THE PILGRIMS’ JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF FREEDOM OF RELIGION

(THE MAYFLOWER IN PLYMOUTH HARBOR BY WILLIAM HALSALL)

“The dangers were great, but not desperate; the difficulties were many, but not invincible… their ends were good and honorable… and therefore they might expect the blessing of God.” (William Bradford)

The Pilgrims had left England in order to freely practice their faith in the Netherlands. But then they decided to make their way to the “New World,” where they felt they would have a better opportunity to preserve their religious identity and customs. From England they left on two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Approximately three hundred miles out the Speedwell began to leak, so both ships turned back and docked in Plymouth, England! Some of the ships’ passengers, apparently exasperated, decided to call it quits and stayed in England. Everyone else boarded the Mayflower on one of the most historic journeys ever taken, arriving in Cape Cod Bay in 1620! It was these Pilgrims who celebrated the first “Thanksgiving” in November of 1621 with the Wampanoag Indians in gratitude for the harvest.

The Pilgrims’ difficult journey to America teaches us a deep spiritual lesson. We are all travelers here on earth journeying to the eternal shores of Heaven. Whatever obstacles we may encounter, however difficult they may be, we cannot let them prevent us from “advancing towards our destination” – Heaven.  “All the masters of the spiritual life agree in this maxim, that not to advance is to fall back” (Father Lallemant). Thus, we must continue to move forward, like a traveler, not stopping until we have reached the end of our journey and are “safely home” in the Father’s house.

Father Garrigou-Lagrange adds this observation regarding our growth in charity:  “…the Christian on earth is a traveler, viator, who is advancing spiritually toward God. His spiritual advancement is made by more and more perfect acts of love, “steps of love,” as St. Gregory says. We must conclude from this that charity on earth can and should always increase, otherwise the Christian would cease in a sense to be a viator; he would stop before reaching the end of his journey.” “I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

FREEDOM OF RELIGION

The Pilgrims journeyed to America yearning for religious freedom. These Pilgrims endured tremendous hardships and significant risks in order to freely practice their faith. They teach us an incredibly important lesson about the importance of religious liberty, and our concurrent obligations to protect such a treasured right.

In 1791, just over a 150 years after the Pilgrims made their journey, and about three years after the ratification of the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights was enshrined in that same Constitution. Of the ten amendments constituting the original Bill of Rights, the 1st Amendment guarantees the “free exercise” of religion, and prevents the government from establishing any sort of religion. The right to freely practice one’s religion is therefore a hallmark right of American democracy.

The Pilgrims, who journeyed to America in search of religious freedom, remind us that the right to practice our Catholic faith cannot simply be taken for granted. Many Christians in the United States have experienced an erosion of their religious liberties in recent years, this as emerging secular ideologies gain momentum in the culture and seek to impose their version of rightness on Christians. Many Christians have essentially lost their right – in the public square – to express their faith beliefs on important moral issues for fear of reprisal, ridicule and even losing their jobs. We have seen, as well, various attempts to force Christians to do things that fundamentally violate their religious beliefs. Finally, there is a growing concern about censorship of conservative viewpoints – including Christian ones – on social media.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year let us say a prayer of gratitude for our religious liberties. Let us learn from the Pilgrims that we may have to face hardships in order to protect our precious Catholic faith and our Constitutional rights. May God give us the courage and perseverance to do so as we advance the Kingdom of God.

AN ADDITIONAL CONSIDERATION

A pressing and related issue is whether American Democracy can survive in a post-Christian era? In a recent article in The Catholic Thing, entitled “Post-Christian America?”, Gunnar Gundersen offers this assessment:

“We tend to discuss the religious state of America the same way we do social fads. Like powdered wigs or VHS, we will just kind of move on – society will just forget. America will experience Christianity fatigue.

But Christianity is not a theory – it is an encounter with a Person – the Alpha and the Omega. Christ is the end of all things. It is not possible to just move on once you have accepted Him.

As Pope Benedict XVI points out in Spe Salvi, a society that rejects Christ does not simply move on. Rather, this kind of society, echoing Kant, must be in opposition to Christ. So instead of post-Christian, a society that has rejected Christianity, must necessarily become anti-Christian: ‘There is no doubt, therefore, that a ‘Kingdom of God’ accomplished without God – a kingdom therefore of man alone – inevitably ends up as the ‘perverse end’ of all things as described by Kant [reign of the Anti-Christ]: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again’ (quoting Spe Salvi).”

These are important insights to ponder and reflect upon. The question that arises is what happens to a nation, once blessed by the Gospel, when it then chooses to reject it?

Tom Mulcahy, J.D.

References: The historical facts regarding the Pilgrims are from various internet sources.

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