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Homily: Pro-Life Mass

Cardinal William H. Keeler

Archbishop of Baltimore

Chairman, Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities

Basilica of the National Shrine, Washington, DC

January 22, 2006

Cardinal McCarrick, thank you for your welcome to this great Church, my brother bishops, thank you for coming again in such great numbers here.

My sisters and brothers, pilgrims all in the cause of life, thank you for filling once again this great shrine. It is a place of prayer and hope. You come, all of you, laity, sisters, priests and bishops, with enthusiasm for a cause that, each year, sees us closer to the goal of asserting in law and in fact that life is God’s gift.

As chair of the pro-life activities committee of our national bishops’ conference, I have seen the extraordinary work of so many across our nation who devote themselves so tirelessly to the great cause of life, and to the prospect of an end to the saddening curse of legalized abortion. Please let me begin with deepest thanks to those many who do so much to advance our Church’s pro-life purpose: to you gathered here, to those who follow us on television and to those millions of Catholics and others around the country whose work and prayers contribute so much to the dynamic impetus toward an end to legalized abortion; to all the many young people dedicated to the pro-life movement, you are so impressively represented in this congregation and you give such high hope to the movement; and to those who direct our diocesan pro-life offices, many of whom met here in Washington today and will be marching with their people tomorrow; to those in and with our state Catholic conferences, you carry the bright banner of life into the public square and help us organize for decisive political action; and to the very committed members and the able and gifted staff of our national conference’s pro-life activities committee. Your dedication and faithfulness across the years have been and continue to be a living testament to a spirit imbued with the Gospel of Life.

We gather in this sacred space to bear witness yet again to the terrible cloud that has darkened our nation since the Supreme Court declared 33 years ago today that the life of a human being, a life created in God’s image, may be ended before its birth. We come together to pray that this darkest of clouds might at last be lifted. We come together again to pray for the triumph of life.

We gather in the awful knowledge that since that twenty-second day of January 1973, the lives of no less than 46 million of God’s children have been summarily denied participation in the human community and that, each year, they are joined by over a million, three-hundred thousand more. Consider the horrible magnitude of this slaughter of innocents:

There have been more U.S. abortions in the last 33 years than there are people living today in both New York City and Los Angeles!

In the last 12 months alone, nearly as many children were aborted as there are residents of the City of Philadelphia.

In the last 12 months alone, nearly a half-million more unborn babies were aborted than there are people living in the city of Detroit.

In just the last 12 months, nearly twice as many babies were aborted in our country as there are residents of San Francisco.

The unholy magnitude of it all is staggering!  And so we come together to remember prayerfully their mothers, their fathers, their siblings and their grandparents; and we pray for those who face the temptation of abortion. We come together again to pray for the triumph of life.

As related in our first reading, Jonah’s story teaches us how God worked in the Judaism of an earlier age, and how God works now. An unwilling Jonah is sent by God to announce divine retribution to the city of Nineveh. At first, he refuses God, for Jonah was an Israelite and Nineveh was Israel’s great enemy. Ultimately, though, he relents and preaches repentance for evil. He is more than a little surprised when the king and the people repent, and divine punishment is averted. The story teaches that the call to repentance is universal, not merely for Israel. And Nineveh’s repentance reminds us of God’s mercy and all-compassing forgiveness.

We come together here on this annual pilgrimage to answer God’s call for repentance, in which we engage not only for ourselves, but for a nation whose laws have been turned against the most vulnerable of God’s children, and the most innocent. And as we come together to pray for God’s divine mercy, for the bounty of his forgiveness, we pray too for the triumph of life.

No better example have we of an utter openness to divine revelation than the figure of St. Paul, who teaches us in his First Letter to the Corinthians that we can speak truth to power and do so in love. First century Corinth was a place of moral depravity, with the devotees of pagan cults in a commanding position. Yet there was Paul, working tirelessly to preach the gospel of God’s love for our human family and the prospect of redemption made possible through the suffering and death of Christ.

Paul took people as they were: his concern was to craft a message that would strike a responsive chord in their hearts, the message of God’s love. As today’s pro-life community often is, Paul was regularly ridiculed: indeed, he suffered far worse than ridicule, for the truth about God, God’s law, and the natural law makes many uncomfortable. Those who resist God’s law don’t want to be reminded of its demands. This is no less true in our time than in Paul’s. And so we pray for the conversion of those whose hearts have been made hard by the sin of abortion and the sin of its propagation. We pray for the courage and persistence of St. Paul, as we endeavor to spread the Gospel of Life. We pray for the triumph of life.

