Celebrating a Unique Gift
On Epiphany, Cardinal O'Connor outlines the Church's reverence
for all life
This is the text of Cardinal O'Connor's Sunday Mass homily delivered in St
Patrick's Cathedral Jan. 8, 1995.
Yesterday was confession day again, my normal Saturday indoor sport. But this
time I felt a bit melancholy before I went to confession. I'm not sure why.
Maybe because this is the last Sunday I will be only 74 years old. With a
birthday coming next week, I'm finally having to face middle age!
But my wonderful confessor cheered me up as he always does. He talked about
the beautiful light that came from the Infant Jesus at the first Epiphany, when
the Wise Men from the east followed His star and came to see Him face to face.
"Where is the newborn king of the Jews?" they asked, according to the Gospel
read today. "We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him
My confessor went on to talk about how that same light of Christ bathes us
today, fills us with understanding and peace, leads the way through the darkness
of every one of our problems and pains and sorrows. He went on, then, to speak
even more beautifully about the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ that we
receive in Holy Communion this day, through this Mass. This is our
Epiphany today. The shepherds saw the light
of Christ and rejoiced. The Wise Men saw the light of Christ and rejoiced.
But neither the shepherds nor the Wise Men received Christ into their
very beings, as we do. They saw Him, and that was a wonderful gift, but
although we can not see Him except with the eyes of faith, under the appearance
of bread and wine, we receive His Body and Blood, we receive the living Christ,
the same baby Jesus born in Bethlehem, the same Jesus, God become man, who died
on the cross and rose from the dead.
And even more: the living Christ sweeps us up into His divinity, into His
divine light This is what Epiphany means today. He not only reveals
Himself, He gives Himself, totally and unconditionally And in the light
from His face we can not only see Him as He is; we can see ourselves in
Him. We can come to know what it means to be truly human, to be made in His
image and likeness, whoever we are, whatever our religion, our color, our sex,
our orientation, our sins. In Him, we see ourselves as He wants us to be. We see
ourselves as sacred human beings. We see every individual in the world as
equally sacred, of immeasurable worth and dignity.
Seeing ourselves and others this way is one of our reasons for treasuring
every human life, the life of the hungry, the homeless, the drunk, the
drug-ridden, the unborn, the elderly, those with cancer, those with AIDS, the
rich, the poor, the famous, the unknown. The feast of the Epiphany, then, is a
great day to celebrate the great gift of life, life in general, the life of
Christ, our own lives in and because of Christ.
It is this sense of the sacredness of every human life that has prompted my
very close friend, His Eminence Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston, to denounce
unconditionally the recent killings and woundings that took place in two
abortion clinics in his archdiocese. I joined him in that unconditional
denunciation and expressed my deep sorrow for the victims and their loved ones,
as I have done on previous occasions. Indeed, on this current occasion, I have
repeated publicly what I have said before and mean with every fiber of my
being: "If anyone has an urge to kill an abortionist, kill me instead." That's
not a grandstand play. I do not want to die but I am prepared to die, if my
death can save the life of another.
Cardinal Law, one of the strongest pro-life leaders in the United States,
knows the situation in Boston as I and others do not, and has called for a
moratorium on pro-life demonstrations outside abortion clinics. As would be
expected by everyone who knows Cardinal Law, what he actually said in
calling for such a moratorium is carefully reasoned and respectful. I quote in
part from his column in his archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot (Jan.
I do not imply that such demonstrations are poorly motivated or that they are
not peaceful or that they are illegal. It is, for me, a matter of prudential
judgment. Prudence sometimes calls for one to refrain from something that is
good in itself. That is the case here. I have in mind peaceful, prayerful, legal
demonstrations. Any demonstration characterized by violence would, of its very
nature, be out of order.
