Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
It is the Lord’s Day and Christ gathers us for his paschal sacrifice. It is the Lord’s Day but also a somber day of remembrance, January 22, the Roe versus Wade Decision of our Supreme Court thirty nine years ago. It is the Lord’s Day at Mary’s House here in Washington and we gather from every place in this land and beyond to hear and thirst for the Word of God and the Bread of Life. With Cardinal Wuerl, our local Shepherd, the Apostolic Nuncio, with my brother Cardinals and Brother bishops from this land, I welcome all of you to this celebration preparing and enlivening us for our activity in the public square tomorrow for the Annual March for Life. It is particularly wonderful to welcome anew Archbishop Vigano, our Nuncio, who is here for the first time. Thank you and please give the Holy Father our heartfelt greetings and our pledge of prayers. I thank Cardinal George and Cardinal O’Malley for being with us.
There are so many priests, deacons, both permanent and transitional, seminarians, religious sisters and brothers, postulants, novices and newly professed sisters, how magnificent your presence is for all of us. May you remain committed to the human person at every stage of his or her life.
This pro-life assembly has many veterans in the pro-life movement, many adult leaders and many families. What stands out tonight, as always at this Mass, is the vast number of children, youth and young adults who are present. You are grand and eloquent witnesses to human life, enthusiasm unmoved by sour pundits who prefer to ignore you. You remain and abide in joy, a good infection that we all want to catch from you. A thousand thank yous! The staff of the National Shrine, beginning with Msgr. Rossi, are such generous hosts and so hospitable to us each year. Thank you! EWTN Network always televises this Liturgy and we are grateful that through them this Mass can be seen throughout the world. As always, we are grateful for this service!
A few years back I came across a sign in front of a Church announcing the following Sunday’s Sermon. It read: “Don’t be so hard on Jonah!” I presume it has to do with the fact that Jonah, on one level, is not one of the most stellar prophets. He receives a call from the Lord, runs away, tries to take a transatlantic cruise, is found out for his negligence by pagan sailors during a storm who toss him overboard to calm the waves, is then swallowed by a great fish, manages a most beautiful formal liturgical prayer while in the stomach of this whale-like-creature, is spit up on the beach, and finally realizes the Lord is serious about the call to Nineveh. The narrative of the First Reading today is the preaching of Jonah and the immediate repentance of Nineveh, yes Nineveh, that most hostile pagan city, ruthless in its destruction of Israel and seemingly implacable enemy of the Lord. Yet not even Jerusalem and Israel repent like this city in the narrative parable that is the Book of Jonah. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezechiel seemingly could not do for Israel what the Lord manages through Jonah for Nineveh. This great little book written most probably after the exile of Israel to Babylon and Israel now back home, is a gentle and perhaps slightly humorous reminder to all God’s people, now reinforcing their wondrous Jewish identity of Pentateuch and Covenant after their exile, that the Lord is full of universal mercy and wondrous surprises. Receptivity to the Covenant is also an opening out of the glory and compassion of the one true God even to those hostile and seemingly incapable of turning around to the Lord. Jonah had at first run from his call and his mission and is not bubbling with joy when it meets success as the Lord’s ways are sometimes, maybe many times, not his and not ours. Perhaps that is why we are more like Jonah than we would care to admit, especially to those hostile to us. If we are to be critical of Jonah, we must see him as our mirror. (By the way, I wonder how many days it would take to go through Washington, D.C.?)
The Reading from Jonah prepares us for the Gospel Reading from St. Mark, that short but incandescent Gospel that accompanies us most Sundays this year in the Lectionary. We hear of the opening days of Jesus’ public life, the very beginning of his ministry after his baptism in the Jordan and his Spirit driven 40 day fast in the desert with the wild beasts and temptations from Satan, a real beast in himself. Chapter One is a day in the life of Jesus in those early joy filled and heady frenetic times of the initial announcement of the Kingdom of God. But St. Mark sets us straight that this happens against the background of John the Baptist’s arrest and imprisonment and sets the shadow of the Cross already in our hearts. Jesus’ message is a call for a turn around and a swift movement to the Lord, to God who is advancing towards us. It is Good News! God Reigns! The full meaning of the message, the Kingdom of God, will only become evident gradually when the “what is it” is replaced by “who is it.” Jesus Christ is the Kingdom, God’s merciful face turned towards the world and us that we can turn to Him.
