Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Together for Life

Appropriately enough, this year's observance of Martin Luther King's birthday provided the backdrop to the annual remembrance of this generation's defining battle for human dignity, as the traditional 8,000-plus poured into Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception last night for the opening liturgy of the national Vigil for Life.

Invariably one of the most-prominent events on American Catholicism's calendar, the Mass is but prelude to today's march marking the 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade. By custom, celebration duties fall to the chair of the US bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, now Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

Lacking this year's text, snips from Rigali's '07 homily:

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 America.

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 future.

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 unfolding.

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 happiness.”

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....

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.

Its busiest day of the year, the basilica remains open and pulsing through the night as thousands of marchers without the luxury of hotel rooms "camp in."

At sunrise, the Vigil ends with a morning Mass, but one with an unusually high significance this time around as the The Churchman of the Year, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, makes his first major step into the national spotlight as its principal celebrant and homilist. (The liturgy -- scheduled for 7.30am Eastern (1230GMT) -- will be streamed live by EWTN.)

On a liturgical note, the rubrics state that in the dioceses of the United States, 22 January "shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life," and that "the Mass 'For Peace and Justice' (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day."

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On a related note from the "life, marriage and family" desk, the headline on this post might've evoked thoughts of the ubiquitous marriage-prep textbook of said title written by Fr Joseph Champlin, long the US church's dominant formation tool for engaged couples.

A priest of the diocese of Syracuse and former rector of its cathedral described as one of Central New York's "most visible and beloved pastors," the good monsignor died last week at 77 after a lengthy illness. May the eternal wedding feast be his.

PHOTO: CNS/Nancy Wiechec