My motive in asking for this moratorium is to avoid, on the side of the
pro-life movement, anything which might engender anger or some other form of
violence. The pro-life message cannot be heard in the midst of violence, whether
that violence be in thought, word or deed. We need to focus calmly and
prayerfully on the pregnant woman and the child she bears. In this calm, perhaps
our society will hear more clearly the words of Isaiah: "Turn not your back on
your own flesh."
Within the next several weeks I will designate a church in each of the five
regions of the Archdiocese where there will be scheduled times of prayer before
the Blessed Sacrament for pregnant women and the children they bear. Hopefully,
those who have engaged in prayer before abortion clinics will accept this as an
appropriate way to heed the advice of St. Paul: "Rejoice in hope, be patient in
tribulation, be constant in prayer." (Rom. 12)
These have been most difficult days in which we have seen the tragic
complexity of evil. May we not lose heart as we seek to affirm life and reject
all forms of violence.
It is quite possible that were I the Archbishop of Boston, I would be
inclined to call for such a moratorium at least for a period of time, while
trying to sort things out. Indeed, I intend to borrow at least one page from
Cardinal Law's book and ask that every week a different pastor in each of the 19
regions of the Archdiocese of New York schedule a period of prayer before the
Blessed Sacrament in the cause of human life. I would ask, however, that this be
in addition to any prayer vigils that responsible individuals or groups
believe that they should conduct legally and nonviolently within the Archdiocese
of New York in the vicinity of abortion clinics. The Rosary vigils led by my
brother bishop in Brooklyn, Bishop Thomas Daily, are wonderful examples of
peaceful processions and prayers in the vicinity of abortion clinics. I can not
imagine that any people of good will could object to them, and certainly no one
would deny their constitutionality. To my knowledge, prayer vigils held here in
New York have been equally peaceful and nonviolent.
Here in the Archdiocese of New York, I have a proposal: I, too, am prepared
to call for a moratorium on these peaceful prayer vigils on condition that a
moratorium be called on abortions. The first is within my power, to call a
moratorium on prayer vigils, although I would respect those who might disagree
with me, and carry out such vigils anyway. The second, a moratorium on
abortions, is obviously not within my power, but only within the power of those
who operate abortion clinics. Perhaps during a moratorium on both abortions and
prayer vigils here in New York, both sides could meet to determine whether there
is anything that can legitimately be the subject of dialogue.
I am convinced that fairminded people do not want to permit an act of
madness, that has resulted in killing sacred human persons in abortion clinics,
to "demonize" the hundreds of thousands of gentle, caring, nonviolent
individuals in the pro-life movement, or to end the movement itself.
And certainly no one wants to see a revival of what is described by Dr.
Bernard N. Nathanson in his book, "The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion
Mentality." In a 32-page chapter called "Catholics," he details how he and other
abortionists designed strategies and propaganda explicitly to discredit the
Catholic Church herself, to divide Catholics from one another, and to revive all
the old anti-Catholic fears and prejudices about the enormous power of the pope,
or the insidious efforts of Catholics to dominate the government and impose
their will on the people. Dr. Nathanson accepts the blame for presiding over
60,000 abortions and influencing legislators to legalize abortion, before he
recognized the horror of what he had been about. He now rejects abortion. I can
not imaging that any decent person or organization would want to revive the
tactics Dr. Nathanson describes. I find it equally difficult to imagine that
anyone could believe that in New York today such tactics could dissuade the
Church from continuing to appeal for the unborn or the aged and the vulnerable
-- for all whose lives are threatened.
At the same time, as many know, never once have I condemned any girl or woman
for having an abortion. I know the pressures too well. I know that even parents
who truly love a daughter may urge her to have an abortion rather than permit a
pregnancy to disrupt her life. I know that many women are poor, many have
nowhere to turn, many have been deserted by the fathers of their unborn
children. This is why, on October 15, 1984, I announced that any woman, of any
religion, of any color, race or ethnic background from anywhere, who is pregnant
and without funds can come to New York and the Church will make every effort to
arrange for her medical expenses, hospitalization and other needs. If she wishes
to keep her baby she will be welcome to do so; if she wishes to give the baby
for adoption, she will be equally welcome. I understand that since I first made
that offer, which I have repeated many times since, we have helped approximately
50,000 women and have expended more than $5 million. I guessed in advance that
such would be the case, since the Alan Guttmacher Institute's own figures reveal
that at most 8 percent of all abortions in America are for reasons of rape,
incest or the life of the mother. I agree with Cardinal Law that government and
society should do a lot more to provide alternatives to abortion, and that is
worth dialoguing about. I offer what the Church does as only one aspect of what
government and society should be doing.
