucial to the future of our church.”
While the vigil took place outside, the bishop said he was pleased with the turnout inside the Cathedral.
“I was very pleased with the turnout,” Bishop Cunningham said. “People came from various corners of the diocese. Many told me they were grateful for the opportunity be together and pray together, and that they are in this for the long haul.”
He also said the right to express differing opinions is a “gift.”
“One of the great gifts of living in the United States is having the right to your opinion,” the bishop said. “I disagree with their opinion but agree with their right to express it.”
Individual parishes will be hosting events during the Fortnight for Freedom. Visit the diocesan website, www.syracusediocese.org and click on the Fortnight for Freedom logo to find a list of events taking place across the diocese. Faithful Catholics Concerned also plans to hold future events.