[Note: In providing for you this text of Cardinal Keeler's homily on the
night before the March for Life, we note that His Eminence mentioned, as one of
the signs of the progress of the pro-life movement, the
Silent No More Awareness Campaign, a project of Priests for Life and NOEL.]
Homily at the 2004 Vigil Mass for Life
Cardinal William Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore
Chairman, Bishops' Committee for Pro-life Activities
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, D.C.
January 21, 2004
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Twenty-five years ago this past October, a man unknown to most of the world
stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was introduced as
Pope John Paul II. He said he came to us "from a far country." Soon afterwards,
at the Eucharist inaugurating his papal ministry, he called us to a new attitude
of fearlessness in the Lord with his words. "Be not afraid," he said. "Be not
Tonight, as we prepare to mark the 31st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s
Roe v. Wade decision, he calls to us again, this time out of his own physical
suffering. "Be not afraid," he tells us. "Be not afraid!" The basis for his
fearlessness now is as it was a quarter of a century ago. It is this: That those
who give their lives to Christ can live beyond fear, because Christ took all the
world’s fear upon himself, on the cross. And in offering all the world’s fear to
God in a perfect act of obedience, Christ made it possible for all of us to live
with fear—and to live beyond fear.
Christian courage, rooted in Christian faith, creates a universal homeland
where no one is "from a far country." This is why, for the last quarter of a
century, we have embraced Pope John Paul II as our guide, our inspiration, and
our friend. This is why we embrace the stranger, no matter his country, whether
born or unborn. This is why we so strongly feel the vital bond that binds us
tonight, old friends and new . . . a bond that ties us together in citizenship,
. . . a bond that can ennoble citizenship if we live out the courage of our
And so, dear sisters and brothers in the great cause of the sanctity of human
life, "Be not afraid!" The readings for today’s Mass strike special chords of
memory and reflection here tonight. How many times, over these past three
decades, have we imagined ourselves Davids, confronted by a legion of Goliaths:
- We face a culture that too often measures life not by its sanctity, but by
- We see courts that usurp powers entrusted by the Constitution to the people
and their elected representatives.
- We are fed by a media that fail to report what all reputable survey research
makes clear -- that the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the resort to
abortion in the overwhelming majority of the cases in which abortions are
- We are troubled by politicians who defy the natural moral law and the
settled moral teaching of their religious communities.
- We sense the apathy of those among us who cannot see that Roe v. Wade is the
Dred Scott decision of our time.
- We find defeatism among those, once in our ranks, who can see no way
But then we read of the "five smooth stones" (1 Samuel 17:40) that the
shepherd boy took into battle against the giant Philistine, . . . of how
conviction and courage and compassion and clarity and constancy won the day more
than two-and-a-half millennia ago. And we remind ourselves of other causes that
seemed hopeless in their time — the cause of disenfranchised African-Americans
in the mid-twentieth century, the cause of disenfranchised Polish workers in the
1970s. And we take heart, knowing that the power of God still works through
those who speak truth to power with conviction and courage and compassion and
clarity and constancy.
In a similar way, we can take heart from tonight’s Gospel. The Lord who could
heal a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath can heal what is withered in our own
lives, every day of our lives. When we are tired, he can restore our withered
energy and strength. When we are disheartened, he can lift our withered spirit.
When we know fear, he can restore our withered courage. The Lord invites us to
come to him tonight to be healed. For, in his kingdom, every day is a day of
Sabbath healing, a day to live within the redeeming and sanctifying power of
God’s love. Yes, the Lord can heal us, . . . and through us, he can begin to
heal our withered culture.
Since we met here a year ago, the forces of the culture of death have done
more damage to the culture of life in America. But the year has brought new
encouragement as well. The passage of the national Partial-Birth Abortion Ban
was a victory for decency in itself, and a first step toward an America in which
every child is welcomed in life and protected in law. No less an opponent of our
cause than the New York Times was compelled to report in its Sunday pages some
few months ago that young people across America are less tolerant than their
elders of the terrible personal and social consequences of abortion. In
ultrasound pictures they see that the conceived child has tiny, moving hands and
feet, and a little heart that beats beneath its mother’s heart. And
increasingly, they wonder why abortion has become so common. In increasing
numbers, they understand that abortion is not the key to the limitless personal
freedom that others have advertised it to be.
A year ago, on the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we could see in this
capital city the dramatic difference between the forces who celebrate Roe and
those of us who are determined to repair the damage Roe has done to the moral
fabric of our nation, conceived as it was "in liberty and dedicated to the
proposition that all . . . are created equal." Roe supporters have become the
forces of reaction and entrenched interests; as we see here again tonight, the
pro-life movement has become the younger, more vibrant force in this great
struggle. You, our wonderful young people, . . . you have taken to heart the
words of the Holy Father, "Be not afraid."
