I have office hours the first Saturday of every month, to meet with families and schedule baptisms. It’s fairly routine, mostly collecting paperwork and filling out forms. But a few years ago, there was one meeting that I will never forget. It was anything but routine.
A young mother arrived at the office, filled out the forms and, after she’d finished, I looked it over and noticed that she’d left a couple spaces blank.
“You forgot something, “ I said. “You didn’t fill in the father’s name and religion.”
There was a long pause. She said quietly: “I don’t know who the father is.”
And then she explained:
“I was raped.”
I didn’t quite know what to say. I stammered an apology, and we talked for a few minutes. And at the end, as she got up to leave, I shook her hand and thanked her. I told that that I thought what she was doing was very courageous.
“Well,” she said, “It’s life. You do what you have to do.”
I saw her a few weeks later, at the baptism. Seeing her — holding that baby in her arms, sharing that moment with family and friends — one thing was clear: that child will never lack for love. Whatever may have brought that young life into being, that child was welcomed. That child is loved.
This weekend, in particular, that mother and her child are both on my mind and in my prayers. They remind me of something we need to remember:
We are people of life.
We value it. We believe in resurrection. In healing. In hope.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus once said.
We are people who follow the way, and seek the truth.
We are people of life.
And this Sunday, we pause to declare that to the world. We put on purple vestments and offer special prayers to note a sad milestone: it was 39 years ago today that the Supreme Court legalized abortion. We may not be wearing the sackcloth of the people of Nineveh, from the first reading. But this is a sign of sorrow, and mourning. It’s the same color we wear during Lent, a time of prayer and repentance.
You’ll hear a lot of people – including a lot of prominent Catholics – tell you that they are “personally opposed” to abortion, but they think it should still be legal. It might be useful to look at what that kind of thinking has given us, and what it means.
It means that today, 22% of pregnancies – one in five – end in abortion.
It means that 47% of the women who have had abortions – nearly half – have had more than one. Three quarters say they had abortions because a child would interfere with their job or education.
It means that, on average, there are 3,500 abortions every day in this country.
That sounds abstract. So let me make it real. That’s approximately the same number of people who attended Mass here Christmas Day.
Looked at another way: statistically, by the time you leave Mass this morning, another 145 innocent lives will be lost.
Years ago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin spoke of the “seamless garment” of life issues, and how they are all connected. Some people dismiss that today and insist that all life issues are not created equal. That’s true, to a point.
But a culture that devalues life, that doesn’t respect life, won’t just draw the line at abortion. It goes further than that.
That culture creates an environment that cheers capital punishment. It’s a culture that legalizes assisted suicide. It supports torture and the degradation of human dignity. It enables bullying. It objectifies and devalues the human person in pornography.
And, as we learned just this past Friday: that culture considers religious freedom, and the human conscience — a personal sense of right and wrong, of good and evil — irrelevant. The government ruled that every major employer, including religious institutions, now have to offer free contraceptive coverage as part of their health plans – no exceptions. That includes the “morning after” abortion pill and sterilization.
A culture that doesn’t respect life will do all this and wrap it in the warm and unthreatening blanket, the seamless garment, of “choice” and “freedom.”
This is our world today.
But it doesn’t have to be our world tomorrow.
Last week, one of the presidential candidates said in a debate – and I paraphrase – that laws can’t change a country’s values. It’s the other way around.
Values, he said, have to change our laws.
Marching, protesting, campaigning, lobbying…all this can have an effect. But it can only do so much.
The real work, the important work, the hardest work happens in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in our homes, in our families.
It’s conversations around the dinner table and lessons in the living room. It’s teaching our children that we are people of life. It’s raising them to love those who are weak, to protect those who are vulnerable, to respect those who are different.
But are we even paying attention?
In the gospel we just heard, Jesus called his first apostles while they were mending their nets. They dropped what they were doing, and followed him.
Too often, I think, we ourselves are too busy mending our own nets. We are consumed by the mundane realities of daily life, and are too distracted to hear what is really important. We miss Christ’s call to conversion, to repentance – the call, as we heard, to “believe in the Gospel.”
Especially now, it is nothing less than a call to be people of life.
To be people who cherish life in all its complexity and confusion…and in all its sanctity.
To be people who not only shake our heads in sorrow over the state of our world, but who bow our heads in prayer and lift up our heads in hope.
We are people of life. We are Catholic Christians. In the second century, Christians did what the pagans wouldn’t: in the midst of a plague, they cared for those no one else would care for. The great theologian Tertullian wrote that it moved the pagans to say: “See how these Christians love one another.” This is our legacy and our mandate: to protect and defend and, yes, love the most vulnerable – the old, the sick, the abused, the abandoned, the forgotten, the unborn.
That is our way. We are people of life.
In doing that, in living out our call – and answering it, like the disciples on the seashore – we will one day help bring about the change we so ardently pray for every year on this terrible anniversary.
What that young mother told me a few years ago was more than pragmatic. It was, in a way, prophetic. “It’s life,” she said. “You do what you have to do.”
This is what we have to do. And if we do, we will change the values of our culture.
That will change the laws.
And one day, all that we hope and pray for this Sunday will be realized.
We won’t be marching in Washington. We won’t be preaching on this from the pulpit. We won’t be wearing purple.
And January 22nd will be just another day on the calendar.