August 2006 - Volume 11, Issue 1

Happy Birthday, General Rochambeau!

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

Photo of Bisphop Lori with othersAt right you will see a photo of your bishop wishing General Rochambeau a happy birthday. We are about the same age except that the General marked his birthday some 225 years ago. What brought us together, however, was not only this famous military leader's birthday but also the 225th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass in Ridgefield. Gathered with over 200 worshippers, I knew we were standing not only on historic ground but also holy ground - ground that bears witness to the relationship of faith and freedom.

This historic Mass is an integral part of the struggle for freedom that brought about the independence of the United States of America. The poorly equipped and badly outnumbered American revolutionaries had found in France a new and powerful ally. Thanks to the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin and the urging of the Marquis de Lafayette, King Louis XVI dispatched General Rochambeau to America. He landed at Newport, Rhode Island, with nearly 5,000 troops and badly needed military supplies.

In the summer of 1781, Rochambeau and his army marched through Connecticut, encamping in the Ridgebury section of Ridgefield, where the first Catholic Mass was offered. His troops were mostly Catholic and were ministered to by priests whom history proudly remembers: Reverend Fathers Robin, Gluson, Lacy, and Saint Pierre.

The day after that historic Mass was celebrated, Rochambeau's army rendezvoused with Washington's Continental Army, encamped in modern-day White Plains; together they began their southward march to victory, a victory sealed by the defeat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown. Thus began in earnest the great American experiment, an ongoing experiment based on the assumption that human dignity and freedom, including religious freedom, is not a grant from the state but rather a gift from the Almighty.

If our experiment has proceeded by fits and starts these past 230 years, please God it will endure as it has endured, will revive and prosper!

In 1958, when a similar anniversary Mass was celebrated by our first Bishop, Lawrence (later Cardinal) Shehan, the preacher was Bishop John J. (later Cardinal) Wright of Worcester. The eminent preacher saw this historic event as a tableau of the intersection of faith and freedom: "These . . . occurrences were not casual happenings but providential happenings, a mingling of faith and freedom under God."

Reflecting on this important chapter in our national history, we, too, must surely realize that the hand of Providence has not vanished in our struggle to preserve the freedom to profess our faith as well as the struggle to profess our faith so as to preserve our freedom.

The town of Ridgefield was founded in 1707 by Protestants, men and women of faith. History tells us that they were mainly Tories, many unsympathetic to the Revolution. Perhaps some residents were less than pleased by the sight of the encamped French army assisting at a Roman Mass.

But those residents, for the most part adherents of the Church of England, were not secularists. Rather, they had planted their biblical and Trinitarian religion in the soil and embraced their faith as fundamental to their daily lives. Later, waves of immigrants from Ireland and Southern Europe arrived. In spite of the resistance they encountered, they, too, found they could plant their religion in the soil. Not only could they freely profess their faith, but they could also allow it to shape the decisions of daily life as well as the institutions they would establish.

They found the freedom to establish Saint Mary Parish (which celebrates this year its 125th anniversary) and later on, an excellent Catholic school which continues to education young people in Catholic faith - a religion of faith and reason, virtue and value. And, some thirty years ago, Saint Elizabeth Seton Parish became the second Catholic family of faith in town. Indeed, we had enjoyed the freedom to establish a network of parishes, schools, health care, and social service institutions second to none throughout these United States.

But today the faith and freedom which Providence intermingled and for which our ancestors struggled, is threatened from within and without. None of us will ever forget the heartbreaking sight of the burning towers on 9/11 (which could be glimpsed from Ridgefield's heights).

We are daily reminded of the forces that would wreak havoc on ourselves, our loved ones, and the things we cherish most, including our freedom "to worship God without fear."

But we also face dangers from within. In recent years, various laws and court rulings have narrowed the scope of religious freedom, especially for the Church's educational, health care, and social service agencies. Such laws and rulings are combining with secular forces in society to diminish and even eliminate the services provided by Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, and Catholic social service agencies.

Apart from government, no institution offers more services than the Catholic Church. Yet in every session of our State Legislature, bills unfriendly to the Catholic Faith are promoted - bills that could force our Catholic hospitals to run the risk of performing abortions; bills that would interfere with the hiring and compensation practices of Catholic Charities; bills that would endanger the adoption services of Catholic Charities; to say nothing of the failure of our state to provide just and basic services to Catholic school students for textbook and technology assistance and inter-district transportation.

Those same forces, secular and civil, often saturate our culture with messages that make it seem an oddity to profess and live one's faith. Sadly, in today's culture, freedom is often reduced to mere freedom of choice, the freedom to do whatever one wishes. This is not the freedom for which our ancestors died. They were seeking a higher freedom - the freedom to do what one ought to do, the freedom to embrace the truth and the values of truth and the freedom to live the virtues that flow from reason enlightened by faith.

Cardinal Wright's warning of nearly half a century ago, still rings true: "that which destroys faith kills freedom; that which preserves faith has borne fruit in freedom."

We, no less than those who came before us, are challenged to reclaim the hard-won victories for freedom by practicing our faith and engaging in political process - so that we can preserve both faith and freedom for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren, as far into the future as our imaginations can project!