And with our youth, women who have long suffered because of abortion are
speaking out. "Silent No More," these women braved the frigid weather last of
January to stand before the Supreme Court and tell their personal stories of the
horror that is abortion. These brave women can attest to the destructiveness of
abortion as no others can. They are helping others understand that every
abortion kills a mother’s child, and causes incalculable harm to the mother
herself. Thanks to them and to other witnesses whose stories cut through the
politically correct obscurity of "choice," Americans are gradually waking up.
Yet those of us who believe that we are fighting the great civil rights
battle of our time when we contest for the inalienable right to life from
conception until natural death must also deal with new obstacles in our path.
When a judicial decision is mistaken on a core issue of public justice, its
mistake has a corrosive effect on other aspects of public life. That was the
case in the aftermath of Dred Scott; the judiciary’s mistaken judgment led to a
wider poisoning of public life and politics. Roe v. Wade has had a similar
effect, for though it is about abortion, it is about other issues as well. Roe
is about the boundaries of the community of common protection and concern. It is
about America as a hospitable society. It is about the American understanding of
freedom. Roe was fundamentally and fatally wrong, in its conclusion and in the
tortured reasoning by which a Court majority tried to buttress its conclusion.
And the effects of Roe, like those of Dred Scott, have poisoned our culture and
our public life.
We have seen how the Roe’s poisons have begun to eat away at the first of
American freedoms, religious freedom. Not far from here is the first place in
the English-speaking world that was incorporated for the purpose of bestowing
religious freedom upon its inhabitants. That freedom did not just happen. It
came because the first Lord Baltimore persuaded King Charles I of England to
grant it in the Colony of Maryland, a colony that was to be settled under
Catholic leadership. Later, however, with the Revolution of 1688, Catholics lost
that freedom and Catholic churches built by Catholic colonists were razed to the
In Maryland and elsewhere around the country, the echoes of that Revolution
are being heard today. Religious freedom is again under assault. Public
authorities insist that our charitable institutions deliver services in the same
way their secular counterparts do. Some raise threats against the tax-exempt
status of our Church’s institutions, if we refuse to engage in practices that
violate Catholic moral teaching. Others press our institutions to change their
personnel and hiring practices so that they are mission-neutral, not
mission-driven. And there are those who would expand government’s regulatory
powers in ways that would involve government in the internal functioning of our
charitable, health-care, and educational institutions. And so, once again,
religious freedom is in great trouble.
We are loyal Americans and, as such, we are committed to constitutional
government. We are also Catholic Americans, who have been taught by the Second
Vatican Council that religious freedom is a basic human right and the foundation
stone of any just public order. As Catholic Americans who are committed to
liberty and justice for all, the born and the unborn, we must continue to make
our contributions to the public discussion. In standing up for life as Catholic
Americans, we stand up for religious freedom and, as we stand up for religious
freedom, we stand up for life.
As a joint Catholic-Jewish statement said in Maryland in May, 1990, ". . .
the public policy debate is itself enriched and our country is strengthened when
people of conscience take their rightful part. The historic, national efforts to
address the question of slavery and, in more recent times, core issues of human
rights -- civil rights, economic justice, international development and world
peace -- bear witness to the importance of the part played by people who speak
out of convictions rooted in religious faith."
This past year has also made us even more aware of the radical conversion to
which we must call those of our Catholic sisters and brothers who have failed to
take seriously the great cause of the sanctity of life. The Congregation for the
Doctrine for the Faith has made clear that, when the Church calls all people of
good will to provide effective legal protection for the inalienable right to
life from conception until natural death, she is not "imposing" a sectarian view
on a "pluralistic" society. Rather, in speaking out of principled conviction,
she is defending an elementary principle of justice, a principle easily
discernable to anyone willing to think the matter through. This is why it is so
important that our Catholic people fully understand the magnitude of this issue.
This is why it is so important that our Catholic people express themselves in
the matter to elected officials legislators, especially those who say their
constituents’ demands are more important that their own moral compasses. Each of
us, in our own way, must make the effort to convince other Catholics who are
mistaken about the human life issue that they are on the wrong side of the truly
great civil rights issue of our day.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the God of justice who stood with David,
the God of mercy who healed through the ministry of Jesus, stands with us
tonight as we commit ourselves to the great cause of the sanctity of life.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta has said that God does not ask us to be
successful, as the world measures success; God does ask us to be faithful, and
promises that he will be with us as we strive to live beyond fear. Trust in that
promise. Trust in that companionship. "Do not be afraid!" Walk with the Lord as
we chart the path to a new birth of American freedom.
Cardinal William H. Keeler
Pro-Life Activities Committee, USCCB