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Mass for Life

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.

Isaiah, God’s prophet, tells us how God touched his life, and how God touches us. God called him as a baby before birth, scarcely stirring in the womb, beneath his mother’s heart. "The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name."

God’s call to Isaiah was not a public call, for God hid him "in the shadow of his hand." A true call from God. A quiet call. The kind of call that beckons every person here tonight, and everyone who is with us through television. Young or old, white or black or brown, rich or poor, healthy or sick, each one of us has a name, a dignity, a call, indeed, a destiny which comes from the Lord who made us and is forever. You are here tonight in response to the very special call to defend human life, and in particular the lives of the littlest and the weakest among us.

Before God who has made and called us, we are as the Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 139) puts it, quite transparent:

"Lord, you examine me and know me, you know if I am standing or sitting, you read my thoughts from far away, whether I walk or lay down, you are watching."

We are transparent, yes, and called to be something more, to be totally, excitedly grateful:

"It was you who created my inmost self, and put me together in my mother’s womb; for all these mysteries I thank you: for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works."

Tonight we gather as a people of faith transparent before our God. He knows our weaknesses, our failures, our frailties, our frustrations. But God also inspires our dreams and sets before us the mountain to be climbed and the promise of a path marked out and of energy which will not fail, both to begin the ascent and to achieve the summit.

We are transparent to our God, from the instant he first touched us, at the moment of conception in our mothers’ wombs. Tonight we are grateful for the wonder of God’s love for us, in making us, in giving us life and in sending his son Jesus Christ to suffer, die and rise for us. We are grateful to God for pouring out his Holy Spirit into our hearts, so that we can pray to God as "Our Father" and praise him for the wonder of ourselves and of his works.

The path up the mountain is marked out by God’s word, given on the mountaintop long ago through Moses in the Commandments and, as we heard again tonight, charted for us by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. Some of us bishops were asked some time ago what message from a spiritual leader touched us most. I thought immediately of what Pope John Paul II said to us American bishops in Chicago on his first visit to the United States. I had been ordained a bishop just two weeks earlier.

He gave us for our meditation the beatitudes of Jesus. He reminded us that the beatitudes are basic to the thinking and the praying of any disciple of Jesus. They can help us now as the Vigil of Prayer for Life begins. Remember that "blessed" means "happy," and that Jesus is teaching us that we are truly happy when we can identify with what he teaches us:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit"—poor so that our hearts are not pulled or cramped by what may be a passing fancy, a toy or trinket in comparison with what really counts with God. Those who are poor in fact are especially beloved by Jesus. In their faces he has taught us to try to see his own. The heart that is poor in spirit is open to the richness of God’s marvelous gift of inner peace. It is a heart able to receive and to rejoice in the meaning of the gift of life.

"Blessed are they who mourn." Jesus speaks here of those who mourn sin, who can recognize evil and with the help of God’s grace are eager to turn away from it. The devil is the master of camouflage. He tries to mask the reality of evil with neutral phrases, like "terminating a pregnancy" for the snuffing out of a human life, like "pro-choice" when the little one not yet born is deprived of any choice, like "death with dignity" for the one advanced in years or troubled in health who does not know the loving care which hospice can give or the medical remedies for pain and discomfort. Our prayer tonight is that the citizens of this land, and those who have been elected to make and execute the laws of the land, may learn to see through the camouflage and come to mourn sin and turn away from it so that we as a nation might rejoice.

"Blessed are the meek." Jesus invites us to learn from him who says of himself, ". . . learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. . . ." (Mt. 11:29) He was gentle in whatever concerned him personally, but he was strong and clear and courageous in proclaiming his good news, the gospel. Over and over again, he insisted on principles which could be lived only with courage: at the Last Supper, a celebration of his love for us, Jesus said to the Apostles, "You will live in my love if you keep my commandments, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and live in his love." At the heart of our following of Jesus, then, is to keep the commandments, so that we may live in the love of God. This is the path all of you here are walking this evening, as we pray for the grace to be clear and courageous in proclaiming the good news and lifting up the gospel of life about the value and dignity of every human life. We must be fearless, speaking God’s truth without anger and in love.

"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness." Happiness will come, Jesus reminds us, to those hungering and thirsting for God’s holiness, to those who "seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness." This thirst for righteousness inspires us also to pray for and to seek justice for all persons, including those yet in their mothers’ wombs. For this priority in our lives we pray this evening.

