I was taking part in a pro-life event in the streets of Manhattan one day when a man walking by said to me, "You are a man! What right do you have to say anything about abortion?"
My response to him was, "Sir, I am a human being. When another human being is about to be killed, I stand up and say no!"
That indeed is both the right and duty of all of us, as men, as women, as decent human beings. The child in the womb does not simply belong to the woman carrying that child. The child belongs to God, and belongs also to us. God has entrusted us to the care of one another. That child is my brother, my sister, the youngest member of our one human family.
Priests are sometimes subject to the kind of objection I heard that day. It may further be compounded by the fact that we are not married. But abortion transcends all these categories of gender and marital status, as well as of religion and political views. Indeed, part of our mission as priests in the midst of a culture of death is to point out how fundamental the abortion problem is, and to echo the teaching of Evangelium Vitae that what is at stake is the very foundation of civilization.
Since 1993, I have served as Director of Priests for Life, an officially approved association designed to encourage all priests to carry out the pro-life dimensions of their ministry, especially in relation to abortion. I have visited priests and pro-life groups in every one of the 50 states, have preached on the pro-life message in a different parish every weekend, and have witnessed the variety of activities and strategies which comprise the pro-life movement at the present time. Priests for Life makes available to all priests the resources we have gathered through this experience, as well as the benefit of contact with a wide network of priests who are doing many kinds of pro-life work.
Here, I would like to simply share a few varied tidbits that can help a busy priest effectively address the abortion problem.
Effective preaching. In the New York City parish in which I served for the first five years of my priesthood, a woman approached me one Sunday after I had given a homily on abortion, and she said, "Father, regarding all this preaching on abortion-- We're not the ones that need to hear it. It's the people out there, who never come to Church…they need to hear it." "Well," I replied to her, "then go tell them!"
One of the most reliable indicators of a person's pro-life convictions is the regularity of that person's Sunday worship. (The reason is not hard to understand: the attitude behind abortion is the opposite of the attitude behind worship. The former says, "I am in charge" and the latter says "God is in charge.") But it does not follow that we need not preach to those in the pews. In fact, if they tend to be the more pro-life segment of the general public, then they are the ones most likely to do something to end abortion. Our preaching, therefore, is needed to motivate, guide, and encourage them to go forth from the Church and make a difference in the culture.
A key dynamic to our preaching on abortion is to help people cross the line between lamenting abortion and actually doing something to stop it. What the pro-abortion forces say these days is, "If you are against abortion, that's fine…But keep your beliefs to yourself and let us make our own choices." In other words, they do not mind pro-lifers who lament abortion, as long as those pro-lifers don't try to stop it. Yet this mentality is not acceptable when it comes to other choices which, like abortion, have victims. Drug dealing, violent crime on the streets, and child abuse are clear examples. The People of God are not simply called to know that these things are wrong, nor simply to refrain from practicing them. They are also called to change society and build a civilization of peace, justice, and love. The reason, therefore, to continue preaching about abortion is precisely the 4400 abortions that occur every day (in the United States alone).
Three key elements should be included in a homily about abortion. First, make it clear that there are alternatives. I cannot count the number of times people have approached me after Mass and said that they were pleasantly surprised to hear of the offer of assistance which the Church makes to those who are pregnant and in need. Indeed, such help is available everywhere. Hotline numbers like 1-800-848-LOVE refer people to the help closest to them. Clergy should be familiar with the pregnancy assistance centers in their communities, visit those places, and publicize them to their congregations.
A second key element is the offer of forgiveness. In my preaching, I refer to the case I know of a woman who had 22 abortions. Even she can be forgiven, the Church proclaims! The doors of the Church are wide open! This message is important first of all to those in the congregation who have had abortions. Our silence does not help them, because silence does not interpret itself. They cannot know if we are silent out of good will, or out of ignorance of their pain. But if we speak of the pain that follows abortion, and the healing Christ provides, then they know that we know their suffering and indeed are ready to respond. This message also helps more people to embrace the pro-life cause. Many mistakenly think that to oppose abortion means to oppose those who have had one. By showing that to be pro-life means to welcome back those who have had abortions, we also make people feel more comfortable about becoming active in the pro-life movement.
The third element is to counteract the slogans with which we are all bombarded. Here are two examples.
Many speak of "safe and legal abortion." While it is clearly never safe for the child, what most do not realize is that abortion is not safe for the mother either. This is true not only because of numerous physical and psychological effects of the procedure, but because of the circumstances under which the procedure is carried out. Most presume that making abortion legal has made it safe. But when looking at the research that is being done about how legal abortion facilities are run, one sees that abortion is the most unregulated surgical procedure, and that abortion facilities and practitioners are lowest on the list when it comes to safety and quality of care. The book Lime 5, for which I helped gather some data, reveals horrifying details, all of which are documented. Former abortion providers, many of whom I know personally, testify, for example, that they never sterilized the instruments in their facilities! Pointing out these facts shatters the "safe and legal" myth and shows, furthermore, that we are equally concerned for the mother as for the child. This is important first of all because it is true, and secondly because a key strategy of those who promote abortion is to present themselves as the defenders of women's rights, with which they make legalized abortion practically synonymous. It is a challenge to them when we show legalized abortion destroying women's rights.
