Note: Rev. Joseph Illo, the pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church  in Modesto, Calif., will be coming to Thomas Aquinas College this summer as its newest chaplain. On June 8, 2012, he delivered the keynote address at San Francisco’s Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally. Below is the text of his address:
By Rev. Joseph Illo
Last month I took my elderly mother into Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell. We stood before that icon of American freedom and read its inscription:
PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF LEV. XXV. V X.
This quote from Leviticus describes the Biblical Jubilee Year. Every 49 years, God commanded that all slaves be freed, and all debts be canceled. By doing so, the people acknowledged God alone as the true master of all men and owner of all property. Before God, “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”
The message on the Liberty Bell is clear enough: God, not man, is the foundation of human liberty. If we attempt to build a social order apart from God’s law, we lose our freedom. The liberty bell first rang 260 years in the only place in the British Empire to permit religious freedom, in Philadelphia, the capital city of America at the time. America pioneered religious liberty. Our founders made the statement to the world that religious freedom is good for society. Two-hundred-sixty years later, will America relinquish that freedom without a struggle? I want to invoke God’s blessing upon all of you who have come to this fair city of San Francisco to stand up for religious liberty. I want to beg God’s mercy upon all of us who have come to engage the battle for American freedom inscribed not only on our Liberty Bell, but on every piece of American currency: in God we trust. Not in men, but in God.
As a boy, I read a book by Fr. Walter Czisek, With God in Russia . Fr. Czisek spent 15 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps for practicing his faith. The book greatly inspired me, but I wondered if anything like that could ever happen in America. My parish in Modesto supports a parish in Vladivostok, Russia. Shortly after the Soviet government dynamited the Orthodox Cathedral in Vladivostok (on Easter Sunday 1922), the Catholic Cathedral was confiscated and turned into a state archive. Since 1991, two American priests have painstakingly restored that building. But religious practice in Russia, and the social goods that depend on religion, has not so quickly recovered. Religious liberty, once lost, takes a long time to recover.
In 2002 I visited our sister parish in Vladivostok . I’ll never forget the impression this Soviet city of 1 million presented as we flew in: not one steeple or dome, not one cultural monument, to break the miles of deteriorating apartment buildings and grey factories. The Soviets had decided to revoke every religious liberty. With religion removed from the public square, the government became hopelessly corrupt, culture declined, and the economy collapsed. In a society that looks to the government as the highest moral authority, lying, cheating, and stealing are indispensable business practices. As the producer the current movie For Greater Glory  recently said, “No one ever wins when religion is oppressed.” What is happening in the United States today? Mary Ann Glendon summed it up last month: “At the deepest level, we are witnessing an attack on the institutions of civil society that are essential to limited government and are important buffers between the citizen and the all-powerful state.”
Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California recently published an Open letter to President Obama . “It is manifestly an affront to the American conception of religious liberty and to the first amendment of the US constitution to demand that citizens ‘adapt’ to a violation of conscience.” This is our core principle in the current battle: we can never adapt to a violation of our foundational right. It would violate not only common good but also our identity as free men and women. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York declared in a Face the Nation interview in April, “We didn’t ask for this fight, but we won’t back away from it.”
Today in Vladivostok, the skyline is not as flat and colorless as it used to be. The Catholics have rebuilt their cathedral, and its twin steeples now grace the skyline at 22-stories high. With greater religious liberty in Russia, life is improving, although the Putin government continually threatens to restrict this fundamental right. But what will Philadelphia look like in 50 years if we surrender our First Amendment rights? What will San Francisco, or New York, or Chicago look like if we lose this battle? Let us pray to God, to Whom the battle belongs, that we have the strength, the wisdom, the charity and the courage to engage this, our moment, and to acquit ourselves as well, under the guidance of His Holy Spirit.