Fifty years ago this fall the largest Baptist church in Nashville, my hometown, scheduled a giant prayer meeting to implore God to spare this country from all that would surely follow if “that Catholic,” John F. Kennedy, then the Democratic nominee for president, were elected.
Curiosity about this gathering overtook the discomfort that a classmate from a local Catholic high school and I felt, and so, we went and sat through the ceremony.
It began with a rousing sermon by a preacher who reported that Catholics were doing terrible things to Protestants in Bogotá, Colombia, and therefore everyone in this country should be on guard.
Then, we all were invited to stand, and the choirmaster led us in a triumphant rendition of “Faith of our fathers, living still, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword.” Of course, the idea was that American Protestants, by voting against Kennedy, would be standing, as stood the martyrs, for the Christian faith.
The next morning at school, we hurried to tell the night’s happenings to one of the priests who taught us. When we told him about the closing hymn, he laughed heartily. He explained to us that “Faith of our Fathers” is about Catholics in Elizabethan England who suffered persecution under the Protestants!
It is easy, and fitting, for us Catholics to remember with admiration the martyrs who endured “dungeon, fire and sword” for their beliefs.
For me, another line in the hymn especially has a message: “Our fathers chained in prisons dark still were in heart and conscience free.”
We always have talked about “freedom” in this country. The word “liberty” is on our currency. All this refers to the fact that we are in a democracy; we can worship in public as we choose, and we can speak our minds.
Blessedly, in our national history of 234 years, we as a nation have never experienced conquest or occupation by a hostile power.
However, so many of us are not free, and it has nothing to do with politics. The depth of entrapment and subjugation that pertains to so very many people in our midst is staggering in its effects.
Style, and follow the leader, always have accompanied humans as they have lived in any age. But it is especially the case today, or so it seems, and in particular among youth. They act on the basis of conventions. They follow peers, or the majority, without question.
“Without question” is very much part of the problem. People are quick to question the Church, or Christian morality, but they are far less ready to question the social mores. If more people simply would look carefully at the outcomes of certain ways of behavior and thinking, they might, as a result, ask if modern assumptions about life, relationships, God, or about responsibility, are producing great good.
Of course, they are not producing good. Look at the number of failed marriages. Look at the levels of depression. Look at the rate of suicides. Look even at popular music and how often it has a dark, grim overtone of death and hopelessness. It is not a happy world for many people.
In no way can anyone say that so many people, caught in such misery and despondency, unproductive and weary, despite their youth, are free.
Long ago, St. Paul wrote that people are free when they can be virtuous, controlling their instincts and the impulse to be like everyone else. He was right. Without being too harsh, people search, and unless they find God, and are with God, they are lost.
So, whatever our ethnicity, let us celebrate the English martyrs who, “… chained in prisons dark still were in heart and conscience free.”
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.