Right to Life Vigil Mass
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (D.C.)
Twenty-five years ago this past October, a man unknown to most of the world stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was introduced as Pope John Paul II. He said he came to us “from a far country.” Soon afterwards, at the Eucharist inaugurating his papal ministry, he called us to a new attitude of fearlessness in the Lord with his words. “Be not afraid,” he said. “Be not afraid!”
Tonight, as we prepare to mark the 31st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, he calls to us again, this time out of his own physical suffering. “Be not afraid,” he tells us. “Be not afraid!” The basis for his fearlessness now is as it was a quarter of a century ago. It is this: That those who give their lives to Christ can live beyond fear, because Christ took all the world’s fear upon himself, on the cross. And in offering all the world’s fear to God in a perfect act of obedience, Christ made it possible for all of us to live with fear—and to live beyond fear.
Christian courage, rooted in Christian faith, creates a universal homeland where no one is “from a far country.” This is why, for the last quarter of a century, we have embraced Pope John Paul II as our guide, our inspiration, and our friend. This is why we embrace the stranger, no matter his country, whether born or unborn. This is why we so strongly feel the vital bond that binds us tonight, old friends and new . . . a bond that ties us together in citizenship, . . . a bond that can ennoble citizenship if we live out the courage of our Christian faith.
And so, dear sisters and brothers in the great cause of the sanctity of human life, “Be not afraid!”
The readings for today’s Mass strike special chords of memory and reflection here tonight.
How many times, over these past three decades, have we imagined ourselves Davids, confronted by a legion of Goliaths:
- We face a culture that too often measures life not by its sanctity, but by its utility.
- We see courts that usurp powers entrusted by the Constitution to the people and their elected representatives.
- We are fed by a media that fail to report what all reputable survey research makes clear -- that the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the resort to abortion in the overwhelming majority of the cases in which abortions are performed.
- We are troubled by politicians who defy the natural moral law and the settled moral teaching of their religious communities.
- We sense the apathy of those among us who cannot see that Roe v. Wade is the Dred Scott decision of our time.
- We find defeatism among those, once in our ranks, who can see no way forward.
But then we read of the “five smooth stones” (1 Samuel 17:40) that the shepherd boy took into battle against the giant Philistine, . . . of how conviction and courage and compassion and clarity and constancy won the day more than two-and-a-half millennia ago. And we remind ourselves of other causes that seemed hopeless in their time — the cause of disenfranchised African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century, the cause of disenfranchised Polish workers in the 1970s. And we take heart, knowing that the power of God still works through those who speak truth to power with conviction and courage and compassion and clarity and constancy.
In a similar way, we can take heart from tonight’s Gospel. The Lord who could heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath can heal what is withered in our own lives, every day of our lives. When we are tired, he can restore our withered energy and strength. When we are disheartened, he can lift our withered spirit. When we know fear, he can restore our withered courage. The Lord invites us to come to him tonight to be healed.For, in his kingdom, every day is a day of Sabbath healing, a day to live within the redeeming and sanctifying power of God’s love. Yes, the Lord can heal us, . . . and through us, he can begin to heal our withered culture.
Since we met here a year ago, the forces of the culture of death have done more damage to the culture of life in America. But the year has brought new encouragement as well. The passage of the national Partial-Birth Abortion Ban was a victory for decency in itself, and a first step toward an America in which every child is welcomed in life . . . and protected in law. No less an opponent of our cause than the New York Times was compelled to report in its Sunday pages some few months ago that young people across America are less tolerant than their elders of the terrible personal and social consequences of abortion. In ultrasound pictures they see that the conceived child has tiny, moving hands and feet, and a little heart that beats beneath its mother’s heart. And increasingly, they wonder why abortion has become so common. In increasing numbers, they understand that abortion is not the key to the limitless personal freedom that others have advertised it to be.
A year ago, on the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we could see in this capital city the dramatic difference between the forces who celebrate Roe and those of us who are determined to repair the damage Roe has done to the moral fabric of our nation, conceived as it was “in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all . . . are created equal.” Roe supporters have become the forces of reaction and entrenched interests; as we see here again tonight, the pro-life movement has become the younger, more vibrant force in this great struggle.You, our wonderful young people, . . . you have taken to heart the words of the Holy Father, “Be not afraid.”
