Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample on Sunday called on thousands of former refugees and their families to serve as a vanguard to protect religious liberty in the United States.
"We must not fall asleep at the wheel as our religious freedom is slowly taken from us," the archbishop told an estimated 5,000 Catholics gathered at the Grotto in Northeast Portland for an annual liturgy to give thanks for freedom. "You must lead the way now in this land."
The annual Freedom Mass, held on a Sunday near Independence Day, is organized by Portland's Vietnamese Catholics. Many in the older generation escaped harrowing persecution their native land because of the communist regime's antipathy toward Catholicism in the post-war years. Now, the refugees' children and grandchildren are sustaining the gratitude.
"It's an opportunity for us to honor our Mother Mary and give thanks for all the grace and blessings in our families," says Quan Nguyen, a 28-year-old member of Our Lady of Lavang Parish who directs the dozens of altar boys who serve during the Freedom Mass.
Michelle Dinh, a 17-year-old from Linwood, Wash., has been coming with family since she was a toddler. "Every year, it's like a new perspective on our religion," Michelle says. "It's really neat to see a huge Catholic community gathered together." Michelle says that she is not one to boast about her faith at school, but neither does she hide it.
She and her friends agree that, if they become mothers, they will bring their children to the annual liturgy, which includes processions, singing and dancing.
The Freedom Mass is largely lay-led. Dozens of men in dark suits, white shirts and red ties serve as ushers. The Adorers of the Holy Cross, a Vietnamese women's religious community, teach the dances that precede Mass.
Worshipers were called to prayer with solemn beating of drums and gongs. Incense burned on a small shrine near the front of the altar, emitting a wisp of fragrant smoke into the partly cloudy sky. Temperatures were pleasant, in the mid-70s.
Lush electronic organ music accompanied a large choir that sang Vietnamese hymns and stood just below the massive cliff face and in front of the cave that gives the Grotto its name.
It was the first time Archbishop Sample presided before a large group wearing the pallium, the woolen garment the pope gives to new archbishops. Pope Francis conferred the pallium on Archbishop Sample in Rome on June 29.
"It looks beautiful on you," the master of ceremonies told the smiling archbishop as Mass began. The crowd, spread all over the Grotto grounds, applauded.
The crowd also clapped when the archbishop pointed to the dozens of altar boys and said that he thinks at least 10 percent should become priests. He urged the many young people in attendance to be open to God's call to priesthood and religious life.
One scripture reading was given in Vietnamese and another in Polish, since this was a day for all Catholic refugees who in their history have faced oppression.
Archbishop Sample, who has Polish heritage, greeted the small Polish contingent in their language, then apologized to the massive Vietnamese crowd for not knowing their tongue.
But most worshipers understood his homily, which rallied them to cherish and defend freedom of religion. He reminded the crowd that some parts of government have attempted to pare religious liberty down to a right to worship, placing limits on how people live out faith day by day.
The U.S. bishops have criticized some parts of Obamacare for pushing employers to violate their religious consciences in regard to what employee health plans cover. "Make no mistake," the archbishop said. "Religious liberty is threatened even in the land of the free."
The archbishop said that part of the work of freedom is working to release those imprisoned by poverty, injustice, oppression and marginalization.
He reminded worshipers that freedom is a "great gift of God" that distinguishes humans from other creatures and that the world cannot give the kind of freedom that Jesus Christ can give — liberation from sins like self absorption and from death.
"Life eternal. That is what we are truly free for," the archbishop said.