Now that we have embarked upon the fifty days of Easter, I take some pleasure reflecting upon the wonderful celebrations of Holy Week and Easter which it has been my privilege to lead at St. Mary Cathedral over the years. The annual Chrism Mass is always a highlight for many of us. Once again this year we gathered at the cathedral in Portland on Monday of Holy Week to bless the holy oils that will be used across the archdiocese in our many and varied liturgical celebrations in the year before us. I reminded the people that, even though many priests were present and the bishop was doing the blessing, the focus of our celebration was, without question, on Jesus, the Christ, our Good Shepherd, Divine Physician, our great High Priest.

In the homily of the Mass I shared some sentiments about our church, which remains true to her mission but with many challenges from today’s secular culture and, unfortunately, with less enthusiasm among many of our faithful. But we are the church, chosen by the risen Christ, to keep his presence alive in the world until the end of time. That is no easy task, but it happens because of the Easter gift of the Holy Spirit which Christ shared with his apostles and their successors on that first Easter. Our challenge today is to live up to that calling from the Lord to be his people and not to bury our heads in the sand, ashamed because we are less than perfect. All of this was God’s idea, not our own.

We do live at a time when many countries in the west have been considering themselves to be post-religious. Consequently fewer and fewer are convinced that churches are useful and religious liberty is something worth protecting. We are experiencing this attitude at present here in the United States with our debate about what is health care and what is not, what is a Catholic institution and what is not. Then there is the problem of oppression of Catholic minorities in other nations where there is a clear public desire to keep the practice of Christianity private, to keep it out of public view. It has happened in Communist nations. It is even occurring now in the land where Jesus walked and talked, where the Christian population has become so diminished that its presence is fragile at best, and insignificant at worst.

In the very beginning of our nation it has been understood that religious liberty is our “first freedom.” This means that it is not merely the first right enumerated in our Bill of Rights, but also that it belongs to all people and is given to us by God. For that reason we always stand with people of faith whenever they are persecuted or oppressed around the world, including right here in our own back yard. In the present struggle about religious liberty, I read recently that one Protestant minister said, “In the defense of religious liberty, today we are all Catholics.”

When all is said and done, religion is a universal endeavor, common to all people. Hence religion has to be invited into politics, not to be excluded. Secular arguments suggest that the solution to all the problems in the world is to get religion out of politics, the public square and democratic deliberation about policy and laws. But that was the same mistake the Communists made. When a federal judge in California made the decision to overturn Proposition 8, which affirmed marriage between a man and a woman, he argued that people who oppose same-sex marriage in his state did so for religious reasons and that those reasons do not meet the standard of “rational scrutiny” required by the Constitution. If that is true, then the work of our founders, the anti-slavery movement, the fight for women’s suffrage and the struggle to obtain the civil rights of all citizens irrespective of race, color or creed would have been excluded.

But in spite of it all, we are a people of hope, maybe not so optimistic as some would like to be, but well grounded in the hope deep in our hearts. Optimism certainly is a fine thing and it is very useful when times are tough. But it is a morally neutral quality. With the help of Christian hope, it can grow and become all the more meaningful. The goal of Christian hope is the kingdom of God, a world of God with man. Christian hope is a gift, one that comes uniquely from God. Christian hope assures us that in spite of all the horrors of human history, God will not let us be torn from his hands. God does remain God, good with an indestructible goodness. He transforms our evil activities by his love. We are not the only actors on the stage of history. And that is why death does not have the last word. It is Jesus, sent by the Father to be one with us, who is the firm and certain anchor of the hope that is stronger and more real, as Pope Benedict has said, in all the frightfulness of today’s world.

These are all good thoughts, but many find what the church teaches and values to be much too hard to take. But the same was true in the time of Jesus. Many found his teachings to be hard sayings and they walked away. When that happened, the Lord turned to his friends and said, “Will you also go?” On behalf of the disciples, St. Peter answered, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” Yes, my friends, this is our response too, in spite of the pain and loss we all feel when friends and relatives walk away. Without Jesus as our anchor, the centerpiece of all that we are as church, we shall float endlessly and aimlessly on the open sea of life.

During these Easter days, my dear people, I ask you to join me in thanking God for the gift of our church, this community of believers, whereby we all share through Baptism in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are grateful to the Lord for our priests, deacons and pastoral ministers who lead us and empower us for our evangelizing mission. At the Chrism Mass our priests renewed their commitment to serve. On Holy Thursday we celebrated the gift of the Eucharist. On Good Friday we remembered the Lord’s passion and death. At Easter we rejoiced in the good news of the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, suffering and death. Yes, we are an Easter church, one that still relives Calvary every day, but remains faithful because the Lord is with us. Alleluia!