Vigil Mass for Life, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 21 January 2007
Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archdiocese of Philadelphia
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 in Christ,
Supporters and Defenders of human life, especially you, dear Young People of the Church,
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 nation.
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.
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.