National Prayer Vigil for Life Opening Mass
January 21, 2009
His Eminence Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia
Chairman, USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!
Your Eminence, Archbishop Wuerl, Pastor of the Church of Washington,
My brother Bishops,
Dear Priests, Deacons, Consecrated Religious, Seminarians,
Supporters and Defenders of human life, Brothers and Sisters, in Jesus Christ, especially you, Dear Young People of the Church, together with the millions watching live this Mass worldwide on the Eternal Word Television Network,
We gather tonight to celebrate the gift of life and to dedicate ourselves anew to respect, protect, love and serve life—every human life. We do this in prayer—we have come here to pray—realizing the enormous challenges to life, but expressing with confidence the sentiments of Saint Paul who says: "For this we toil and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God" (1 Tim 4:10). It is so moving, dear friends, to be with you, the thousands of faithful pilgrims who fill this Basilica and its many side chapels as well as the crypt. We join also in spirit with the crowds who could not even get inside the doors tonight. I thank Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, who kindly volunteered to offer two Masses nearby to assist these other pilgrims.
You have traveled here also with the intention to march tomorrow, along with many thousands of others, to protest the injustice of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. The infamous 1973 Supreme Court decisions legalized abortion for any reason whatsoever, throughout all nine months of pregnancy. Many of you have traveled long hours in buses, and I applaud you for all the sacrifices you have made on your journey. Your presence reminds me of the words of the late Father Richard John Neuhaus who said: "Whatever else it is, the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years is one of the most massive and sustained expressions of citizen participation in the history of the United States."
On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, I express deep admiration for your efforts on behalf of God's precious gift of human life. Thank you for your commitment to live out your faith, and to exercise your duties as Catholic citizens by standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
This morning's dawn began the first full day in office of the first African-American president our nation has ever had. We observe this as an historic milestone in the life of a country where people were once oppressed and even enslaved because of the color of their skin. The rejection of slavery and racism has signified an enormous change for the benefit of our civilization. Today, as people called to witness to the Gospel of Life, we must constantly proclaim the need for a new change, one that will complete this march toward human equality. Desperately needed is a culture of life in which all people, from conception to natural death, are valued and respected regardless of their age, race, disability, stage of development, or condition of dependency. This change we need! This change we believe in!
We welcome a new Administration and a new Congress. They will need our encouragement and our prayers, but they will also need our voices, united as a constant reminder of the rights of the poor, the sick, the elderly, those with disabilities, the imprisoned, and, yes, especially the most innocent, vulnerable and weakest among us: the child in the womb. We intend to work with those in public office whenever we can, and to raise our voices in respectful but impassioned protest when we must.
Just nine months ago, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI walked through this magnificent Basilica as part of his first apostolic visit to the United States. He had chosen as the theme of that visit "Christ our Hope." As we gather tonight to draw strength from the Lord and pray for an end to abortion, we are called to make Christ our Hope the foundation of all our work. We are, then, filled with confidence in the great task of sustaining, with God's help, what Pope John Paul II once called "a great campaign in support of life." This urgent project is well under way, but we know it is still far from complete. Advocating for legal protection for the unborn, helping others to appreciate the dignity of human life, and serving the needs of the many mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and other family members affected by abortion are difficult work. Even when we face those who do not share our vision, we can take courage in the promise of Christ our Hope, since in Him the victory of life is already won, even if it is still unfolding.
As we pray and work to advance the day when all human life is valued and protected, we draw strength and encouragement from the word of God. Let us then turn to today's readings, and to the life of Saint Agnes, whose feast day we celebrate, to help us face the challenges and appreciate the current signs of hope in our efforts to build a culture of life.
In our first reading, Saint Paul speaks to the early Christians, called to spread Christ's message of love and humility. He reminds them, and us, that God chooses the weak, the lowly and the despised of this world to accomplish His will. We are to "boast in the Lord," not in earthly power or human wisdom.
Some of you have experienced exclusion or derision from acquaintances, classmates or co-workers as you have shared your views on life or boldly proclaimed your faith. Sometimes it may seem there is nothing in this nation more feared or more dismissed than the pro-life movement. We can be rejected because we confront society with the obligation to respect and protect those who are considered a burden or an inconvenience. Yet we push on "because we have set our hope on the living God." Our Responsorial Psalm reminds each of us: "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side, with your rod and your staff that give me courage." God generously gives us what we need to accomplish His work and to defend His law that is so deeply written in each human heart: "Thou shalt not kill."
