I was privileged to represent Priests for Life and concelebrate the Funeral Mass for Dr. Bernard Nathanson at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Monday. He died last week at the age of 84. Dr. Nathanson was the St. Paul of the pro-life movement. He described his dramatic conversion, from an atheist and abortionist to a pro-life activist and Catholic, in his 1996 book “The Hand of God: A Journey from Death to Life by the Abortion Doctor Who Changed His Mind”.
Dr. Nathanson was the co-founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws which is now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America in 1969. He estimated that he was responsible, either directly or indirectly, for about 75,000 abortions as the director an abortion facility in New York before his conversion. It was after witnessing an abortion that he filmed himself using the new ultrasound technology in the 1970’s that he was shaken and began to be troubled by what he was doing. He saw a pre-born child actually trying to escape from his instruments. He did his last abortion in 1979. From that time on he became an advocate for the unborn. In the mid 1980’s he produced the film “The Silent Scream” that showed the abortion of a three week old baby in graphic detail. President Reagan viewed it in the White House. Later, he produced the film “Eclipse of Reason” that exposed the horror of late-term abortions. The film was narrated by Charlton Heston.
Fr. Gerald Murray, Pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church cared for Dr. Nathanson spiritually in his final days and anointed him before he died. Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests For Life, also visited him in the week before his death. His wife Christine told me this was a great comfort to him as he was dying.
In the funeral homily, Fr. Murray compared Dr. Nathanson to Whittaker Chambers who renounced his past a Communist and spy for the Soviet Union to become a Christian. Fr. Murray called Dr. Nathanson “another great witness against evil and in favor of the truth in the twentieth century” who stood firm and told the truth. Both Chambers and Dr. Nathanson were vilified when they renounced the evil that they formerly embraced and suffered personally for the truth.
As he ended his homily Fr. Murray said reminded us all of the power of redemptive suffering when united to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Fr. Murray said “The pain we experience, if united to Christ’s pain, is then understood to be a blessing that opens our hearts to the only Love that can take away that pain. That Love is Christ, and the gift of eternal life wipes away all pain and suffering. To live and to die in hopeful expectation of that redemption is God’s great gift to us fallen creatures here below. That gift was joyfully received by Dr. Nathanson in this very Cathedral 14 years ago.”
For many years after he had stopped doing abortions, Dr. Nathanson remained an atheist. Then for a while he called himself “a non-practicing atheist.” Finally with the help of Fr. C. John McCloskey who came from Chicago to concelebrate the Funeral Mass he embraced the Catholic faith. The late John Cardinal O’Connor baptized Dr. Nathanson in 1996.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan celebrated the Funeral Mass. Among the many pro-life leaders in attendance were the Sisters of Life founded by Cardinal O’Connor.
The story of Dr. Nathanson is one of mercy and redemption. A man caught in the darkness of evil, but never abandoned or rejected by God. His life is a reminder to us all of the power of God’s love and mercy which is limitless and stronger than death. Pray for others stumbling in the darkness, caught in the web of the culture of death, that they may see the light of truth and embrace it as fervently as Dr. Bernard Nathanson did.