Equally stunning is the swift way Jesus begins to call associates, those who will be apostles. In abrupt fashion he calls and the first disciples respond. What urgency and authority are in Jesus’ call. Not even the claims of work, family, business or culture can intervene in order for disciples to be “in Jesus’ company.” Good Grief! There is no HR person involved, not even a mention of a pension plan or benefits as yet! Perhaps with St. Paul who speaks to the Corinthians today, the message is that the time is short. In fact, there is a word in today’s Gospel that is repeated 32 more times in the Gospel of St. Mark. The word is “immediately.” There is no time for a Jonah run around. The response to Christ is always “immediately,” the same word used to describe Jesus’ miracles. They happen immediately. The invitation of Jesus is to pass from obscurity to light—and immediately. The history of salvation has reached its fullness with Jesus. That is fact. The imperative is to come follow him. Conversion is personal but immediately involves you in a fellowship, in a community, in the Church. To be engaged in this is to be introduced to Jesus’ new way of fishing, that is, catching them alive! Immediately!
Jonah gave Nineveh forty days and they repented. We are nearing the 40th year anniversary of Roe versus Wade. 53 million children have lost their lives since then; millions of men and women have lives that will never be the same because of their tragic choices. Our embrace of life must be clear. As we mourn the loss of precious human lives, most of them without a name but always known by the Lord, we cannot let our resolve to pray and work for change be such as to use so stringent a rhetoric against those hostile to us that we foreclose change and repentance. Yes, the Lord through his Son weeps over the loss of life; His simultaneous compassion and mercy opens up forgiveness to those who have greatly sinned. The more wounded his sinful children become the more he promises mercy and invitation to conversion. And through the Church’s ministry of Project Rachel, we witness the miracle of Christ’s mercy and healing grace as hearts broken are made whole, filled with peace and hope once again. Our rightful criticisms of policies of a given Administration, our clear work with legislators, even those who oppose us, our ability to persuade the media who most frequently refuse to give the truth, --- all these approaches must be imbued with Jesus’ Face. It is not weakness to show compassion for those with whom we have fundamental disagreement on human life, a matter of the greatest importance.
But clear we must be. Disturbing news came to us Friday from HHS and the Obama Administration: it fundamentally repeated the mandate that sterilization and contraception must be included in virtually all health plans. Never before in our US History has the Federal Government forced citizens to directly purchase what violates our beliefs. At issue here as our President of the Conference stated it this past Friday, is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for conscience and religious liberty. More on that in a few moments!
We are the people of the Gospel of Life. We are the People of Life. We first live our lives as credible witnesses. We are engaged in the truth about Faith and Charity, virtuous living in chastity, a must for all and especially for young people who are pro-life. We must be sensitive less the desire for good things becomes a huge form of acquisition for things, for gadgets and for glamour. The beauty of the human person made in the image and likeness of God gives us a different “immediately” in terms of “getting.” Our face is turned to the unborn, the elderly and very ill, the disabled and those traumatized by our economic troubles. These persons are beautiful and these “poor ones” are the most important in the Kingdom of God.
There is also good news in the pro-life arena. There are a record number of state laws that now restrict abortions. State prosecutors have begun to prosecute late term abortionists who deny life and injure and maim women. At the same time conscience protection and religious liberty for all of us who work for life has been put in jeopardy and represents a significant and troubling issue. We must be perseverant and very clear in fighting for this constitutional right and unfailing in bringing this matter to the administration and to the Congress. That can be part of your witness tomorrow.
A few weeks ago Our Holy Father, at his yearly address to the Diplomatic Corps, made young people and their life and concerns the main theme of his talk. He repeated the words of Blessed John Paul II that “the path of peace is at the same time the path of the young,” and then said that young people impel us to take seriously their demand for truth, justice and peace. Repeating words from the Annual World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict spoke of education as a crucial theme today for it determines the healthy development of each person and the future of all society. He spoke of the primary setting of education as the family, which is not just a societal convention but the fundamental cell of every society. Openness to life in the family is a sign of openness to the future. The Holy Father then read a most clear statement: “ (…) (W)with particular reference to the West, I am convinced that legislative measures which not only permit but at times even promote abortion for reasons of convenience and for questionable medical motives compromise the education of young people and, as a result, the future of humanity.” You cannot get clearer than this. I beg and pray for the young people present and all youth and young adults not to be compromised in your dedication to the protection of life of each human person, born and unborn. Keep it before your eyes and in your hearts immediately. Threats against life and against the consciences of those who say “yes” to life must be met with timely and unwavering action, in our families and institutions, and yes, in the public square.
