My brothers and sisters in Christ, today – in keeping with the instruction of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – we are observing a special day of penance and reparation for sins against the dignity of the human person through acts of abortion. Of course the reason for this particular observance is that today is the 37th anniversary of the “Roe vs. Wade” decision that effectively legalized abortion in the United States. That single legal opinion, and the subsequent millions upon millions of individual and societal decisions that have been made in its wake, not only have taken the lives of countless human beings in the womb, but have also taken an unimaginable toll on those who have turned to abortion, those who have performed abortions, those who have encouraged abortions, and on our society as a whole as we have witnessed a steady desensitization regarding all forms of assaults on human dignity and life at all its stages.
This day of prayer and this celebration of the Eucharist in particular must be understood in their proper context. Yes, we are expressing our sorrow and are performing acts of penance for the countless sins that have been committed against human dignity specifically through abortion. But most of all our day of prayer today can only be fully understood in the context of hope.
Even in the face of countless acts against life, we must remember that our God is the God of Life. And in this truth we are called to remember that God continues not only to call all peoples to the fullness of life through the grace and reconciliation that has been won for us in Jesus Christ, but that God also calls each of us to be channels of that grace, that reconciliation, that healing and that love which God alone can provide. That is why today is a day of hope. It is a day of hope because we recognize that the “culture of death” has not achieved, nor will it ever achieve, a final victory. No, Jesus – our Lord of Life – has already won the victory over sin and death, and he continues to be with us to call us and to strengthen us to bring the good news of his victory through the Gospel of Life.
In light of this fundamental truth, I would like to quote from a document written by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1998 entitled “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to All Americans.” Paragraph 27 of that document holds an important message for us today.
“God is always ready to answer our prayers for help with the virtues we need to do His will. First and foremost we need the courage and the honesty to speak the truth about human life, no matter how high the cost to ourselves. The great lie of our age is that we are powerless in the face of the compromises, structures and temptations of mass culture. But we are not powerless. We can make a difference. We belong to the Lord, in Him is our strength, and through His grace, we can change the world. We also need the humility to listen well to both friend and opponent on the abortion issue, learning from each and forgetting ourselves. We need the perseverance to continue the struggle for the protection of human life, no matter what the setbacks, trusting in God and in the ultimate fruitfulness of the task He has called us to. We need the prudence to know when and how to act in the public arena -- and also to recognize and dismiss that fear of acting which postures as prudence itself. And finally we need the great foundation of every apostolic life: faith, hope and charity. Faith not in moral or political abstractions, but in the personal presence of God; hope not in our own ingenuity, but in His goodness and mercy; and love for others, including those who oppose us, rooted in the love God showers down on us.” (USCCB, Living the Gospel of Life, 27)
Courage, honesty, humility, perseverance, prudence, faith, hope and love: These indeed are virtues that we need as we accept the call of the Lord to be ministers of the Gospel of Life in our world today.
Without the grace of these virtues, our efforts to promote the cause of Life might very well fall into self-righteousness, contempt for others, and pride. Like the older brother in today’s gospel, we might be so absorbed in our own fidelity that we actually become a barrier to the healing and welcoming love of the Father of Mercies. The spirit of our service, rather, needs to be offered with a humble, honest and courageous acknowledgement that we are all sinners, that we have each in our own way squandered the gift of life that has been so abundantly entrusted to us and that we are beneficiaries of the forgiveness of God. As the First Letter of John states, to say that we have not sinned is to live in self-deception and in our own self-imposed darkness.
On the other hand, to humbly acknowledge that we have sinned is to come into the light of Christ so that we might receive and live in that love that He has shared with us, bearing witness to the hope of salvation. Rather than becoming self-righteous, we will be able to be instruments of hope, healing, conversion and life for one another, for our culture and for our world.
And so today we turn with hope to the Lord of Life and Light to grant us the healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and new life that only He can give, and which He indeed came to give freely. I close this homily with the beautiful and inspiring words that the Most Reverend Paul Loverde, Bishop of Arlington, delivered in a homily on January 22, 2009: “Our prayer is answered here. Hope comes to us, beyond words: the Lord Jesus Himself, Hope Incarnate! He embraces us in Holy Communion: He sends us forth, so that by word and deed, we may live the Gospel of Life and witness to Him, Christ Our Hope! He sends us forth today… into the streets where we live, not to be violent or cynical, not to crush those who are already burdened by their participation, often without full consent, in abortion. We are sent forth to proclaim hope, the hope that forgives and heals, the hope that strengthens and enables all of us in our efforts to eliminate abortion and to promote life! This is the hope that, through God's grace and only with His grace, will empower us to overturn the current culture of death and to restore and to intensify the new culture of life.”