"Blessed are the merciful." To obtain God’s mercy, we must show mercy. To be forgiving to others: for this we pray in the Our Father. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly reminded us that the coming Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 is to be a season of mercy and of reconciliation. What a wonderful reflection of God’s mercy is in Project Rachel, which brings a sense of God’s purifying and strengthening love to so many who suffer from the trauma that sets in after an abortion, sometimes years afterwards. People of all faith backgrounds can and do experience the pain which comes when they realize that one who could have been born is dead, because of a decision made perhaps in anguish. Now they can receive through Project Rachel a healing and a help which can make them healing missionaries of new hope, missionaries of the cause of life.

"Blessed are the pure of heart." How contrary to the grain of our culture these words of Jesus run! And yet, they are words he is ready to reinforce with strength the Spirit gives for those who take them to heart. In a program called "True Love Waits," young people are ready to explain to one another Jesus’ teaching about chastity. The program took its form from the Southern Baptists, its inspiration from the gospel and its power from the Holy Spirit. In the Archdiocese where I serve more than 7,000 of our young people have made a written commitment, promising God, that they will be chaste until they marry. Some will renew this commitment permanently when they profess the vows of consecrated life or pledge themselves to celibacy as they prepare for Holy Orders. Cardinal Law and others tell me they have seen and heard this same sign of the beatitudes come alive in their dioceses. It is a sign of hope, of great hope our young people give to us.

"Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me." This last of the beatitudes exhorts those of us who work for the cause of life to recall what Jesus promised to those who persevere in the face of falsehood and frustration for his sake and the sake of his teaching. He promised to be with us. He is with us. His presence helps us not to blink or bow when accusations of "ideology" or "insensitivity" are thrown our way. Again, our youth instruct us. At World Youth Day five years ago in Denver some demonstrators began to ridicule our young people and their faith. That faith inspired their response, not one of screaming back, but of prayer: they formed a circle and began to pray aloud the Rosary. The false accusers fell silent, and then they faded away.

Tomorrow, we shall pray again for life. Let us pray as well for God’s blessing on the great apostle for life, our Holy Father, as he arrives in Mexico City to bring to this hemisphere his exhortation following the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America. He will surely call us to a greater solidarity with our sisters and brothers of North and Central and South America and of the Caribbean Islands. He will help us see more clearly how we ought to help those of Honduras and the neighboring countries rebuild after the devastating hurricane. He will remind us that throughout this hemisphere God’s gift of life, especially in the weakest and most vulnerable, is in peril.

I ask you now: will you pray this evening for the pastoral mission of our Holy Father? Can we, who are going to join him for his visit to Mexico City and St. Louis, bring him the assurance of your love and prayers?

We began our reflection with the vision of Isaiah the prophet, called from his mother’s womb to a mission of service to God’s word and work. Let us go back to the prophet, to the moment in his life when he personally realized what that call meant for him. He was an adult, living some seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, when God admitted him to a vision of heaven, and sent one of the seraphim with a burning coal from the incense on the altar to touch and cleanse his lips, preparing him for a mission to the people which would last for all his life. (Cf. Is. 6:1-13)

You, too, are people with a mission. Your mission is to secure the foundations of the American house of freedom. You do that by working, by praying, and by marching tomorrow for the day when every unborn child in America is welcomed in life and protected in law. You do that by defending the human dignity of the sick, the suffering, the handicapped, the dying, and all those whom society is tempted to think of as "inconvenient." You help secure the foundations of the American house of freedom by reminding our fellow citizens and our public officials that America’s independence began when the Founders pledged their sacred honor to the defense of the inalienable and self-evident right to life. America is in your debt for what you do and for what you are.

At the moment of his vision Isaiah saw "the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne" surrounded by the singing seraphim, whose hymn we shall soon echo here: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!" From his call, and glory, and presence, and most Holy Communion we draw strength. And in this glorious church dedicated to the Mother of God and our Mother, we offer our prayer to her as well. In these coming days at Guadalupe in Mexico, Pope John Paul II will lead a prayer that can be ours as well this evening: may Mary, whose request to her son at Cana of Galilee led him to change water into wine, now hear and pass on our prayer that the weak, sometimes lukewarm water of our human efforts be transformed into the strong wine of God’s powerful grace in action. May her prayer and her example of faith as she lived out the first Advent give meaning to our every effort to explain, respect, defend, and promote God’s unrepeatable gift of life.

May Mary’s prayer win for us the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, as we continue to walk toward the mountaintop. We shall persist. We must persist. In God’s name, in God’s time, and with God’s help, we shall prevail.