I stood in awe as the late Cardinal John O' Connor of New York began his Mass, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Some 600 seminarians responded with a resounding "Amen!" In his last Seminarians' Mass for Life, a tradition celebrated each year at the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, the Cardinal electrified the men with his message exhorting us to put the Gospel into action by defending the sacredness and dignity of human life.
Seminarian Life Link
A new generation of seminarians is already beginning to take up that mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life. Having banded together to form Seminarian Life Link, a group of Catholic seminarians are prayerfully and actively supporting one another in making that Gospel a cornerstone of their spiritual formation and priestly identity.
The idea of this national group arose in the spring of 1999 after Fr. Frank Pavone, co-founder of Priests for Life, gave a presentation to diocesan seminarians at Mount St. Mary's of the West in Cincinnati, Ohio. These seminarians were eager to find out what they could do to promote life. Fr. Pavone challenged them to "think big." They did. Several months later they approached him with the idea of forming Seminarian Life Link, convinced of the dire need to bear witness to the truth that all human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Seminarian Life Link was officially launched this past year.
This organization of seminarians takes its lead from the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who has made engaging culture a cornerstone of his papacy. Most of today's seminarians are products of the post-Roe era and are keenly aware that nothing less than a radical transformation of this society is necessary. We must evangelize our culture with the good news of the beauty and gift of life. We know there are many firmly rooted obstacles which the Church must confront head on.
Recognizing the Challenge
Foremost among these obstacles is a radical loss of a sense of sacrifice. In a "me-first" way of life, which measures success primarily in terms of personal and individual fulfillment, children are seen less as gifts in themselves than as a means to self-fulfillment. Is human life a unique and sacred gift, divinely authored, to be treasured above all others? Or is it just another commodity to be owned, controlled, or manipulated at the whim of parents? Sadly, the latter view represents today's America.
What necessarily follows from this is a loss of the sense of gratitude for the precious gift of life.
The U.S. Supreme Court's tragically misguided Roe v. Wade decision of January 22, 1973, sanctioned the destruction of innocent life inside the womb. This downward slide accelerated when the Stenberg v. Carhart decision of June 28, 2000, further degraded America by authorizing the destruction of the partially born child.
New biotechnologies combine with this life-as-commodity norm to create the existing problems of in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research, and prospects for even more direct attacks on the dignity of life such as human cloning. The majority of the medical community and a substantial portion of the general public fail to see a distinction between true therapy and medical advances on the one hand, and a callous disregard for the dignity of life on the other. Nowhere is that clearer than in the current debate over embryonic stem cell research, where embryonic human beings -- endowed with an infinite soul and eternal capacity for union with God -- are dismissed as medical waste.
The spiritual life of the mother is at great risk as well. Firmly entrenched in the popular culture is the lie that abortion causes no short or long-term harm to the mother. Nobody knows the real extent of the damage abortion does to women, but more research is uncovering more damage. For example, Dr. David Reardon of the Elliot Institute has found that 60 percent of post-abortive women experience suicidal tendencies with over 28 percent actually making an attempt on their lives! Nearly 50 percent begin or increase drug or alcohol abuse after having an abortion. Over 90 percent report damage to their self-esteem (Reardon, 1997).
Bold and Compassionate
This tragedy cries out for a compassionate response from the Church, and especially from her bishops, priests, and seminarians. We are speaking not of a response of pessimism and despair, but of hope in the power of Jesus Christ to transform lives and, in turn, culture. We trust that His Church is the guardian of truth, that the gates of hell will not prevail against her, and that she has a crucial role to play in bringing this transformation to the world. With compassion she must address the spiritual needs of mothers victimized by the culture of death, while at the same time strongly counter the devaluation of life and boldly witness to the truth.
This is the context in which Seminarian Life Link finds itself. We recognize that today's seminarians must strike a difficult balance between boldness and compassion, between hating the sin and loving the sinner. As men preparing to be spiritual fathers, we must be willing to sacrifice everything for the children of God and be uncompromisingly persistent in providing sound spiritual guidance even when it is resisted or ridiculed by the culture.
Direct attacks against the dignity of life call for a direct response. The first pro-life task of the seminarian is to educate himself on the dignity and sacredness of life in the doctrine and the tradition of the Church. Although many are familiar with the landmark teachings of Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae in 1968 and Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae in 1995, fewer are aware of the critically important teachings on current issues set forth in Donum Vitae ("Gift of Life," 1987). This document instructs the faithful on the dignity of procreation and its proper context within marriage, and exposes the errors of artificial technologies that attack God's plan for procreation such as in vitro fertilization.
Seminarian Life Link encourages a two-pronged response from its future priests: First, to encourage one another to boldly preach the Gospel of life by addressing the difficult pro-life issues at the pulpit; and second, to bring the Gospel values home to where the faithful live. Years of theological study, prayer, and reading on the pro-life ethic in which the seminarian engages must be translated into concrete guidance for the people in his care. He must convincingly explain how the individual's decisions on these life issues need to be informed and guided by the Gospel values of self-sacrificial love and the indissolubility of marriage.
This formation of the faithful is the basis of our participation in the pro-life mission of the Church -- to translate the truth about life into compassionate action in the family and workplace. Especially important is extending this compassion to post-abortive women. Doubly victimized, they suffer the pain of being coerced into procuring an abortion and then find no support by a society that denies their pain. The seminarians' response mirrors that of Christ in His encounter with the woman caught in adultery. Being pro-life must encompass Christ's forgiveness and echo His words, "Neither do I condemn you."
A New Hope
As future priests, we need to prepare for a ministry of reconciliation in bringing Christ's mercy to the world. Women whose lives have been wounded by the culture of death need reconciliation, beginning with reconciling the woman to herself and then to the Church. The post-abortive woman typically suffers a severe psychological trauma which stems from strong feelings of guilt. These feelings often derive from a sense of being beyond forgiveness and can lead to defensiveness and denial.
Organizations such as Project Rachel provide a model of how seminarians can reach out to the post-abortive woman with the compassion of Christ, breaking through defensive walls to heal a wounded soul. Seminarian Life Link encourages its members to cooperate actively with these organizations that bring the mercy of God the Father to His people.
The gruesome persecutions of the early Christian martyrs brought new life to the Church through the transforming power of witness to Christ's truth. The 20th century's culture of death will give way to a new hope for the Church as the Gospel of life takes root and transforms the culture. The Church is the harbinger of hope in Jesus Christ's power to conquer all evil and to expose the errors of the culture of death that strike at the People. of God. It is the privilege of Seminarian Life Link to be part of the Church's great mission.
Mr. Bowman and Mr. Reutter are seminarians currently studying for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. For further information on Seminarian Life Link, write Eric Bowman, c/o Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West, 6616 Beechmont Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45230, or visit http://www.abortabortion%20org/.