Joy and Sorrow. A Few reflections after the March For Life

012513-pope-2As I have remarked before, to March for Life is experience life. So many joyful Christians and others who support life gather and celebrate the glory and dignity of human life. The March is ever young, with the ranks of so many young people growing every year.

Here at my rectory are 15 fine seminarians from the Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. Fine orthodox, and zealous men who love God and the Church and are eager to preach the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments. Almost 700 seminarians marched into the Basilica Thursday evening along with hundreds of priests, and as many as 8000 lay people, standing room only in the Great Upper Church, and also filling the chapels of the undercroft.

Today at the Cathedral I was privileged to preach to a full Church and hear powerful witness talks from Project Rachel leaders prior to the Mass. Despite cold and some light snow, I would say the crowd was close in size to last year’s 400,000.

Yes, such life, such faith and joy.

I must say however, that my joy is often tempered each year toward the end of the march when I go and try to witness to the “pro-choice” demonstrators who stand in front of the Supreme Court. I often experience great pain in this work.

To be sure they are the hardened cases, but I experience such grief after talking with them. Here are a couple of conversations as I remember them.

  1. A man with a sign that says, “Pro-Abortion without apology.”
  2. Me: “Well, at least you say like it is, “Pro-abortion” instead of “pro-choice.” But listen, man, no one here asks for your apology, we’re praying for a your change of heart.
  3. Him, laughter, a profanity and some mumbled references about priests belonging to a criminal class.
  4. Me: well think about it, deep down you have to know its wrong.
  5. Him: Ridiculing laughter, turns to talk to another pro-abortion demonstrator.

Another, even sadder conversation.

  1. She, holding a sign that says, “Stop the war on Women.”
  2. Me: listen I want you know that I don’t hate women and I’m not waging a war against you. I love women. We all love women here today. We’re fighting to save women. Think about it, half the children killed in abortion are women.
  3. She: They’re not women and they’re not victims.
  4. Me: Well that’s just bad biology.
  5. Me: Come on, think about it. Deep down you know its wrong.
  6. She: No I don’t. Don’t tell me what I think. You do know what I think.
  7. Me: Well, I’m talking about your conscience, that’s deeper than your thoughts. I know you have a conscience and God wrote his law in your heart. So you do know, deep down, you know it’s wrong. Listen carefully to that still small voice.
  8. She, walking away, “Your little make-believe God didn’t write anything in me. Your God is fairy-tale. Besides you’re a man, don’t even talk to me abortion.
  9. Me: Well but I know a lot of women who don’t support abortion, It’s not just a man thing.
  10. She: Well I don’t care about them. I only care about me.
  11. Me: Do you think that’s a good way to live?
  12. She: I don’t care. (Moving forward to end the conversation).

Most of my conversations went that way. I wasn’t very effective to be sure. My hope was to engage their conscience. I know they’ll never admit to me that they do know it is wrong, but deep down under all the rationalizations and stinking thinking, I am convinced that they do know, they know. I tried to reach there, but this year no apparent sign, not even a glimmer. Perhaps I planted seeds. But each year the soil seems harder and rockier. I leave those conversations quite downcast, I must say.

Luckily the day ended with a Solemn Pontifical Mass in the Extraordinary Form. Bishop Perry was celebrant and gave a fine and encouraging sermon. Sitting in choir I was able to pray quietly for those with whom I spoke today. I offered Mass for their intentions and also in reparation in case I handled anything poorly. Witnessing is hard work and I don’t always get it right, so have mercy Lord on me too.

A day of life to be sure, and also of a heavy heart. But in the end, at the Latin Mass the restorative mercy of God and the reminder of life as I looked at another packed Church, standing-room only.God be praised.

A Taize song says, “Within Our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.” It was nice to enjoy that light today shining on the faces of so many who came to celebrate life. I pray too that those to whom I tried to witness will also discover that light that never dies away.

33 Replies to “Joy and Sorrow. A Few reflections after the March For Life”

  1. Dear Monsignor,

    Please understand that this question is asked with all due respect, and is intended to be illustrative. I think your method of witnessing may be part of the reason you find this activity so fruitless (doubtless also the state of the protestors). Regardless.

    Suppose you see St Thomas Aquinas among those advocating abortion rights. St Thomas supported first trimester abortions. Would you approach him and implore he listen to the natural law in his heart? Would you find it appropriate to question his ability to hear God’s will?

    As we all know, St Thomas only approved of abortion because of an error in his understanding about when a fetus becomes “human”. But I feel that if he, among all the people of the world, couldn’t intuit (from Natural Law) that abortion is wrong, then we oughtn’t be astounded that others miss this understanding as well. More likely, they, like St Thomas, have made an error in judgement.

