The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently held its November meeting in Baltimore. This meeting was particularly interesting because it was the final business meeting presided over by the outgoing president of the conference, Timothy Cardinal Dolan.

Three years ago, then-Archbishop Dolan, recently installed Archbishop of New York, was elected president of the conference in an untraditional manner. He was elected over the normally selected vice president. As president, he has led with distinction, offering direction through turbulent times in our society.

Many bishops wondered what theme he would choose to address in his final message.

Cardinal Dolan asked the conference to “think Catholic” and join with our suffering brothers and sisters throughout the world. These individuals are suffering and being persecuted, as Cardinal Dolan stated: “…simply because they sign themselves with the cross, bow their heads at the name of Jesus, and profess the Apostles Creed.”

The Pew Research Center reports that 75 percent of the world’s population “lives in countries where governments, social groups or individuals restrict people’s ability to freely practice their faith.”

Throughout the world, churches are burned or bombed, Catholics and Christians imprisoned, believers are subjected to torture in an attempt to force them to renounce their faith.

Some are even murdered. Martyrdom is not new to the church, but most would attribute the age of martyrdom to the first 500 years of the faith.

Cardinal Dolan explained: “We are living in what must be recognized as, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, ‘a new age of martyrs.’ One expert calculates that half of all Christian martyrs were killed in the 20th century alone. The 21st century has already seen one million people killed around the world because of their belief in Jesus Christ – one million already in this young century.”

Countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are especially prone to severe religious persecutions.

What’s seemingly most insidious are governments that look the other way while claiming a tolerance for Christian religious practices. Remember the war in Iraq was to bring about a new age of freedom which would be embraced by the new ruling government. There would be a tolerance for diversity.

However, Cardinal Dolan was quick to point out that violent attacks continue to terrorize Iraqi people. Just a little more than a year ago, the war’s worst massacre of Iraqi Christians occurred in a brutal attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, where some 58 believers were massacred. Those martyred for their faith included a priest who died holding a crucifix, asking the gunmen to spare the others.

Cardinal Dolan appealed to our new popular Pope Francis who reminded us of the necessity to understand our solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters.

“When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering? When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who’s giving his or her life for Jesus Christ? Do we pray for one another? How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted? How many? Everyone respond in his own heart. It’s important to look beyond one’s own fence, to feel oneself part of the church, of one family of God!” (General Audience, Sept. 25, 2013)

Cardinal Dolan ended his talk by challenging his brother bishops to make a difference: first through the power of prayer by encouraging intercessions on behalf of the persecuted, second to raise the awareness in our communities of this persecution through whatever means are at our disposal, third to support our international Catholic charitable organizations which bring relief and support to these persecuted people and persecuted areas, and fourth to put pressure on our country’s leaders to make the protection of at-risk Christians a foreign-policy priority.

As Catholics, we live in a country that prides itself in the freedoms we enjoy, especially religious freedom. It is imperative that we have the same resolve to witness to the faith and protect our cherished freedom.

Prejudice against the Catholic Church is not new. It has existed from the beginning of our nation. But as a church we have always stood tall in the face of discrimination and demanded our rights as citizens.

Recently, we have watched our rights diminished and the attempt to limit the practice of our faith to the confines of the church building. Is it possible the same persecutions that occur in other countries could happen right here?

The Nazis and the communists focused on the elimination of the church by using their laws to attack the practice of religion. The church poses a threat because it holds that God is a higher authority than the government.

Already in some circles of our society the church is portrayed as an obstacle to the progressive social agenda of the secularist movement. Remember, they jail obstructionists.

Cardinal Dolan reminded us that our faith holds us responsible for our brothers and sisters in our country and throughout the world. We must be ready to lead by example, working to alleviate the oppression of the persecuted and working to protect the religious freedom we cherish.