People pray during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington July 4, the final day of the bishops' "fortnight for freedom" campaign. The observance, which began with a June 21 Mass in Baltimore, was a two-week period of prayer, education and action on preserving religious freedom in the U.S. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked Catholics to dedicate 14 days to the preservation of religious freedom through prayer, education and public action, they listened.

Catholics in dioceses across the United States participated in Masses, devotions, holy hours, educational presentations and rallies during the June 21 to July 4 campaign to support the nation’s “first and most cherished freedom” and draw attention to actions Catholic and other religious leaders say are weakening religious liberty, including the federal contraceptive mandate.

The U.S. bishops’ campaign began on the vigil of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More with Mass June 21 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore celebrated by Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom.

The fortnight closed on Independence Day with Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and the tolling of bells at churches across the country at noon Eastern time.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput delivered the homily at the Mass in Washington that brought the U.S. bishops’ “fortnight for freedom” to a close.

“The political and legal effort to defend religious liberty — as vital as it is — belongs to a much greater struggle to master and convert our own hearts, and to live for God completely, without alibis or self-delusion,” the archbishop said.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington was the main celebrant of the Mass. Concelebrants included Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, and Archbishop Lori, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

Outside the national shrine before Mass, the crowd joined in the singing of patriotic hymns. The heat was daunting, and the clergy, dressed in heavy white vestments, fanned themselves with missals as they waited to process into the shrine.

Once inside, the pews of the 3,500-capacity of the shrine’s upper church quickly filled; other congregants stood, filling the side chapels dotting the church. An official with the Bishops’ Conference estimated almost 5,000 participants at the Mass.

Archbishop Chaput spoke about the idea of freedom of conscience, of knowing right and wrong, equating it with the greater idea of liberty.

The modern indifference to morality and the growing sense of moral relativism Blessed John Paul II warned of in the 1993 encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” (“The Splendor of Truth”) can be countered with the values both Americans and Christians hold.

Drawing on the day’s Gospel, Archbishop Chaput pointed to Jesus’ words: “Render unto Caesar those things that bear Caesar’s image, but more importantly, render unto God that which bears God’s image” — in other words, you and me. All of us.”

“The purpose of religious liberty is to create the context for true freedom,” he said. “Religious liberty is a foundational right. It’s necessary for a good society. But it can never be sufficient for human happiness. It’s not an end in itself.”

He continued, “In the end, we defend religious liberty in order to live the deeper freedom that is discipleship in Jesus Christ. What good is religious freedom, consecrated in the law, if we don’t then use that freedom to seek God with our whole mind and soul and strength?”

Archbishop Chaput closed his homily by urging listeners to “fulfill our duty as citizens of the United States, but much more importantly, as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

He received a standing ovation from the congregation, with some in the crowd waving American flags.

(Read the full homily of Archbishop Chaput.)

Fortnight events in dioceses around the country included an Independence Celebration Walk & Picnic in Des Moines, Iowa; a motorcycle “Rosary Ride for Religious Freedom” in Colorado Springs, Colo.; nonpartisan voter registration drives after Masses in Atlanta parishes; a religious liberty conference in Covington, Ky.; an outdoor Faith and Freedom Mass in a park band shell in Savannah, Ga.; and a prayer service with special petitions for the fortnight in the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio.

The Diocese of Allentown sponsored a campaign called “Let Religious Freedom Ring,” which included five catechetical talks presenting USCCB documents on religious freedom and public seminars at universities.

The Little Sisters of the Poor in Scranton held a daily holy hour during the fortnight in the chapel of their Holy Family Residence.

In the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., Catholics participated in a 12-hour marathon of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament at the Church of St. Joseph in Brooklyn. Jocelyn Rodriguez, a teenager from St. Elizabeth Parish in Ozone, N.Y., organized youth groups to lead the faithful during the vigil.

In upstate New York, parishioners in the Rochester Diocese participated in a 14-day-long Festival for Freedom at a retreat house in Canandaigua. The free events include a speaker series on the topics of ethics, justice and natural law; Masses and prayer services; and plays and other activities.

