Last week, I was in Washington, D.C., for another January March for Life! My public action on this issue began 42 years ago in January 1973, when I was ordained a priest just 10 months. At that time, I wrote a letter to the editor of Allentown’s Morning Call newspaper decrying Roe versus Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made the taking of innocent life in the womb permitted by the law of the land. I joined with so many in opposing this decision and standing up to defend and protect innocent life.
I would go on to receive my degree in social work and spend two dozen years in Catholic Charities working for programs such as “Caring Hearts” in which good people — professionals and volunteers — worked tirelessly to help women who experienced problems with their pregnancies to stand together for life — for the child in the womb and for the mother and father and families. This combination of public action and advocacy combined with direct service and care for those in need is what it means to be pro-life!
It sure has been a long road. Once again last week, I celebrated Mass and stood on the platform in the D.C. Mall to offer a prayer for this cause … now 42 years old.
Standing up for life definitely takes patience, endurance and commitment. Last Thursday’s Mass at 7:30 a.m. closed an overnight vigil at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The large basilica was teeming with young people (and young at heart, like me!) who spent the entire night in vigil and prayer. After Mass at the National Shrine, I went to the Verizon Center where 20,000+ youth gathered for the Mass for Life. (Thankfully, 300+ from Louisville were in that blessed gathering!)
We processed from that Mass to the Rally and March on the Mall. Peacefully and politely, bravely and compassionately, thousands upon thousands of faithful were there — some for the first time ever and others for the 42nd time. We were filled with joy, expectation and hope. We served as ambassadors for life!
It takes the grace of Christ to keep that hope alive after 42 years. Then again, I am not sure how many hearts have been touched by these years of public, non-violent witness. I am not sure how many lives have been saved, how many consciences have been rightly formed, how many new ambassadors for life have been called forth. All I know is that the grace of Christ is present and empowering.
On that first Easter evening, it was Jesus, risen from the dead, who came to his disciples and said, “Peace be with you,” and then breathed on them the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this encounter with Jesus that Pope Francis says should be our source of strength and confidence as we seek to do what is right in a way filled with mercy and compassion.
The week before last, I spent four days in Haiti. This week’s edition of The Record provides details of this pilgrimage of hope — coming 5 years after the earthquake that devastated this island in the Caribbean. Much turmoil and suffering remains. But slowly and surely, the Haitian people who stood through this calamity work for a restoration of dignity. Schools and hospitals are being rebuilt, and partnerships of good people are making a difference. It would have been easy to get discouraged. So much needs to be done.
In many ways, the March for Life last week and the journey to Haiti emerge as chapters in the same narrative: the working of Christ’s grace that lifts up fallen humanity to restore dignity, protect life and work in the hearts of good people to call forth actions that are compassionate and caring, brave and faithful.
Dr. Jérôme Lejeune, the French doctor and geneticist who in 1959 discovered the genetic composition of Down syndrome (trisomy 29), died in 1994 and has been declared a “Servant of God.” (This is the first step toward canonization in the Catholic Church). He suffered much in his defense of the voiceless. Once he declared that we and our civilization will be judged by one and only one criterion: How did we treat the least of our brothers and sisters? These words of Jesus empower us to be respecters of all human life!
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz