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National Prayer Vigil for Life

Homily by Cardinal William H. Keeler

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Washington, D.C. January 21, 2001

Third Sunday, C Cycle

Last year I had the privilege of bringing to you the very personal greetings and pledge of prayers of Cardinal John O’Connor, whose powerful and courageous witness for the cause of life continues to inspire us today. Since then, the Lord has called him home. Missing from our number this evening as well is Bishop James McHugh of Rockville Centre, whose total and insightful dedication to the gospel of life served the Church here and wherever in the world there was need of a clear, competent and consistent voice for those who have no voice. Will you join with me in thanking God for the grace of their example and in praying that they enjoy to the full the Lord’s gift of the fullness of life in eternity.

Today we have the joyful news from Rome of the Holy Father’s announcement that the Archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, will receive the title and insignia of a Cardinal next month. We are grateful to him for his welcome to us. This year we are blessed by the presence also of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Cardinal Hickey, who has welcomed us so many times here in the past, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, the Apostolic Nuncio, with so many other archbishops and bishops. Please join me in expressing gratitude to them for making this Eucharist a priority at a pivotal time in the life of our America.

(Nehemiah 8) Today’s first reading, from the Book of Nehemiah, describes the rededication of the Temple after it had been rebuilt. It is a required reading for the dedication of a new church. We learn that God is pleased when sites are declared to be his, to be made holy, to acquire a dignity that cannot be stripped away.

This national shrine is such a holy place, with hundreds of thousands coming each year in pilgrimage. There are also holy occasions, and this is one of them, with so many of you here because of your deep and living faith. Out of your faith you have made your commitment to stand with our Creator to love his creation – to love especially the little ones and all who too often are forgotten. You dream with me of the day when God’s unrepeatable gift of life will be honored, defended, and treasured.

Last year Kathleen Kristian, a senior at Maria Regina High School in Hartsdale, New York, decided to enter an oratorical contest. Kathleen had been president of her school’s pro-life club for four years and was enthusiastic about a contest that gave her an opportunity to challenge others to think about the deeper issues facing our society today. She told Catholic New York, "We’ve grown up in a world where human life is devalued. You look at all of the high school shootings. You look at all the violence … and it’s like, ‘What do you expect when you’re telling them all the time that they’re worthless.’"

Kathleen told a story about how thieves broke into a store and instead of stealing items they switched the price tags. The expensive, top-of-the-line items were given lower prices. Cheaper items were tagged with the high-dollar figures. Said Kathleen, "I compared it to society and how we’ve started valuing things that are utterly worthless and devaluing human life which is completely full of worth." Kathleen’s insights were so persuasive and so well put that she won the state contest, and God bless her for summing up so well what has befuddled so many, including, sadly, a goodly number of those who stand for public office in our country and a goodly number of other citizens as well.

In the second reading (I Cor. 12:12-30) the Apostle Paul instructs us on a condition for the fulfillment of our dream. It will come when more among us realize the meaning of the invisible links between ourselves and the Lord Jesus and act in unison. As the Apostle teaches us, "The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’ Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary…." Likewise, we who are blessed with health and strength cannot say to the weakest members of the human family, the unborn, "we do not need you." Through the Spirit-given love we have for one another we are empowered to grow, grow in exercising our humanity and grow in imitating Christ our Savior, whose love for us is boundless.

The Apostle continues, "Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work mighty deeds?"

Each one of us present here this evening has an indispensable role in building a culture of life. God has called and chosen us to be part of this noble cause. Together we have many strengths. The pro-life movement is composed of millions of people with widely diverse gifts and abilities. Some of us are spiritual leaders. Some excel in counseling or writing or public speaking. Others have a special gift for prayer, or skills for administration or teaching. Not all work mighty deeds, but all together contribute to the broadest – and, please God, one day – most successful grassroots movement in our nation’s history.

(Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21) The gospel passage today shows Jesus at the very beginning of his public preaching, in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Luke reports, "Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region."

In the synagogue Jesus read the passage from Isaiah that begins with the words, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…." Jesus describes ways in which the anointing of the Spirit gives direction to his life and mission. In this mission we are called to share. The same Holy Spirit anoints us in baptism and confirmation and empowers us to be witnesses to the teaching of Jesus and servants to the truth he revealed.

He announces that, in virtue of his anointing, he will bring "glad tidings to the poor." The poor who are out of mind because, so often, they are out of sight. These poor include those who are under the penalty of death, perhaps because they could not afford the cost of the strong legal defense available to those with greater resources. Pope John Paul II reminded us repeatedly before and during the Year of the Great Jubilee that capital punishment is not the answer even to the most horrible crime. He calls our attention to the existence of another form of punishment that protects society and at the same time affords the space for God’s grace of ultimate conversion to take root and blossom. This is life imprisonment without parole.

Jesus proclaims "liberty to captives," those captive to habits of sin, and "recovery of sight to the blind," those who today are blind to the spiritual and eternal dimensions of life.

We take heart from a sight-giving experience that began just a year ago. In February and March, here in Washington and also in Baltimore and Northern Virginia, and since then in many places around the country, Project Rachel launched a major effort. Through radio advertisements and other modern forms of witness, an invitation went out to those who were suffering traumatic post-abortion, inner scars. They were called out of their psychological and spiritual suffering to find help, healing and reconciliation.

Women of all ages, and of all ethnic and religious backgrounds responded. In only two months, fifteen hundred people called the local Project Rachel offices for help. In our land many who support abortion describe it simply as a "procedure," a very neutral term intended to mask the harsh reality of what an abortion does. But the high numbers of women who called Project Rachel to find healing and peace give strong witness to a deep, even unshakable knowledge that abortion takes the life of a human being. And so they come with hope for God’s forgiveness, for the inner peace that comes from reconciliation with God, the ultimate giver of peace.

How far our culture in the United States has moved from a sensitivity to life as a gift from above, as the privileged right of which the Declaration of Independence spoke, was brought home last summer by the decision of the Supreme Court on partial-birth abortion. The decision flies in the face of logic, even of political logic. We have come to a very sad day when five people can write words that constitute a death sentence for children being born. What medical experts have called "bad medicine" is, sadly, now the law of our land.

The abortion license established by Roe v. Wade is an evil in its own right; it is also corrupting various other aspects of our public life. In the Carhart decision, the Supreme Court simply nullified a ninety-nine to one (!) vote by the Nebraska state legislature banning partial-birth abortion. How can we say that "we the people" are governing ourselves when the federal judiciary continues to deny us the right to do precisely that in this grave matter? The Supreme Court’s decision in the matter of peaceful protest and counseling at abortion clinics is also deeply disturbing. Are we now to conclude that the abortion license is the right-that-trumps-all-other-rights—including the right of free speech—in the United States?

There is something strikingly lethal about the abortion license; like a virus of special virulence, it poisons healthy tissues far beyond its original point of insertion into the body politic. At the moment, it seems to be poisoning the political process here in Washington, as nominees who hold a conscientious pro-life position are being subjected to media assault and partisan attack for their moral convictions. This is profoundly undemocratic.

The people of the United States emphatically do not support an unrestricted right of abortion-on-demand at any stage of a pregnancy. The people do not support this. Poll after poll indicates that the majority of the American people reject the resort to abortion in the majority of cases in which abortions are performed. In these circumstances, is it not arrogant and unacceptable for some to claim that only those who share their radical pro-choice convictions can be trusted with the enforcement of our laws? Is it not arrogant and unacceptable to suggest, as has been subtly suggested in recent weeks, that the abortion debate is over? It is arrogant and unacceptable to make unswerving allegiance to Roe v. Wade a litmus test for high public office in the United States.

So let us, by all means, examine the credentials of those nominated to high office. But let us also make it known that we the people will not accept the notion that acquiescence to Roe v. Wade is the price to be demanded from all who would pass the scrutiny of the United States Senate.

In 1983 we bishops of the United States wrote a Pastoral on the Challenge of Peace. In it we pledged that we bishops, on Fridays, would abstain from meat as a sign of our commitment to the cause of peace and as a form of penance seeking God’s gift of peace for our world. We reaffirmed this commitment when we published our 1989 Pastoral Statement Toward Peace in the Middle East and again in 1993 on the tenth anniversary of the original peace pastoral. Jesus spoke of some devils that can be cast out only by "prayer and fasting." It seems to me that our society is in such moral disrepair that only the combination of prayer and fasting can open our hearts to the Lord’s action to fix it.

I invite those who believe with me that our moral compass in America needs refreshing to join me in fasting on Fridays, not eating between meals, eating less as a sign of our solidarity with Jesus who chose to die on a Friday. May the Lord listen to our pleas, take heed of the fast, and grant conversion of heart to us as individuals and to our nation.

And so we pray together now, and we march together tomorrow, to reflect our sense of the call and the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit in a cause so fundamental to our American ways, to speak out for the most vulnerable among us.

May God bless these our efforts, and may God bless each and every one of you.

Cardinal William H. Keeler

Archbishop of Baltimore

Priests for Life
PO Box 141172 • Staten Island, NY 10314
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