Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Archbishop John Vlazny,  surrounded by priests and deacons, celebrate the annual Freedom Mass at the Portland Grotto.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Archbishop John Vlazny,  surrounded by priests and deacons, celebrate the annual Freedom Mass at the Portland Grotto.

On Sunday, thousands gathered at The Grotto to celebrate the 37th annual Freedom Mass, coordinated by Portland’s Southeast Asian Vicariate and several of Portland's ethnic Catholic communities.

People traveled from up and down the West Coast to join a procession through the grounds of the outdoor National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother. In contemporary fashion or traditional ethnic garb, people from Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Polish, Croatian, Russian, Korean, Filipino, Hispanic and Eritrean communities moved beneath the towering fir and cedar trees to the Mass. They came to have an opportunity to worship, give thanks to God, honor the Blessed Virgin and pay homage to saints.

Archbishop John G. Vlazny reminded everyone in attendance this year to also pray for the gift of religious freedom. The Freedom Mass this year came just after the closure of the U.S. bishops' Fortnight for Freedom, held June 21 to July 4, as a response by to a federal mandate, promulgated in February that requires almost all private insurance plans, including those of many official Catholic organizations, to cover contraception, sterilization and abortifacients.

Although the U.S. constitution tells Americans they live in a nation where they are free to practice their religion, the archbishop said, recent governmental policies and actions have placed restrictions on those freedoms.

"Today we celebrate this freedom Mass, because you good people know how precious that gift of freedom really and truly is," said Archbishop Vlazny. "When freedom of religion was being threatened in Southeast Asia four decades ago, many of you fled to seek the freedom you now cherish in this distant land.

"When leadership begins to marginalize the importance of a relationship with God, many citizens follow, and religious freedom becomes a thing of the past."

Religious freedom was on display at the Mass, which every year is a swirl of colors and costumes. Girls perform two important dances. The Dang Hoa, a flower offering to Mary, is a 17th-century dance first introduced by missionaries in Vietnam. Te Deum, the dance that closes the ceremonies, was introduced in Rome during the canonization of the Vietnamese martyrs.

The first freedom Mass was held in Portland 37 years ago, the year after the first wave of Southeast Asian refugees. Redemptorist priests of the Southeast Asian Vicariate were the original organizers.

Many who attend the Mass annually fled persecution, and many arrived in the United States without belongings, friends or family, but found support in Catholic churches and organizations.

The archbishop told those at Mass, to not let the sometimes disappointing reaction from others to living a life of faith to get them down.

"We should all look to Jesus with the eyes of faith," said the archbishop. "Jesus Christ dares us to change our perspective, to change our values, even to change ourselves."

He then expressed his gratitude for the various ethnic groups of the archdiocese represented as the Mass "who have contributed so much to the vitality of our Catholic faith."

Even though Christ's message is still a countercultural one, the archbishop encouraged people to stand up for their faith and their beliefs.

"The best way to practice religious freedom and protect it, is to let people know that they should love God. The world will never care about religious freedom if they don't care about God."