The Church in New York has 23 separate agencies, every agency certified, to
take unwanted babies. When Mayor Ed Koch told me some years ago that there were
some 60 or 80 babies with AIDS in hospitals, with no one to take them, I said,
"We will take them all." And we did, as Mayor Koch can verify.
That the Church cares as deeply about the born as about the unborn should be
obvious to all. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars that we have to
struggle for, in order to keep our Catholic schools open, where 85 percent are
minorities, 50 percent from families below the poverty line, 50 percent children
of single parents, large percentages not Catholic. We have the largest number of
beds designated for persons with AIDS in the private sector in the U.S. Some
1,547,840 persons are take care of by Catholic Charities each year in New York.
The Church has built 10,812 units of low and moderate-income and senior citizens
housing in New York. When a mayor asked us to take in the homeless during the
winter, we opened 100 facilities for doing so. And so on. None of this is a
boast. It's what we should be doing because we are Church. And nothing
could be done except for your generosity towards those in need.
I must conclude. The New York Post of January 5, 1995, editorially asked,
"Why the readiness to tie the Boston killings to the pro-life movement?" The
Post answered its own question: "To marginalize the movement in the eyes of the
general public…" And it concluded: "Thus far, moreover, the effort seems to be
working -- which is a pity." I prefer to believe that the current outcries
against the pro-life movement are a reflection of frustration, rather than a
concerted effort to marginalize millions of nonviolent, peaceful people whose
only sin is their love for every human life, the life of every baby, the life of
every mother. I have enough respect for the intelligence of those who oppose us,
that I would find it difficult to believe that they would engage in a concerted
effort to destroy us. If there is a concerted effort, however, I can not
believe it will "work" for very long. Too many wonderful people in the pro-life
movement have sacrificed too much for too long to give up now.
I conclude for the record: I categorically abhor and denounce violence. I
categorically denounce the hypothesis that to kill an abortionist is justifiable
in order to save babies. I have publicly denounced the violence of an abortion
clinic bomber. I have signed every renunciation of the use of capital punishment
published by the Roman Catholic Bishops in New York and the nation. I have
publicly denounced even verbal violence in labor negotiations and strikes. I
have consistently denounced violence against persons based on their sexual
orientation. Such denunciations and many more have been heard by thousands of
people in this cathedral, millions throughout the world. That is a matter of
record which can not be blotted out by any efforts to indict my pro-life efforts
or those of the Church as inciting murder or other violence. Anyone who would
make such charges would have to be desperate indeed, and has my sincere
Cardinal Law has encouraged us not to lose heart as we seek to affirm life
and reject all forms of violence. Today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah
is a masterpiece of hope. "See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds
cover the peoples; But upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance."
That was said, of course, of the Christ who was yet to come. That Christ is
now here. As He revealed Himself on the first Epiphany, so He reveals Himself
now, in every life made in His image. He lives in you, death can not prevail.
The wise men risked a lot to find Him, for they guessed that to find Him was to
find life. Millions of good, decent, nonviolent pro-life people of every
religious persuasion do what they do so that infants made in His image and
likeness will have life and that their mothers will never have to regret their
I urge all of you to pray that His Eminence Cardinal Law will be successful
in what he is trying so courageously to achieve in Boston. I do not pretend to
have a monopoly on how best to save human life. Only Jesus is the expert, and he
did it only by dying on a cross.
Statements of Other Bishops on Abortion