Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The celebration of Independence Day reminds us of the great gift of our freedom. That this freedom is a gift from God is affirmed politically in the Declaration of Independence, and theologically in the Church’s constant teaching that humanity is endowed with the gift of free will, that is, that human beings created in the image and likeness of God are possessed of a true freedom to act and to love. As we celebrate our nation’s independence, we do well to reflect on the gift of freedom a bit more deeply, for it is a gift often misused because it is often misunderstood.
Pope St. John Paul II famously clarified the true meaning of freedom, saying “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” In these words, he reminds us that our actions, our choices, must be properly ordered. Our world will often tell us that we are free to do what we want. Sheryl Crow famously sang “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” Of course, if our actions are not properly ordered they lead to a counterfeit happiness which, in fact, is very bad for us! The gift of free will is a gift of love. When we love God, we seek to act as we ought, that is, to live our lives according to God’s plan for human flourishing. We are free to choose to live according to God’s plan or to live according to our own plan. John Paul II, having survived and fought against the totalitarianism of both Nazi and Communist regimes, understood that the state is not the source of freedom. Rather, freedom is written into our very natures by God. Even with state interference, we are free to do what we ought, what is right, what corresponds to God’s plan for us. In oppression, we see that freedom is far more than just doing whatever we want or whatever feels good. In fact, freedom is a responsibility to do what is right, what ought to be done, what is truly good. Freedom does not depend on my feelings.
In the month of June, the Church dedicates prayer in a special way to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We are encouraged to be more closely conformed to the merciful heart of the Savior, to Jesus who died for our sins so that we might have life, who died for our sins so that we would be slaves to sin no longer. The more closely we are conformed to Jesus, the more we seek to imitate him, the more we listen to and understand the Gospel he preached, the more we live in the power of his mercy and love, the more we will find the freedom that only Jesus can offer. In the Sacred Heart, we are invited to draw near to Jesus, to be set free from sin and captivity, to be released from spiritual darkness and slavery. It is in the Sacred Heart of Jesus that we will learn the true meaning of freedom. When we try to live freedom on our own terms, doing whatever we like, whatever we think makes us feel good, we actually tend to find misery. The pleasures of the world do not last and they wear us down. But love for Jesus, conformity to the Gospel, and rightly ordering our desires to align with the plan of God for our salvation leads us to a lasting happiness.
As Independence Day is marked this year, it follows this month of the Sacred Heart. Our freedom is truly a God-given right. As such, it has a proper order and end. Freedom is ordered to living according to God’s plan, according to his love for humanity. Freedom’s purpose, as John Paul II reminded us, is not for doing whatever we want (though because we are free, we can do what we want). Rather, the purpose of freedom is to grow in our conformity to the infinite love and mercy of God. May this Independence Day help us to live our freedom with greater authenticity and joy. May we treasure the gift of freedom and live it according to God’s plan for our good and our flourishing.