Just the other day the Holy Father gave another address to Region IV of the Episcopal Conference. He spoke to the bishops on religious liberty and the public nature of the Church’s witness. At one point he said: “(…) it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.” In light of last Friday’s announcement about health care mandates, it seems that the Holy Father has “nailed” the issue in advance. His calls for courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public life and debate have targeted the issues we face in our pro-life efforts, to defend those who defend human life and to defend their religious liberty!
Advocacy on behalf of human life is an essential dimension of the prolife cause and the prolife heart. I know that the prolife youth and young adults here and beyond will continue to be a source for renewed efforts and final victory in this truth and this reality. A “Year of Faith” begins this October for the whole Catholic Church throughout the world and will last till November of 2013. It will overlap with the sad 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade next year; may the new evangelization, which always begins with personal conversion, be a prime vehicle for re-invigorating the Gospel of Life here in the United States, for individuals, for the Church, and for the people of the United States. Please do not underestimate your presence and conscience here: Remember Jonah! Remember religious liberty and the current attacks against it!
Prayer leads to action and action leads us back to prayer and contemplation. We are about to approach the Lord’s Altar of Sacrifice and there place our own labor and life, our prayer and sorrows, our joys and anxieties there with the gifts of bread and wine. In the Eucharistic Prayer they are lifted up and the bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood, nourishment and food for all of us pilgrims on the way to the final glory of the Kingdom of God. At its beginning we hear the invitations: “Lift up your hearts” and “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” We immediately respond to each: “We lift them up to the Lord” and “It is right and just.” Like the apostles we are called and brought into intimacy with the Lord Jesus in his free and life giving act of reconciliation to the Father for us. Activated by the Holy Spirit we enter into sacrificial contemplation. Once nourished we are sent forth: to be sent is to be apostolic. Like the four first apostles we go immediately. We are not afraid. We are gone fishing for good. Immediately.
It has been a privilege and an honor to be principal Celebrant of this Opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life these past few years. I have been more than edified. The beauty, reverence and great joy of this assembly and their letters and notes to me afterwards have been transforming. Later this year the Chair of the Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee moves to Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, an ardent apostolic witness to Life who will in turn have the honor to preside at this Mass. I want to express my deepest thanks to Tom Grenchik and to all the staff of the Bishop’s Pro-Life Committee for their knowledgeable, unflagging and beautiful commitment to the pro-life reality and all that it means to us bishops and to the Catholic Faithful of this country. The staff is dedicated and persistent, at times even relentless with the Chair and the wonderful members and consultors of the Pro-Life Committee. Were I forced to articulate all they have done and mean, I would be left altogether helpless.
We are in the House of Mary. In all pro-life work and activity and prayer, she is the great model, disciple and friend who leads us to Christ and deeper commitment. For she was privileged to bear him; she was his mother not his incubator. In a brilliant early Russian icon of the Annunciation she is pictured, standing beside, not kneeling beside, the Archangel Gabriel. Both are seemingly ten feet tall. She is the youngest Virgin Mary I have ever seen painted and she is smiling. Her right hand gestures in a “let it be” to the Angel. The infant Christ, blessing, is already outlined within her. In her left hand she is holding needle and thread, for she will indeed weave the Eternal Word Made Flesh into our everyday existence, into our humanity. What a profound image of what the Incarnation means, what excellence is the human person, what magnificence is at stake in young people. When I think of that icon of the Virgin, I think of you young people, and I am put into a genuine state of joy and assurance for you too in many, in simple, but in deeply true ways are weaving Christ into our culture. You do so with energy and joy, with a love of life and a deep friendship with Christ, our Crucified and Risen
Lord. May the Holy Spirit overshadow your efforts.
The time is short! Come with Jonah! Repent! Come follow the Lord Jesus. Come with Peter, Andrew, James and John! Be sent fishing in behalf of Life. And God bless you all. Immediately!