July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. This document declared the independence of a fledgling democracy from imperial rule. It declared that the people living on this continent were claiming the freedom to forge their own destiny as a sovereign nation. Every year, Americans gather in backyards, national parks, and other places throughout the country to barbecue, watch fireworks, and celebrate this freedom anew.
In the Catholic Church we have a pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world called Gaudium et Spes. This document, like the great American document we celebrate July 4, declares the necessity of freedom. All human persons must have freedom. Freedom from oppression, slavery, war, poverty, sexism, and all forms of discrimination. In addition to all of the evils from which we must have freedom, the great theological, pastoral, and philosophical thinkers at the helm of the Church advocated that we also must have freedom for excellence — meaning we need to be free (really free) to choose the good with ease and pleasure. This takes practice (lots of practice) and patience.
The thing is that freedom is about much more than the ability to choose from an infinite number of options — even options that dehumanize us and others. Freedom is more than political or economic autonomy. Freedom is our ability to choose what is right and true without difficulty. Freedom is about our happiness … our ultimate happiness. Like the rich young man Jesus encounters who possesses the independence of great wealth and the freedom of religious and civil lawfulness, we who possess worldly freedom may not necessarily possess freedom for excellence. When confronted with true freedom (the kind Jesus offers us, the kind that is about losing everything we have to gain more than we could ever hope to imagine), we are often so bound by our worldly pursuit of “freedom” (freedom to gain more wealth, status, autonomy, etc.) that we, like the rich young man, simply walk away in sorrow.
So, this Fourth of July, I’d like to propose that in addition to celebrating a great and defining moment in the history of the United States, we celebrate freedom by striving toward freedom for excellence. Here are a few areas where you can start. Today. Right now. Ready, set, go! Declare your own independence!
The plain truth of the matter is that money does not make us free … not really free, anyway. An increase in money does not necessarily coincide with an increase in freedom (just ask the aforementioned rich young man or the late, great Biggie Smalls.) Do you spend a lot of time worrying about your financial situation? Declare your independence! Remember Jesus’ words of reassurance about the wildflowers and the birds. Today make a commitment to live simply and trust God. Skip the fancy coffee shop latte and pack your lunch for a whole month. Do you need that expensive data plan for your cell phone or can you do without it? Do you need to buy name brand clothes or can you make a fun afternoon of thrift store shopping with friends? Take this July 4 challenge to live as simply as you can for just one month — until August 4. Reflect on these questions: Did decreasing your dependence on money and material things help you feel more free? Was it easier to choose the good?
Addiction is one of the most dire public health crises in our society. If you have a problem with drugs, alcohol, gambling, sexual addiction, or an eating disorder, seek help. Today. Declare your independence. Addiction restricts and obscures our ability to choose the good, to obtain freedom for excellence. We cannot, as Jesus so aptly points out, serve two masters. If you’re unsure about where to start, try this. Your local parish may even host an Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous group. If not, your priest should be able to direct you to one in your community.
OK, so maybe your life doesn’t exactly look like an episode of A&E’s Intervention, but we all have habits that hinder our freedom for excellence. Are you a compulsive shopper? Are you obsessively using the internet or social media? Are you a smoker? Do you need to drink alcohol to have a good time after work? Try giving up this habit for one month — until August 4. Donate the money you saved to a local addiction support group.
Poverty — and the despair that it can generate — can greatly impede one’s freedom for excellence. Take a moment out of your July 4 festivities to donate to a charity that helps empower the poor. Food for the Poor provides relief to those living in the direst poverty throughout the world through innovative programs for families and communities. Several Sources Shelters provide housing and support for pregnant women, a daytime shelter for homeless women and their children, a mobile women’s health clinic, and scholarships for formerly homeless women. Catholic Relief Services provides help for those suffering from poverty, violence, and disease overseas. The Sisters of Life are an order of women religious who provide material, emotional, and spiritual support for women from all walks of life in crisis pregnancy. (If you want to help with the sisters’ mission but are short on cash, sign-up to offer your time and talents as a co-worker in your local community.) The gifts you give this Fourth of July can help sow hope. Hope makes freedom for excellence possible … for everyone. That’s something worth breaking out the fireworks for.
Remember how freedom for excellence takes plenty of practice and patience? Make this July 4 the first day of your education. Pick one bad habit — one thing that you do consistently and without much thought. Ask someone you trust to help you overcome this bad habit. They can support you, pray for you, and give you a friendly nudge if they witness you giving in to your habit. Do you have a tendency to gossip? Are you inclined to procrastinate? Are you perpetually late? Whichever bad habit you choose, work hard from today until August 4 on overcoming it. It may seem like a small victory, but experiencing a triumph over a bad habit can give us the courage and confidence to take on the more serious sin that ultimately impedes our freedom.
You’ve got your four challenges for the Fourth. Declare your independence today!