Another key slogan, of course, is "pro-choice." This slogan is not even an argument. It says and means nothing, because it is silent about what is chosen. After one mass, I had a woman tell me, "I came into this Church today 100% pro-abortion, and now my views are completely changed." I asked her what changed them. "The sea turtles," she replied. I had pointed out that after preaching on abortion in Florida one Sunday, I walked across the street to the beach. There I saw a large sign that said, "Do not touch the sea turtles or their eggs. They are protected by local, state, and federal law." I then asked, "If we do not have the right to choose to smash the egg of a sea turtle, why should we have the right to choose to smash a baby?" Whether we favor "choice" in the abstract is not the issue. The issue, rather, is whether we will permit violent choices that destroy other people.
In each of the hundreds of Churches in which I have preached against abortion, I have given every single person the handout Priests for Life has prepared called "You Can Save Someone's Life Today." It contains 55 practical suggestions of what people can do to stop abortion. It channels the motivation that the homily is meant to inspire, and shows people that there is much they can do. The suggestions it provides can also prove helpful for the parish pro-life committee.
A number of tapes and written materials of Priests for Life provide further guidance on pro-life preaching.
Pro-life prayer. Abortion is not an old issue. It is a new issue every day, because the babies who died today from abortion never died before. We would not hesitate to pray for victims of an earthquake today simply because there was one yesterday. These are new victims. For this reason, we should never tire of including a mention of abortion victims in the General Intercessions at Mass. Likewise, Rosary services, Holy hours, prayer groups, and other occasions of prayer are times to mention this tragedy. There is no crime, disease, natural disaster, or war that claims more lives than abortion does. Statistically, it is the number one tragedy on the list. Priests for Life produces a number of prayer resources.
I'm too old. Address abortion in your parish, and before long, you will be told by some that this is not their issue, because they "are too old." I gently point out that one may well be too old to have a child, but one is never too old to love one, and never to old to save one who is in danger. Yes, abortion is everyone's issue.
They're too young. On the other hand, some will object to letting children hear about abortion. Yet throughout the nation, I have found young children to be the quickest to understand that abortion is wrong. At the start of a youth homily, I asked for a volunteer from among the youngest, smallest members of the congregation. Sharon, who was about six, came forward. I had her stand next to me facing the people and asked her, "Sharon, are there people out there who are bigger than you?" "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Are there people out there who are older than you?" "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Are there people out there who are stronger than you?" "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Are there people out there who are more important than you?" "No!" she declared, with even more conviction in her voice. All the other children understood the same thing. And thus they understood the key problem in the abortion tragedy. Abortion builds on the lie that the smallest and weakest among us have less value and can even be discarded.
One of the most effective tools is to have an essay and poster contest on abortion. The winning essays can be read at Mass or printed in the bulletin, and the posters displayed in the Church vestibule.
Pro-life training. For the long-term benefit of the pro-life movement, one of the best things a priest can do is encourage interested lay persons to take advantage of the excellent pro-life training programs available across the nation. The movement is comprised of many volunteers, without whom we could not make progress. Yet the movement needs as many professionals as possible to dedicate their skills to saving children and their parents from the horror of abortion. Priests for Life constantly gathers information and evaluates, through the personal participation of our staff, the many training programs available in things like pro-life speaking, legislative activity, counseling, post-abortion assistance, and much more. Please contact us for details.
The Gates of Hell. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who helped start the abortion rights movement in the USA, said that he and his companions would never have gotten away with what they did if the clergy had been united, purposeful, and strong. The abortion movement will still not get away with what it is doing if the clergy become more united, purposeful, and strong. That is what Priests for Life is designed to do. Through seminars, newsletters, and a vast network of encouragement, this effort can assist the entire Church to overcome the culture of death. The Vatican, through the Pontifical Council for the Family, has made it a project to expand Priests for Life throughout the world.
My conviction is that abortion is collapsing. We are willing the war, because abortion is built on lies, which can never prevail against truth. The only tragedy is if we wait too long and fail to do our part in the inevitable victory. "The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church." This does not simply mean the Church will survive attacks against her. Gates do not attack; they defend. The Lord means to say that the gates of hell will not withstand the attack by the Church! We take the initiative to free society from the bondage of such evils as abortion. Let us do so with courage, confidence, and joy!