Homily of Cardinal Justin Rigali
Vigil Mass for Life,
Basilica of the National Shrine of the
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Archbishop Sambi, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States,
Archbishop Wuerl, Pastor of this Church of Washington,
Dear brother Bishops,
Dear Priests, Deacons, Consecrated Religious, Seminarians, Brothers and Sisters
Supporters and Defenders of human life, especially you, dear Young People of the
We are privileged this evening, dear Friends, to assemble for the
Eucharistic Sacrifice here in this great National Shrine of the Immaculate
Conception dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. We gather in the name of Jesus
Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the World, and we do this in order to
affirm the primacy of God, the importance of His commandments, and the supreme
value of every human life.
In our efforts to support the cause of human life, we immediately
experience a great solidarity, a profound communion with millions of our
brothers and sisters throughout this land—people of different faiths and of
every ethnic background. We are grateful to the Eternal Word Television Network
that places us in contact with millions of our fellow citizens, while it
transmits our liturgy and shares our message far beyond the borders of our
The occasion of our yearly coming together in humble prayer and
serene and peaceful witness to the value of every human life is linked to an
extremely sad moment in the history of the United States: that fateful decision
Roe v. Wade rendered on January 22, 1973. Now, thirty-four years later we bow
our heads in shame as we admit that over forty-seven million human lives have
been snuffed out as a result of that misguided use of judicial power exercised
in the name of the authority resting in the people of the United States of
Each passing year confirms us in the pain of recognizing the
violence inflicted upon millions and millions of unborn children and even
partially born children in our land. It is important that this truth be
acknowledged, that repentance be sincere, and that effective means be taken to
stop this grotesque tragedy, while preventing it from being repeated in the
At the same time each passing year confirms us in new hope for
the future. As people of prayer, we are moved by the words of Saint Paul, who
says: "...we have set our hope on the living God" (1 Tim 4:10). The word of God
and His commandments encourage us in our efforts, and they certainly inspire the
rising generation to form new attitudes and assume a fresh commitment to the
cause of life.
Tonight, our first reading from Sacred Scripture leads us to
experience solidarity with the chosen people of Israel who assembled at the time
of the Restoration of Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C. They came together
with the priest Ezra, to listen to God’s word, to be challenged by His
commandments and to find strength in His presence. We hear how the people of
Israel, after enduring, in hope, both suffering and captivity, offered praise to
God. As they listened attentively to His holy word they were moved to tears by
the challenge that God’s law presented to them. At this point the prophet
Nehemiah intervened, telling the people not to be overwhelmed, not to be sad. He
proclaimed: "...today is holy to our Lord.... Do not be saddened this day, for
rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength."
What the prophet Nehemiah told the people of Israel applies to
us, dear Friends, now. Today is holy and our celebration of life is holy to the
Lord. Our attitude in the wake of the immense national tragedy of abortion is
our sober rejoicing in hope. Indeed, "We have set our hope on the living God."
What then are our reasons for rejoicing?
In the conflict that exists between life and death, between the
culture of life and the culture of death we see that something very encouraging
is also taking place in our society.
The rate and number of abortions in the United States continue to
decline, most notably among teens. Many teenagers are wisely choosing to abstain
from sexual activity—motivated both by religious and moral values, and the
desire to protect themselves from the epidemic of sexually-transmitted diseases
that today afflict some sixty million Americans. To be free of disease, to be
free of the fear of an ill-timed pregnancy, to be free of a broken heart—this is
the freedom that we want for our young people, and we rejoice that it is
Another reason to rejoice is that the American people are
becoming more pro-life. According to a very significant poll last year, general
support for Roe v. Wade fell under fifty percent for the first time since 1973.
Most Americans do not support Roe v. Wade, and are against allowing most of the
abortions the Court has made legal.
We can, moreover, take heart in knowing that spiritual,
educational and legislative efforts are making a big difference in the hearts
and minds of so many people of good will. More and more citizens are coming to
question abortion and to recognize—as a starting point for deeper
conversion—that there is something radically wrong with abortion and the support
given it by our laws. There is a growing realization that human life and human
dignity cannot be suppressed without immense damage to the entire fabric of our
nation and numerous consequences. In the midst of the enormous challenge posed
by threats to life, there are new reasons to hope that the truth of God’s law
will prevail as a great light in our nation as our people move increasingly
toward valuing human life from its earliest and most vulnerable stages onward.
This is indeed cause for rejoicing in the Lord!
As we all move forward in hope as citizens confronted with the
national disaster resulting from Roe v. Wade, we recall once more the crucial
importance of humble and persevering prayer. We also realize how important it is
to contribute to the exchange taking place among people of good will. Our
position is one of profound concern for the unborn and deep compassion for all
those affected by abortion. With utmost respect we express in the public debate
our strong conviction that something terribly wrong has weakened our
nation—something that flagrantly violates human rights and human dignity, in
addition to the law of God. It is necessary for all of us to speak with lucidity
in bearing witness to the truth that has such vast consequences.
A great example of this lucidity is found in the way in which
Pope John Paul II spoke to Americans just eight years ago this month in the city
of St. Louis. Permit me to offer you his own words:
"There are times of trial, tests of national character, in the
history of every country. America has not been immune to them. One such time of
trial is closely connected with St. Louis. Here, the famous Dred Scott case was
heard. And in that case the Supreme Court of the United States subsequently
declared an entire class of human beings—people of African descent—outside the
boundaries of the national community and the Constitution’s protection.
