To preserve their future and reveal the life found within the Church, Catholics in the United States must not forget their faith, but should find hope within it.
These were the words of an Iraqi-born nun to hundreds of political and religious leaders gathered for the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Tuesday. The annual event was begun in 2004 as a response to St. John Paul II’s call for a “new evangelization.”
“I believe in the future of our country and our Church as long as we keep our roots grounded in the soil of Grace that comes from God,” said Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart at a June 6 speech in Washington, D.C.
Originally from Iraq, Mother Olga is now an American citizen and lives in Boston, where she founded the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth in 2011. She was raised in the Assyrian Church of the East, and was received into the Catholic Church in 2005.
Mother Olga warned the several hundred Catholics gathered not to forget their religious identity, but to embrace it.
“A tree with no roots does not blossom. When we forget where we came from, and where we have been planted and what we have to do to in order to flourish, we can lose hope,” she said. “However, when we are living in hope, we find the strength and courage to journey forward, helped by the Lord and with others.”
Fellow keynote speakers at the prayer breakfast were Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of the Military Services, USA, and Vice President Mike Pence, who was raised Catholic.
At the breakfast, Mother Olga spoke of her time ministering to prisoners in Iraqi prisons, many of whom were kept in cells underground and whose family members rarely visited. Many of the prisoners Mother Olga met asked why she visited, and why she did other acts of charity during the four wars she experienced growing up, such as gathering the bodies of the dead to give them a proper burial.
“My answer to them was always the same,” she said: “my love for God and my love for his children.”
Mother Olga recounted her experience moving to the United States and learning about the religious background of the pilgrims and other colonists who founded the country – particularly of their search for religious freedom.
“The true democracy and the strength of our democracy should not only be seen as an expression of the political minds of the people, but also in our embrace of our own identity as Americans and appreciation of the religious roots of our foundation of a nation,” she commented.
However, Mother Olga commented that she is concerned by trends within her new country that belie “a hesitation to speak about God, even in the simplest ways, such as saying ‘God bless you’ when somebody sneezes.”
She urged the Catholics gathered to look at the examples of the American Saints, Blesseds, Venerables, and Servants of God, as well as the example of holy men and women alive today who are “serving in an ordinary, hidden way.”
“They are the true expressions and finest fruit of the American religious expression.”
“May our gathering today as people who love God and this country be a renewed commitment to renew the spirit of cooperation which has accomplished so much good through the history of our nation,” Mother Olga prayed.
“May the fruit of today’s prayer for our nation be a grace for our people to experience a new birth of freedom, freedom planted with faith, grounded in hope, nourished by love in the soil of truth.”
Archbishop Broglio’s address also highlighted to the importance of the Catholic faith for Americans. To do so, he recounted the story of Father Joseph Lafleur, a military chaplain who died while helping others escape from a damaged prison ship during World War II.
“If we were to survey the history of the Church, and look at the lives of the saints, we would discover men and women who built on their virtues, to reflect the authenticity of their faith. The same thing has an impact on the nation,” he said.
The archbishop expounded on the importance of the virtues, and how they strengthen and form the foundation of Christian life.
Quoting Cardinal James Hickey, who was Archbishop of Washington from 1980 to 2000, the archbishop said that “a good Catholic is a good American because the practice of virtue also leads to good citizenship and there is no dichotomy between faith and life if we cultivate and practice virtue.”
“Each of us has the potential to rebuild our society and our world if we cultivate authentic virtue,” he added. “Our virtue will give us strength and wisdom if we are open to it.”
Pence’s keynote address encouraged those attending to be a “voice for the voiceless”, after proclaiming that “life is winning” in the United States through a variety of pro-life initiatives.
Also speaking at the event was Bishop Mario Dorsonville, auxiliary bishop of Washington, who gave the opening invocation for the event. The bishop began by reading a letter from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who was unable to attend.
“Let us also be mindful of so many of our brothers and sisters around the world who continue to face persecution and suffering on account of their faith,” read Cardinal Wuerl’s message, speaking to the persecution Christians face in the Middle East and elsewhere. “As our Holy Father, Pope Francis said, ‘We must not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians who for 2,000 years have confessed the name of Jesus and have been fully integrated as citizens into the social cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong.'”
Bishop Dorsonville also gave a benediction asking for the strength of the Holy Spirit and the visibility of Catholics’ faith and prayer for all persons, including the immigrants, homeless, and refugees.
“As we proclaim the good news of the Gospel: love, hope and faith,” the bishop prayed. “We continue to build up this world, not just so that we are right in this life, but that we are right in the other.”