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A Witness which Inspires and Endures

Bishop Paul Stephen Loverde
Bishop of Arlington, Virginia

Homily given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on the Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist at the monthly Respect Life Mass at Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria.

August 29, 2009

How fitting it is for us to be gathered for this monthly Respect Life Mass on the Memorial of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Indeed, it is providential, that is, it is due, not to mere coincidence, but to God’s Loving Plan for us. As part of His Loving Plan, God wishes to inspire us by the witness of Saint John the Baptist, to encourage us with the witness of the Baptist, and to strengthen us for a witness like that of the Baptist. As today’s Opening Prayer proclaimed, the witness of Saint John the Baptist was to truth and to justice: “As he gave his life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your gospel.”

Saint John the Baptist defeated the power of evil not by violence but by his self-surrender to God’s will” (cf. Magnificat, Vol. 11, No. 6, August 2009, p. 390). Saint John the Baptist was faithful to doing God’s will in every season of his life, even and especially in the final season marked by darkness, not only that darkness of the dungeon in which he was imprisoned but also that darkness of spirit wherein he probably asked: “Is this how my life shall end?” Pope Benedict XVI speaks eloquently to this very point. “The task set before the Baptist as he lay in prison was to become blessed by this unquestioning acceptance of God’s obscure will: to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unequivocal clarity, but, instead, of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of his own life, and thus becoming profoundly blessed. John even in his prison cell had to respond once again and anew to his own call for metanoia or a change of mentality, in order that he might recognize his God in the night in which all earthly things exist…” (Ibid. p. 392).

Yes, as we gather for our monthly Respect Life Mass, God wishes to inspire us by the witness of Saint John the Baptist. And witness he did, to the absolute need for metanoia, a change in mentality, conversion, as he preached to the throngs that came out into the desert to hear him. Witness he did by his fidelity to the specific vocation which God gave him: to be the forerunner, the precursor, of Jesus Christ. That vocation was so graphically described in today’s first reading: “Gird your loins, stand up and tell them all that I command you…. For it is I this day who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass…. They will fight against you, but will not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you….” Witness he did by proclaiming the truth to Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Witness he did in his imprisonment and by giving his life in defense of truth and justice.

As we gather for our monthly Respect Life Mass, God wishes to encourage us with the witness of the Baptist. We are called as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of His Body the Church to witness ourselves to truth and justice. The title of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate” – “Charity in Truth” – projects before us the nature of our witness. “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace…. To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity…. The search for love and truth is purified and liberated by Jesus Christ from the impoverishment that our humanity brings to it, and he reveals to us in all its fullness the initiative of love and the plan for true life that God has prepared for us. In Christ, charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan. Indeed, he himself is the Truth (cf. Jn 14:6)” (n. 1).

So our witness is to the Truth, the Truth Who is Jesus Christ and to the Truth which He proclaims in the Gospel, now through the Magisterium of the Church: for example, the truth about life from its beginning at conception to its end at natural death. This truth encompasses justice, for the one who suffers the greatest injustice is the human being who is the most vulnerable and defenseless as his or her life is being unjustly ended in his or her mother’s womb. Our insistent protest against abortion is fundamentally rooted in reason, in science and in the arena of justice. I say this because so often we are accused of imposing the tenets of our Catholic faith on non-Catholics, specifically our pro-life stand. But, as I just said, our teaching about the beginning of life at conception is rooted, not in faith or religion, but in reason, in science and in the arena of justice. As our Holy Father stated in his recent encyclical, “If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them” (Ibid. n. 6).

In fact, within this encyclical he explicitly addresses respect for life. “One of the most striking aspects of development in the present day is the important question of respect for life, which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples. It is an aspect which has acquired increasing prominence in recent times, obliging us to broaden our concept of poverty and underdevelopment to include questions connected with the acceptance of life, especially in cases where it is impeded in a variety of ways. Not only does the situation of poverty still provoke high rates of infant mortality in many regions, but some parts of the world still experience practices of demographic control, on the part of governments that often promote contraception and even go so far as to impose abortion. In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress. Some non-governmental Organizations work actively to spread abortion, at times promoting the practice of sterilization in poor countries, in some cases not even informing the women concerned. Moreover, there is reason to suspect that development aid is sometimes linked to specific health-care policies which de facto involve the imposition of strong birth control measures. Further grounds for concern are laws permitting euthanasia as well as pressure from lobby groups, nationally and internationally, in favour of its juridical recognition. Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man's true good…. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help” (Ibid., n. 28).

Our witness to the truth also involves our desire to promote the common good, that is, the total welfare of our brothers and sisters in the human family. Currently, we are very much concerned about Health Care Reform proposals. We must be vigilant and vocal. Recently, I wrote in The Arlington Catholic Herald: “Cardinal Rigali, writing to Congress on behalf of the U.S. Bishops, stated that we have long supported ‘health care reform that respects human life and dignity from conception to natural death; provides access to quality health care for all, with a special concern for immigrants and the poor; preserves pluralism, with respect for rights of conscience; and restrains costs while sharing them equitably.’ Many of you were united in your objection to the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) earlier this year, participating in our nationwide postcard campaign that addressed several of these same issues. As Catholics we must uphold these principles regardless of whether the proposed changes are part of legislation like FOCA or part of health care reform. The form under which these proposals appear may change yet again, but we must always vigilantly defend the moral principles at stake. And yet, do not mistake the real need for health care reform so that the poor, the elderly and all Americans have access to quality medical care provided in a just manner.

Once we have educated ourselves about these issues, how shall we be faithful stewards of the dignity of human life? First and foremost, we must pray…. Secondly, I urge you to contact your legislators asking them to represent your concern for the right to life of the unborn, for the conscience rights of health care workers and taxpayers who find the prospect of participating in or paying for abortions morally abhorrent, and for the very real needs of the poor and the immigrants in our midst. We all have the responsibility to be true advocates of the sanctity of life in the public sphere…. Finally, let us remember that our responsibility to be vigilant and defend life must begin with the witness of our own lives. When we treat other people with respect, act with generosity and live out the corporal works of mercy, we testify to the value of all human life. With charity and devotion to the truth in our prayer, in our lives and in our government, we truly practice the vigilance to which Christ calls all of us.”

Finally, as we gather for our monthly Respect Life Mass, God wishes to strengthen us for witness like that of the Baptist. Saint John could not and did not witness to truth and justice on his own power and strength. It was God’s power and strength working through him which enabled him to be a fearless witness to truth and justice. This is why he could cry out: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). He found his strength, as must we, in prayer and penance, in an ever-deepening surrender to God’s will.

This monthly Respect Life Mass is occurring this year on the Memorial of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. God truly desires that we be inspired by the Baptist’s witness, encouraged with his witness, and strengthened for a witness like his. Yes, our witness is rooted and governed by “charity in truth”. I repeat part of today’s Opening Prayer: “As (Saint John the Baptist) gave his life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your gospel” — yes, the Gospel of Life. Amen.







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