In our Gospel tonight we hear of a person who finds a buried treasure in a field, and of another who finds a pearl of great price. Both go and sell everything they have in order to acquire that one great prize of immense value. Jesus uses these images to teach us about the Kingdom of heaven, which is indeed the great prize of immense value. Are we prepared, dear friends, to follow our Lord, even if it means surrendering all we have in order to possess what only He can give? Are we prepared to say "yes" to His will, without counting the cost?
You who are here tonight already clearly understand that to live joyfully with God in heaven is the greatest goal of life, the greatest treasure we can possibly obtain. And this is one reason we toil and struggle to end abortion. People greatly loved by God are being deceived into thinking that abortion is a simple procedure with no consequences for their physical, emotional, spiritual and eternal well-being. But we know that the consequences of abortion can be devastating and eternal.
God, our loving Father, is eager, however, to bestow His healing mercy on all who have sorrow for their involvement in an abortion. So, tonight I invite all who may possibly have been involved in an abortion to ask humbly the Lord's forgiveness. Open your heart to His grace. Let his love embrace you and restore peace to your troubled heart. A simple phone call, for example, to your local Project Rachel office can put you in touch with one of the hundreds of priests and lay counselors across the United States who understand what you have been going through and can walk with you on your healing journey.
Young Saint Agnes, who lived seventeen hundred years ago and whose feast we celebrate today, understood the treasure that she had in Jesus Christ. Agnes was very attractive and many men wanted to marry her. But as a young Christian, she had already come to know someone who gave her everything she needed, everything she wanted. Jesus Christ was the one who would never use or exploit her. Rather, He loved her completely, totally, unconditionally—the way she deserved to be loved. In return, Agnes was so grateful for all He had done for her that she chose to belong to Jesus Christ and to Him alone. She chose to remain a virgin and Jesus gave her that kind of singular and exclusive love for Him that those called to celibacy are offered as a special gift. She had found that pearl of great price, and was willing to give everything she had to keep it. She was willing to live for Him, and even to die for Him at the hands of the men who wanted to use her. When she refused to give up her virginity, Saint Agnes was abused, tortured and martyred because of her love for Jesus Christ.
Dear young people, like the young Saint Agnes, you have received the gift of faith. You have been offered the Kingdom of heaven, the pearl of great price, the treasure worth many sacrifices. How is God calling you to thank Him, to love and serve Him, even when there are great challenges? How is the Lord calling you in the pro-life movement to remain steadfast, even against great odds? Tonight, we all pray to know His will, and to have the courage to follow it.
Such courage is needed more than ever as we reflect on this 36th anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, which has meant the death of more than 50 million children and has inflicted emotional, physical and spiritual wounds on untold millions of parents in our country. Not only is abortion-on-demand legal, but pro-abortion activists and their allies in Congress have been promoting an agenda that would deprive Americans of their freedom to enact almost any restraint on abortion at any stage of pregnancy. They want to overturn hundreds of current laws on conscience rights, informed consent, limits on taxpayer funding of abortion, and parental involvement in minors' abortion decisions.
Even more immediately, Congress is working on new appropriations bills that fund all federal programs. Many current safeguards on taxpayer funding, conscience rights, and other issues exist only as provisions in these bills. These safeguards could be eliminated with the stroke of a committee chairman's pen, which would pave the way for more wholesale assaults on unborn children. Hence, pro-life Americans must voice their opposition, early and clearly.
As you know dear friends, when the full body of bishops gathered for their annual meeting in November, they offered good wishes to those elected and expressed willingness to work with them whenever possible. The bishops also urged the new Congress and President not to eliminate the modest pro-life protections we currently have in place. Cardinal Francis George, the President of our Conference, spoke for us all in expressing alarm at the especially grave threat posed by the "Freedom of Choice Act," the most radical pro-abortion legislation we have ever faced. "Aggressively pro-abortion policies, legislation and executive orders," he said, "will permanently alienate tens of millions of Americans, and would be seen by many as an attack on the free exercise of their religion." At that meeting the bishops voted unanimously to mobilize the resources of the entire Catholic community to work to prevent the elimination of current pro-life laws and policies, and to oppose the "Freedom of Choice Act" or any similar pro-abortion initiative. As Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, I am so very grateful for the tremendous support offered by my brother bishops from all over the country. They deserve thanks for speaking and acting with courage and determination.
