The first two Sundays of the new year, Jan. 6 and Jan. 13, culminate our celebrations of the beautiful Christmas season.  On Jan. 6 we shall celebrate with Catholics the world over the solemnity of the Epiphany.  The gospel that day tells us about the visit of the wise men from the East to the place of the Lord’s birth.  Maybe some prayerful time could be spent that day thinking about the most satisfying gift we received at Christmas and the most rewarding gift we gave.  Then on Sunday, Jan. 13, the final day of Christmas, we celebrate the solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord.  Christ’s Baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry.  Our Baptism invited us to share in his evangelizing mission, giving witness to God’s great love not only by what we say but how we live our daily lives.

Now that Christmas gift-giving has come to an end, it is good for us to recall that the truly great things of life are gifts, not accomplishments.  Human endeavors over centuries have led to great accomplishments.  The great danger is the one reflected in the story of the building of the Tower of Babel.  People became so pleased with what they had accomplished that they no longer felt it necessary to treasure the gifts that come from God.  
It seems that something similar is occurring among us here and now.  The precious gifts of human life, family and religious liberty are easily dismissed by folks whose relationship with God is fragile or non-existent.  Many Catholics and others are troubled by this dismissal.  Our efforts to protect life, marriage and religious liberty seem to be foundering.  What to do?  Your bishops are recommending a pastoral strategy to be followed during this Year of Faith, a strategy which is essentially a call and encouragement to prayer and sacrifice.  In dealing with problematic issues, St. Ignatius gives good advice when he says, “Ask for the grace you need and then be open to the grace God gives.”  

The reason we bishops are calling our people to prayer is twofold.  First of all we see a real need to increase the awareness among Catholics of these challenges.  The much wider exposure our people have to the secular media, which seldom shares our concerns, is more influential than our own messages in the Catholic press and from the pulpit.  Secondly we hope to be able to build the spiritual stamina and fortitude needed among our people for us to be effective and joyful witnesses of faith, hope and charity as agents of the new evangelization.

The strategy has five parts and I’m encouraging participation of the Catholic people of this archdiocese to begin on the solemnity of the Lord’s Baptism, Jan. 13.  The essential components of this prayer strategy are monthly Eucharistic holy hours in our parish churches, daily family rosary, special Prayers of the Faithful at all Masses, fasting and abstinence on Fridays, and a second observance of a Fortnight for Freedom this coming summer.  Why are we asking for these special prayers?  Unless human life, marriage and religious liberty are promoted and protected, the social fabric of our nation and our world will gradually unravel.  Some serious threats to each of these present unprecedented challenges to the church and our nation.  We bishops have cited two immediate flashpoints which prompt this action.

First is the HHS Mandate.  This will require almost all employers, including Catholic employers, to pay for employees’ contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs, regardless of conscientious objections.  This is a real affront to our first freedom, religious liberty, as well as to the inherent dignity of every single human person.  The second, as was noted in the recent elections, is a trend in both government and culture toward redefining marriage as the union of any two persons.  This ignores marriage’s fundamental meaning and purpose as the universal institution that unites a man and a woman with each other and with the children born from their union.  Unfortunately, challenges to this redefinition of marriage are being perceived by the secular world of academia, media and the entertainment industry as attacks on persons with a homosexual orientation.  Not true.  But marriage is marriage and friendship is friendship.  The redefinition of marriage to include friendships serves no useful purpose and only demeans both the church’s and society’s particular concern for true marriage and wholesome family life.

Let me outline for you the five components that can be adapted by our parishes during this Year of Faith in their efforts to partner with Catholics all across the nation in this Year of Faith Call to Prayer: 1) every month, all our parishes are asked to hold a Eucharistic Holy Hour for Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty; 2) families and individuals are encouraged to pray a daily rosary; 3) at Sunday and daily Masses, the Prayers of the Faithful should include specific intentions for respect for all human life from conception to natural death, the strengthening of marriage and family life and the preservation of religious liberty at all levels of government; 4) voluntary abstinence from meat and fasting on Fridays, recognizing the importance of spiritual and bodily sacrifice in the life of the church; 5) the observance of a second Fortnight for Freedom in early summer.    

The Fortnight will emphasize marriage in a particular way in the face of the rulings the Supreme Court will be making around that time.  The Fortnight also will underscore the need for conscience protection because of the Aug. 1, 2013 deadline for religious organizations to comply with the HHS Mandate, as well as religious freedom concerns in other areas, such as immigration, adoption and humanitarian services.  

This is a major undertaking, I know, one that seems to ask a lot.  After all, we are all busy people, embroiled in the activities of daily life at work, family and community.  God knows our needs.  He surely does, yet it is humbling to realize that, as St. John of the Cross taught, God seeks us more than we seek him.  Why should we seek God’s help now in such a specific way?  Precisely so that we ourselves become more cognizant of the perils we face and be strengthened in our commitment to give witness in the public square to the beliefs and values we cherish, which we see as in no way harmful to anybody.

Some of the tragic events that were reported prior to Christmas, violence, hostility to religious practice and casual disregard for the rights of other persons, should give us pause.  They say that gratitude is the first face of faith and joy is the second.  Let’s not forget those important sentiments during our time of prayer in this Year of Faith.  As dismayed as we may be about the present dilemma, our first prayer certainly must be one of thanksgiving to God for giving us the gifts of life, marriage and religious freedom, and secondly an expression of the joy that permeates our relationships with the loving Savior, born again in our hearts this Christmas, and with one another in our Catholic family and indeed in the whole world.