(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 28, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 46-52.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2012]
Let me begin today by recommending a book. It’s called, “The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War over Religion in America.” The author is a man named Kevin Seamus Hasson. He’s the lawyer who founded The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is a law firm that defends religious freedom both in and out of the courtroom.
And they do it at The Becket Fund for people of all faiths!
In his book, Hasson traces the history of religious liberty here in the New World from the time of the Pilgrims until our own day. And what he makes crystal clear from the very beginning is that the struggle for true, religious freedom and the rights of conscience is not peculiar to our generation. It’s been going on since the time of the Pilgrims—a group that he uses to symbolize one of the tow extremes that we should want to avoid in our country right now.
He starts off in chapter one by addressing what he calls “America’s most enduring myth,” namely that “the Pilgrims came here looking for religious freedom, found it, and we all lived happily ever after.”
Hasson says that the myth is wrong on all counts: The Pilgrims weren’t looking for religious freedom; they were just looking for a place where they could live “in their own world according to their own vision of the truth.” Nor did they find this freedom and bequeath it, happily, to succeeding generations.
Hasson says that when others joined the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony—others who did not share their beliefs—the Pilgrims often persecuted the dissenters, using their legal system to accomplish the goal. As he put it, “The Pilgrims did not respond well to this unplanned pluralism. In fact, they attempted to outlaw it. They set up tax-supported churches and banned competing religious services or cultural displays. They kept dissidents from proselytizing. They had religious tests for public office. And they refused to exempt conscientious objectors, like Quakers, from obeying their laws.”
So in the history of our nation we have had some groups and individuals like the Pilgrims, who wanted to outlaw every religion but their own; and then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve had groups and individuals to which Hasson gives the title “Park Rangers.” These are men and women who basically want to outlaw everybody’s religion—or at least remove all religious expression from public life.
Pilgrims and Park Rangers—the two extremes to be avoided. (By the way, I won’t explain in this homily why he refers to that second group as “Park Rangers.” You’ll have to read the book to find that out!)
For Hasson—and for people like James Madison, the 4th President of the United States—what’s needed in a religiously diverse culture like ours is a recognition of the natural right to religious liberty, and a respect for the conscience of every citizen. Hasson defines conscience in this way: “[It’s] the interior, quintessentially human voice that speaks to us of goodness and duty, the voice we must obey if we are to keep our integrity. It counsels doing good and avoiding evil, and serves as a referee to rule on which is which. What is more, conscience requires action, not just conviction. It demands that we live according to the truth as we know it.”
So if you’re a medical doctor, and your conscience, shaped by your religious faith, tells you that you should not prescribe contraception or refer for abortions, the federal government should not coerce you to do so!
At least that’s what President Madison would say (Madison, who was the chief architect of the First Amendment, which guarantees the free exercise of religion.)
Other, more contemporary presidents might say something different, of course.
But they’re wrong.
Now why do I mention all this in my homily today? How is what I’ve said about Kevin Seamus Hasson’s book connected to this gospel reading we just heard?
Although it might not be immediately obvious to us, Bartimaeus in this story was exercising his right to religious freedom and following the dictates of his conscience—and a group of 1st century “Pilgrims and Park Rangers” was trying to stop him!
The text tells us that when Bartimaeus was told that Jesus was passing by he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.”
“Son of David” was a messianic title. That means that when Bartimaeus used it he was making a declaration of faith. He was exercising his right to religious freedom by declaring that he believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah: the Messiah that he and his Hebrew brothers and sisters had been waiting for for centuries.
And, at the very same time, Bartimaeus was acting on a judgment made by his conscience. Because he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he became convinced that our Lord could help him by restoring his eyesight, and so he made the decision—which was the judgment of his conscience—to reach out to our Lord for a healing.
But a number of people who were present that day didn’t like it! And so—just like the Pilgrims and Park Rangers of our world today—they tried to stop Bartimaeus! They told him to be quiet!
Most of these naysayers were probably “Pilgrims,” in the sense that they thought that their Jewish religion should be the only one allowed to exist; but there may have been a few “Park Rangers” there as well.
To his great credit, Bartimaeus ignored them all and continued to exercise his religious freedom and assert his conscience rights by calling out to the Lord. In fact, the Bible says he began to shout even louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”
As Catholic Americans in 2012, we find ourselves in the same position that Bartimaeus was in on that day when he encountered Jesus on road near Jericho. Our ability to practice our faith fully—and to apply the teachings of our faith to the circumstances of our daily lives—is being threatened on many fronts, most notably by the federal government’s HHS mandate, which requires Catholic institutions and business owners to pay for services that are clearly immoral.
In other words, the Pilgrims—and especially the Park Rangers—are at it again.
May the courageous example of Bartimaeus inspire us (and all people of good will) to speak up, loudly and clearly, for religious freedom and the rights of conscience at the ballot box this November—and everywhere else.