And with our youth, women who have long suffered because of abortion are speaking out. “Silent No More,” these women braved the frigid weather last of January to stand before the Supreme Court and tell their personal stories of the horror that is abortion. These brave women can attest to the destructiveness of abortion as no others can. They are helping others understand that every abortion kills a mother’s child, and causes incalculable harm to the mother herself.Thanks to them and to other witnesses whose stories cut through the politically correct obscurity of “choice,” Americans are gradually waking up.
Yet those of us who believe that we are fighting the great civil rights battle of our time when we contest for the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death must also deal with new obstacles in our path. When a judicial decision is mistaken on a core issue of public justice, its mistake has a corrosive effect on other aspects of public life. That was the case in the aftermath of Dred Scott; the judiciary’s mistaken judgment led to a wider poisoning of public life and politics. Roe v. Wade has had a similar effect, for though it is about abortion, it is about other issues as well. Roe is about the boundaries of the community of common protection and concern. It is about America as a hospitable society. It is about the American understanding of freedom. Roe was fundamentally and fatally wrong, in its conclusion and in the tortured reasoning by which a Court majority tried to buttress its conclusion. And the effects of Roe, like those of Dred Scott, have poisoned our culture and our public life.
We have seen how the Roe’s poisons have begun to eat away at the first of American freedoms, religious freedom. Not far from here is the first place in the English-speaking world that was incorporated for the purpose of bestowing religious freedom upon its inhabitants. That freedom did not just happen.It came because the first Lord Baltimore persuaded King Charles I of England to grant it in the Colony of Maryland, a colony that was to be settled under Catholic leadership. Later, however, with the Revolution of 1688, Catholics lost that freedom and Catholic churches built by Catholic colonists were razed to the ground.
In Maryland and elsewhere around the country, the echoes of that Revolution are being heard today.Religious freedom is again under assault.Public authorities insist that our charitable institutions deliver services in the same way their secular counterparts do.Some raise threats against the tax-exempt status of our Church’s institutions, if we refuse to engage in practices that violate Catholic moral teaching. Others press our institutions to change their personnel and hiring practices so that they are mission-neutral, not mission-driven. And there are those who would expand government’s regulatory powers in ways that would involve government in the internal functioning of our charitable, health-care, and educational institutions. And so, once again, religious freedom is in great trouble.
We are loyal Americans and, as such, we are committed to constitutional government. We are also Catholic Americans, who have been taught by the Second Vatican Council that religious freedom is a basic human right and the foundation stone of any just public order. As Catholic Americans who are committed to liberty and justice for all, the born and the unborn, we must continue to make our contributions to the public discussion. In standing up for life as Catholic Americans, we stand up for religious freedom and, as we stand up for religious freedom, we stand up for life.
As a joint Catholic-Jewish statement said in Maryland in May, 1990,
“. . . the public policy debate is itself enriched and our country is strengthened when people of conscience take their rightful part. The historic, national efforts to address the question of slavery and, in more recent times, core issues of human rights -- civil rights, economic justice, international development and world peace -- bear witness to the importance of the part played by people who speak out of convictions rooted in religious faith.”
This past year has also made us even more aware of the radical conversion to which we must call those of our Catholic sisters and brothers who have failed to take seriously the great cause of the sanctity of life. The Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith has made clear that, when the Church calls all people of good will to provide effective legal protection for the inalienable right to life from conception until natural death, she is not “imposing” a sectarian view on a “pluralistic” society. Rather, in speaking out of principled conviction, she is defending an elementary principle of justice, a principle easily discernable to anyone willing to think the matter through. This is why it is so important that our Catholic people fully understand the magnitude of this issue. This is why it is so important that our Catholic people express themselves in the matter to elected officials legislators, especially those who say their constituents’ demands are more important that their own moral compasses. Each of us, in our own way, must make the effort to convince other Catholics who are mistaken about the human life issue that they are on the wrong side of the truly great civil rights issue of our day.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the God of justice who stood with David, the God of mercy who healed through the ministry of Jesus, stands with us tonight as we commit ourselves to the great cause of the sanctity of life. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta has said that God does not ask us to be successful, as the world measures success; God does ask us to be faithful, and promises that he will be with us as we strive to live beyond fear. Trust in that promise. Trust in that companionship. “Do not be afraid!” Walk with the Lord as we chart the path to a new birth of American freedom.
Cardinal William H. Keeler
Pro-Life Activities Committee, USCCB