As it did in the past in response to other significant threats to human life, the Bishops' Conference has authorized us to move forward with a massive postcard campaign to Congress. In the coming weeks, parishes across the country will have the opportunity to participate in this nationwide effort to protect the modest laws that have reduced abortions and prevented government funding and promotion of abortion. These laws must not be swept away—neither all at once, through comprehensive measures like the Freedom of Choice Act, nor one at a time. We must urge Congress not to start down this destructive path, but to serve the life, health and well-being of all Americans, beginning with the most vulnerable: the child in the womb.
I am happy to report that millions of postcards have been ordered by dioceses across our land. Tonight we also have an opportunity to pick up postcards at the information counters on the lower level of this Basilica. Your help is needed in getting the message to Congress that all human life is sacred and must be respected. This responsibility is not limited to Catholics alone; it belongs to all people of good will. What is at stake is justice—"liberty and justice for all." This campaign is open to all. And each of us is invited to help it succeed.
As we toil and struggle dear friends in the cause of human life, which is the supreme cause of justice, we must remind ourselves of the importance and power of prayer. Our dedication to daily prayer and the sacraments will sustain us in hope, as we work to usher in a new culture of life—a culture of life, dear young people, worthy of your generation.
As we ask you to be strong in hope, you in turn inspire hope in your bishops and priests. I am speaking of the thousands of you at Masses today; those who will stay tonight for the Rosary, for Confession and for Eucharistic adoration of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout the night; the 20,000 of you who will be at the Verizon Center tomorrow and the thousands more who will participate in overflow Masses; and of course the more than 150,000 who will march for life here in Washington DC, and the thousands that participate in the West Coast Walk for Life, not to mention similar marches in state capitals around the nation. Truly you inspire hope, and we are all grateful to you for the encouragement that you give the Church and all society.
Political pundits have said that the pro-life movement is now history. Actually, they say this every few years, back to 1973. They imply that pro-lifers should just pack up and go home. Yet you do not look to me as though you are heading home. You look to me like a multitude of witnesses, a great multitude of pro-life witnesses, ready to uplift the world from the despair of the culture of death to enthrone in it the hope of a culture of life.
There are other significant signs of hope dear friends, in terms of public sentiment. To be sure, a majority vote does not make something right or wrong. Direct attacks on innocent persons at any stage of life are radically wrong, unjust, evil. We would be called to witness to the sacred dignity of human life even if we stood alone. But opinion surveys continue to show that we are far from alone in rejecting abortion on demand. In December, our Pro-Life Secretariat commissioned a nationwide survey conducted online by one of the nation's top pollsters. Four out of five people responding to this survey (82%) think abortion should be illegal or restricted in some way. Only 9% of U.S. adults think abortion should be legal for any reason at any stage in pregnancy, which is our current law under Roe v. Wade. So when you march against Roe v. Wade tomorrow, know that 82% of Americans join you in disagreeing with its extreme policy on abortion.
We have great hope in the Lord's power to heal our land of the painful wound of legalized abortion. Every abortion is a personal tragedy. Its dread impact falls not only on a little boy or a little girl, but on the child's parents, grandparents, siblings and everyone involved. Knowing that God's mercy is greater than all of our sins, tonight we pray for all these people. We pray for the conversion of all those who promote death as a solution to social ills or to an unplanned pregnancy. We pray for legislators, educators, counselors and all health care professionals who put their skills and training at the service of life. We lift up Project Rachel and other post-abortion counseling ministries, pro-life pregnancy centers, and organizations that work every day to usher in a culture of life. We pray earnestly for the healing of our nation.
Finally, let us all pray for one another, that we may be encouraged and inspired by the word of God and by the holy example of Saint Agnes and all the saints. May we continue to hope in Jesus Christ, as we await the day when all human life will be protected in law and cherished in every human heart.
And now may these words of Pope Benedict XVI spoken in our country prepare us to participate fully in the great Eucharistic Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ: "If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ—and you will find true life. Amen!"