"After untold suffering and with enormous effort, that situation
has, at least in part, been reversed.
"America faces a similar time of trial today. Today, the conflict
is between a culture that affirms, cherishes, and celebrates the gift of life,
and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings—the unborn,
the terminally ill, the handicapped, and others considered ‘unuseful’—to be
outside the boundaries of legal protection. Because of the seriousness of the
issues involved, and because of America’s great impact on the world as a whole,
the resolution of this new time of testing will have profound consequences....
My fervent prayer is that through the grace of God at work in the lives of
Americans of every race, ethnic group, economic condition and creed, America
will resist the culture of death and choose to stand steadfastly on the side of
life. To choose life...involves rejecting every form of violence: the violence
of poverty and hunger, which oppresses so many human beings; the violence of
armed conflict, which does not resolve but only increases divisions and
tensions; the violence of particularly abhorrent weapons...; the violence of
drug trafficking; the violence of racism; and the violence of mindless damage to
the natural environment.
"Only a higher moral vision can motivate the choice for life. And
the values underlying that vision will greatly depend on whether the nation
continues to honor and revere the family as the basic unit of society: the
family—teacher of love, service, understanding and forgiveness; the family—open
and generous to the needs of others; the family—the great wellspring of human
For all of us, dear Friends, "the right to life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness," which we so earnestly desire, can be safeguarded and
guaranteed only by prayer and constant vigilance.
The so-called freedom of choice, imposed on our country in 1973
by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, mocks our freedom. Today Americans are not
free to halt the destruction of unborn children. Our legislators are not free to
enact laws defending unborn life, laws that reflect the values and will of a
majority of Americans.
In many states parents are not free to intervene in the abortion
decision to protect their daughter from a decision that has lasting, even
eternal, consequences. Roe v. Wade denies fathers the freedom to save the life
of their unborn child if the child’s mother chooses abortion. Siblings,
grandparents—all are powerless, without freedom, to protect and nurture a
vulnerable member of their family, because the Supreme Court said so.
Abortion is anything but a free choice for many young women. Many
have described their panicked reaction to their pregnancy, the lack of support
or even threatened abandonment by the child’s father, the pressures from family,
counselors or peers. Many young women feel they are expected to abort an
unplanned child when contraception fails.
After the abortion, they discover that their choice did not free
them to live their dreams. Instead, their choice haunts them day and night. They
feel isolated in their pain and loss. Their freedom of choice has left them
trapped in a cycle of sadness and guilt. Freedom comes only when they are able
to turn to God in their sadness and brokenness and accept His forgiveness, His
mercy and His healing grace. They become truly free when they are able to
acknowledge the truth of the wrong that they committed, and the greater truth
that there are no limits to God’s loving mercy or to His desire for our
salvation. Jesus Himself tells us: "...you will know the truth and the truth
will set you free" (Jn 8:32).
How commendable the work of Project Rachel and of all those who
have been, for thousands of women and men, compassionate intermediaries of God’s
healing in helping them to attain freedom from the sin of abortion! How
magnificent the gift of Christ to His Church: the reconciling ministry of the
priest in the Sacrament of Confession!
In this present moment of our history, in this time of trial, in
this current test of our national character in regard to the sacredness of human
life, another immense challenge faces us and calls for our immediate response.
Today a number of scientists and lawmakers want us to see the
vulnerable human embryo, as research material—as a source of stem cells—not as a
fellow human being needing protection and respect.
Even more alarming, we hear it said that voting to destroy human
embryos for medical research is the true "pro-life" position—because this
research may someday help the lives of others.
Providentially nature itself has made a contribution to this
debate, by showing us that the by-products of live birth—umbilical cord blood,
placenta, even the fluid that surrounds the unborn child in the womb—may contain
very versatile stem cells with the advantages of stem cells from embryos, with
none of the practical or moral disadvantages. At the same time we know that the
cures that have already taken place through therapy made possible by stem cell
research have been obtained through adult stem cell research. In this way, and
not through the destruction of human embryos, great compassion has truly been
shown to those in need.
Dear Friends, like the faithful Israelites of old, we too have
been able to listen to God’s law. It is so clearly articulated on Mount Sinai
and in our hearts: "Thou shalt not kill." Tonight, we renew our commitment to
life because we renew our commitment to the law of God, which we praise in the
words of our responsorial psalm: "The law of the Lord is perfect...the decree of
the Lord is trustworthy.... The precepts of the Lord are right...the command of
the Lord is clear.... The ordinances of the Lord are true."
God’s word lasts forever: "Thou shalt not kill."
Tonight, in the Gospel our thoughts turn to our Lord Jesus Christ
and to the mission which belongs to Him and which He shares with those
incorporated into His Body, the Church. In all of this, dear young people, you
are called to fulfill a special role: to bring all your energy to promote the
cause of life. The Lord is calling you and confirming you in strength. The
Church and the nation are asking you to rise up to this challenge.
For all of us Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word of God is the
supreme Messenger of Hope. He is the supreme Liberator of those in the captivity
of violence, sin and death. As He brings glad tidings to humanity, proclaims
liberty to captives, and frees the oppressed, He invites us all to renewed
prayer and commitment in the cause of respecting, protecting, loving and serving
every human life. Tonight, through His Spirit dwelling in our hearts and working
through our efforts, He Himself reassures us that life will be victorious! Amen.