In the selection from Mark’s account of our Savior’s ministry, we meet Jesus as he makes his way along the Sea of Galilee. What he does there, at the very start of his public life, marks one of the most significant events in the history of our Church and is a signal lesson to those of us in the pro-life community. “Come after me,” he says to Simon and Andrew, brothers who are casting their nets into the sea, “I will make you fishers of men.” They abandon their task immediately and so adopt a vocation come from God. Jesus then beckons to the sons of Zebedee, and they too go off in his company, leaving their father behind. 

Did they know what they were getting into, these first of the disciples of Jesus? No, probably not. Surely not, for how could they foresee the future? How could they foresee the hard times they would face, the disappointments, the ridicule, the abuse, even, in some cases, martyrdom? But they were moved by the spirit and the incredible dynamism of this man who was a stranger. They followed him and, in his light, enlightened by his words and example and touched by the Holy Spirit, they helped change the world for all time.

We are disciples of Christ, too, and servants to the Gospel of Life. And in our time, we too are called and challenged to change the world. We pray for the fortitude of the early disciples, for their courage, for the inspiration and confidence they drew from their companionship with Jesus. Knowing he is with us, as well, we pray that we shall be ever open to his guidance, ever open to the working of the Holy Spirit, ever confident that, ultimately, his will and our work in the great cause of life shall be done. We pray for the triumph of life.

And yet we know that our work in the cause of life is not completed.

There are those in the scientific community who deny by their actions and their advocacy what they know from science and reason – that from conception onward, a human embryo is a member of the human species, deserving of the same protections under the law that you and I and even the scientists themselves enjoy.  A New Jersey statute permits the gestation of children for research in which, prior to birth, they may be destroyed for their organs. Other states, including my own State of Maryland, are considering similar legislative proposals. The advocates for such policies – scientists, lawmakers, and others – seem eager, in their push to create, manipulate and destroy human life in highly speculative research, to kick aside the Nuremberg and Helsinki declarations that govern research with human subjects, eager to turn their backs on the first principle of medical ethics: First, do no harm!

But our cause is not without advances and, in these, we can take heart. The rate and number of U.S. abortions are now at their lowest levels since 1975 and, thanks to the decreasing demand and the declining number of physicians willing to perform the procedure, 87 percent of all U.S. counties are now abortion-free zones. And, increasingly, physicians are reluctant to prescribe the lethal RU-486 which the abortion industry hoped would mainstream the abortion practice, but which has proven fatal in some cases and caused complications in many others, complications rated by the FDA. between serious and life-threatening. A recent CBS poll confirmed this diminishing support for abortion, telling us that a majority of Americans – 55 percent – would ban the procedure entirely, or restrict its use to situations in which a mother’s life is endangered, or in cases of rape or incest. Polls also tell us that opposition to abortion is strongest among the young. All this is most encouraging.

A continued source of encouragement comes from modern technology: more and more parents, and grandparents, speak proudly of the sonograms revealing the humanity of developing babies in their mothers’ wombs. In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a series of posters designed in our Respect Life office drives home the same lesson in vivid colors, as it follows an unborn child through pregnancy. The series is now in use internationally, with translations available in several modern languages.

The outcomes of pro-life advocacy in the states, in which so many here are involved, are similarly encouraging. In every state that has considered legalizing assisted suicide, Oregon being the single exception, legislative proposals and referenda have been defeated. In just the past 12 months, state legislatures have enacted 52 new laws restricting abortion; six have strengthened laws requiring parental notice; seven have expanded informed-consent statutes; and eight have approved funding for groups that offer abortion-alternative pregnancy services. Texas has prohibited the abortion of a “viable fetus” in the third trimester and a number of states have said that there will be no abortions once Roe versus Wade is overturned.

And so we make progress toward the day when the dark cloud that descended upon our nation 33 years ago today will be blown away by the purifying wind of God’s truth. Our pilgrimage is not over, to be sure, nor can we rest from its rigors. But we know that we are nearer its end than we have ever been.

With Pope John Paul the Great, who gave the world the encyclical on the Gospel of Life, with Pope Benedict XVI, to the Lord “let us entrust our aspiration that every person’s dignity as a child of God be respected.” (Homily of December 31, 2005)

We pray, then, for the strengthening of our resolve and for the guidance that binds it to God’s will. With Jesus the High Priest in the Eucharist we pray that the conversion and repentance of Nineveh will be repeated in our time. We pray for the courage and conviction of St. Paul. We pray that, like the earliest disciples, we may be worthy of the companionship of Jesus and, in our time, change the world. In sum, we pray for the triumph of life.

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