Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life
January 22, 2022
Isaiah 49:1-6; Colossians 1:12-20; Matthew 18:1-5, 10, 12-14
On January 22, 1973 – 49 years ago when I was a junior in high school – the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 7-2 decision legalizing abortion. Tomorrow, January 21, 2022, the annual March for Life will be held in Washington, D.C., for the 49th time since that fateful decision of the Supreme Court almost a half century ago.
Every year since my appointment as Bishop of Scranton in 2010, I have been privileged to join with many of you for the annual March for Life in our nation’s capital to commemorate the tragic decision of the Court and to give witness to our shared belief that all human life is sacred and must be protected – especially the lives of the unborn, who are unable to protect themselves.
This year – just as last year – because of the coronavirus and its ongoing challenges, the March for Life will take place in a different way. While some will still gather in Washington, faithful souls who treasure life from throughout our diocese and country have mobilized at local levels using all sorts of virtual platforms to advocate for the right to life of the unborn – just as we do this evening, joining together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist on this somber anniversary of the Court’s decision.
The theme for this year’s march – “Equality Begins in the Womb” – emerged in response to the national dialogue about the nature of equality that our country has continued to engage, particularly in the last few years. Citing the tragic reality of inequality that has impacted our land as a result of race, country of origin, disability status, age and economic background, organizers of the event sought to build upon the vital need for our country and people to finally put to rest divisions among us, stating: “What matters is the fact that each of us is a human being. What matters is that life is precious, and that because it has inherent human dignity, it should be protected from the moment of conception.”
These reflections are reminiscent of words proclaimed by the great champion of human life, Saint John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). “When some lives, including the unborn, are subjected to the personal choices of others, no other value or gift will long be guaranteed.”
Brothers and sisters, the sacred scriptures just proclaimed are replete with words that command that we reverence every life that has come into our world. What they expect from us as Christians is clear and unambiguous. … The prophet Isaiah challenges us in our first reading to recognize the unique relationship that we have with God from the moment of our conception: “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” … Through the apostle Paul in our second reading, we’re reminded to embrace our unique identity in Christ, “the image of the invisible God – in whom were created all things in heaven and on earth.” … And Matthew’s gospel just proclaimed – “whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” – sets a powerful stage for the description of our judgment, recounted in the 25th chapter of the same gospel. Our welcome into God’s eternity will be determined by nothing short of our willingness to reverence, respect and serve the poorest and most vulnerable among us in whom Christ is present. Do you recall Jesus’ words? … “As long as you served one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you served me.”
Let me share with you a personal story. I’ve told it before on a few occasions but I’ll take my chances that most of you haven’t heard it before. My dad was born in 1924. If he were alive this year, he’d be 98! When my dad was just two years of age, his mother was pregnant, carrying his younger brother. Halfway through her pregnancy, she became extremely ill with a respiratory problem for which, in those days, treatments were tenuous at best. The only thing that her doctors felt certain might strengthen her enough to help her survive would be for her to abort her child. My grandmother vehemently rejected their proposal, despite their persistence. “You already have five children. If something happens to you, five children will be without a mother,” to which I am told that my grandmother replied, “Any mother would give her life for her child. How can I chose who lives and who dies. I’ll leave that choice to God.” … My grandmother gave birth to her sixth child, a little boy she baptized Edward. He was born in April of 1926. My grandmother, whose body continued to weaken following childbirth, died in May, one month later. Following his mother’s passing, my dad and his brothers and sisters were raised by their grandparents.
I share this story with you not to leave you with the impression that my family is more exceptional than yours. That’s hardly the case. Nor do I share it because I believe that my grandmother was some sort of super human. She was not. I share it because of how it speaks to me, at least, about life, faith, trust and God.
If we have learned nothing else during the past two years in which we have had to confront the deadly corona virus pandemic, I hope we have come to appreciate the value of human life as never before. I hope we’ve also come to understand that so much of life is beyond our ability to control and, on our own, we are helpless to address the challenges that confront us. Only by handing ourselves over to the power of God – by trusting in his wisdom, grace and mercy – and only by working together to care for the lives that have been given to us will we ever discover a way forward filled with peace and hope for all.
In an address to a Vatican Conference on Human Life in 2019, almost a year before the coronavirus began its march around our world, Pope Francis providentially reflected these conclusions that we’ve come to embrace after battling this scourge for the past two years. “Abortion is not a religious problem in the sense that just because I am a Catholic, I must not seek an abortion. It is a human problem. It is a problem of eliminating a human life. Period. … For Catholics, however, respecting life, especially the unborn, is intrinsic to our identity as people of faith. It admits no denial, no exception, no compromise. Every life is cherished, chosen and sent” by God.
The battle to end abortion has been challenging and long – almost a half century long – but this past year has given us reason to hope. While the battle is far from won, with states like our neighbor to the east in New Jersey that recently codified into state law an individual’s right to an abortion, including late-term abortions, the United States Supreme Court has engaged the question of abortion rights more intensely than ever before since the 1972 Roe vs. Wade decision.
As we wait for a determination by the Court, we would do well to keep ourselves focused on the goal of our journey and the example of Jesus. Otherwise, we risk losing our way by engaging perspectives that distract from rather than serve the noble ends of our efforts to preserve the sanctity of human life.
The authenticity of our lives as followers of Jesus and defenders of human life is enhanced little by our tendency to want to judge and criticize those who work against efforts to defend human life in the womb. Nor should we yield to the belief that life in the womb is the only life worthy of our focus and attention. A few years ago, the U.S. Bishops affirmed, “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” Nonetheless, the Bishops went on to propose that “we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”
The theme for this year’s March is a perfect reminder of the sanctity of all life. And from Jesus’ perspective in the gospel, every life has value, dignity and worth. Every life demands that we treat it with respect and reverence.
Thank you for your presence this evening and your witness to the sanctity of human life – God’s greatest gift to our world. On this day in which we recall a tragic moment in our history that legalized the taking of innocent, unborn lives, may we resolve through our prayers and actions to set aside the divisive behavior that has plagued us as a people, a nation and a Church. In so doing, may we begin to carve a way forward together first as brothers and sisters who believe in and treat every human being with equality and reverence, from the moment of conception in the womb until God, in his providence, takes us home at the end of our journey of life.