Organizers described the festival as “a time and place to renew our commitments, to learn about our country’s founding principle of religious freedom and to join with others who feel strongly that, unless current trends and mandates are reversed, the core principle of freedom of religion will be eroded.”

At Holy Family Catholic Church in Orlando, Fla., students in grades 6 to 12 participated in an obstacle course and a scavenger hunt to find items representing faith and liberty.

“We are blessed to live in a great nation founded on religious freedom in which all of our natural freedoms are protected,” Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito of Palm Beach told the Florida Catholic diocesan newspaper. “That is evident as we legitimately and respectfully gather today to join in prayer and make our voices heard in regard to the protection of religious freedom.”

Morning rains did not stop 700 people from attending a June 23 rally where Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha, Neb., spoke on religious liberty issues. Across the archdiocese, parishes sponsored movie nights and “Faithful Citizenship” presentations.

In the nation’s capital, more than 2,000 Catholics from all over the Washington Archdiocese prayed and sang patriotic hymns at a June 24 rally at George Washington University’s Smith Center. The event highlighted the Catholic heritage of the United States. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington recalled Blessed John Paul II’s first public Mass as pope when he called the faithful to put aside fear and to express their beliefs.

“The call is not just for priests to preach, but for the laity to respond. The response is threefold: prayer, education and action. The most important is prayer,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

The Catholic bishops of Kansas sponsored a statewide rally for religious freedom in front of the state Capitol in Topeka June 29. Catholics in Iowa and Illinois also had marches to their respective state capitols in Des Moines and Springfield.

At Mass June 24 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez urged Catholics to remember that the fortnight was not about politics.

“The greatest threat to our freedom of religion doesn’t come from our government or from forces in our secular society; the greatest threat we face comes from our own lack of faith and our own lack of courage,” he said.

The fortnight spurred ecumenical and interfaith celebrations across the nation, uniting Catholics and other people of faith.

On June 22, about 1,000 people gathered at Marist Catholic School’s football stadium in Atlanta for an interfaith event.

Oklahoma City’s Rally for Religious Freedom June 23 drew Christians of many denominations to the Cox Convention Center.

In San Antonio, the interfaith community celebrated freedom of religion with a televised prayer service June 26. The group included representatives of the Catholic, Protestant, Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths.

“All people of faith must stand with the Catholic Church in protesting this mandate, which represents a slippery slope for greater government intrusion and control over religious institution,” said an interfaith grass-roots organization called Conscience Cause.

In Wisconsin, events included a June 24 ecumenical hour of prayer and a presentation on the “unprecedented threats to American religious freedom.”

In an email message, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki told Catholics that people of faith “have a right to take our faith outside the confines of the walls of our churches. Simply put, we will not demand a baptismal certificate to see if people in need of our services are Catholic when we distribute food in our soup kitchens.”

“When the bishops speak up on other rights such as the death penalty, the rights of immigrant or the rights of the poor, we don’t hear criticism that bishops are being too political,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser with the lay-run Catholic Association.

The organization conducted a 14-day grass-roots campaign via social media to urge Catholics to heed the bishops’ call to action to protect religious freedom. Originally created in 2007, Ferguson said the organization was relaunched in March to focus on religious liberty and mobilize laypeople to speak out.

“Some have tried to revive the tired paradigm that pits conservative and liberal Catholics against each other. But that misses the real story,” said Kim Daniels, coordinator of Catholic Voices USA, another lay organization that supports the role of the Church in the public square.

In Illinois, Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford called Catholics to stand together in opposing the contraceptive mandate issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “We are absolutely convinced that our freedom of conscience is at stake in this matter,” he said in his homily for the annual Red Mass for Religious Liberty at the Cathedral of St. Peter.

“We hold the nonpartisan high ground in a fight that we did not choose and do not want. But it has been brought to the doorstep of our institutions and our consciences and we will not turn away,” he said.

Contributing to this story were Maureen Boyle and Daniel Linskey in Washington; Chris Albracht in Amarillo, Texas; Linda Reeves in West Palm Beach; and Paula Doyle in Los Angeles.