    Now, how do we change hearts and minds? Imploring people to “listen” simply won’t do – they either cannot hear, or the message is simply not clear. Let’s be honest, with a few vocal exceptions, most people do not support killing those that are “clearly” human (e.g., infants). Now, many in the pro-life movement love to parrot support for infanticide among those who support abortion rights, but realistically, ascribing the actions or beliefs of a minority to all only serves to erode the credibility of the pro-life movement in the eyes of those who support abortion rights (would you take seriously a person who was convinced that all priests are pedophiles?).

    So, provided that we can concede that perhaps abortion rights advocates are not devils (and if we cannot do this, then we are doomed. You will never convince a person to see your side if you approach him simply as a caricature of evil)… How do we witness? With patience, time, and a personal connection. Engage the protestor. Why is he here? Why are abortion rights important to her personally? Why does he think the mother’s right to terminate is greater than the child’s right to life? Why doesn’t she think the fetus is a human? These are the deep and troubling philosophical questions that will spurn a change of heart.

    And I think this is the consistent impetus among those who have “changed sides”. Often, they are abortion clinic workers who one day realize they can no longer ignore the fact that they are ending human lives. It’s not that before they thought it was OK to murder a human, it was that they never realized what they were murdering /is human/.

    And we can do a lot more to encourage the recognition of a fetus’ humanity than you have proposed here.
    (But please don’t say it has to be graphic posters at protests!

    1. St. Thomas did not deny that life in the womb was, in fact, life. The teaching of Aquinas to which you refer is that an unborn baby receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender. (Note this is much earlier than the second trimester). Aquinas held this opinion based on Aristotle, who said a child has a soul when it first has a human “form”–that is, when the child looks human. The difference in gender was based on the point at which genitals could be observed on miscarried children, earlier for boys, later for girls.

      While many link this position of Aquinas to the abortion debate, the date of ensoulment is not essential to the Church’s position on the sinfulness of abortion. The Church roots her teaching in Scripture (e.g. Ex 21:22-23; Ps 51:5; Ps. 139:13-16; Job 10:11; Is 44:24; Jer 1:5), Tradition and Natural Law.

      St. Thomas never wrote directly on abortion. There are only a couple of indirect references in the Summa (IIa, IIae, q.64, a 8; q.68, a 11). But surely St. Thomas was well aware of the Scriptures above, as well as the ancient teaching of Tradition forbidding abortion at any stage. Beginning with the Didache written around 110 AD which said “Thou shalt not murder a child by abortion” (2:2), and continuing with Barnabas, Clement, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome and many other Fathers, and also authoritative Councils, the Church had consistently condemned abortion in no uncertain terms. Hence we ought not presume Aquinas, who never spoke on abortion directly, ever intended by engaging in a discussion of ensoulment, to contest the immorality of abortion at any stage.

      Regarding his teaching on ensoulment, theologians do not hold such an opinion today and most regard Thomas’ positions as rooted in a primitive understanding of embryology. Clearly natural science today demonstrates the existence of a genetically unique individual at conception.

      Finally, even if one wanted unreasonably to hold that Aquinas supported early abortions, St. Thomas, venerable and respect though he is, is not infallible and is not the magisterium. While his teachings are influential, they have not been universally adopted by the magisterium. One obvious example is that St. Thomas was not supportive of the, then unofficial, belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

      I remain open to any critique of my method, but I want to be fair to Aquinas.

      1. The Church’s opposition to the chosen act of abortion does not stand or fall on ensoulment and never has. Please see the Declaration on procured abortion here: (my emphasis)

        19. This declaration expressly leaves aside the question of the moment when the spiritual soul is infused. There is not a unanimous tradition on this point and authors are as yet in disagreement. For some it dates from the first instant; for others it could not at least precede nidation. It is not within the competence of science to decide between these views, because the existence of an immortal soul is not a question in its field. It is a philosophical problem from which our moral affirmation remains independent for two reasons: (1) supposing a belated animation, there is still nothing less than a human life, preparing for and calling for a soul in which the nature received from parents is completed, (2) on the other hand, it suffices that this presence of the soul be probable (and one can never prove the contrary) in order that the taking of life involve accepting the risk of killing a man, not only waiting for, but already in possession of his soul.

        Good work Msgr. As a recovering sinner myself I can tell you appealing to the conscience is an excellent method. God bless you.

      2. Msgr. Pope, thank you for witnessing to these pro-choice demonstrators. Their response to you was discouraging, but I’m sure your talking to them made them think, at least a little, about their pro-choice views.
        Their exterior response to you was mostly peer driven. Longterm, your talking to them could gradually change their hardened hearts.

  2. But you did make a difference today Msgr Pope. You absolutely did make a difference. You invoked their consciences – even a glimmer of it was enough to convict and convince. From a seed comes a sprout – it seems insignificant at first, but its potential is enormous.

  3. Msgr. Pope, when you stand before Our Lord, I have no doubt that you will hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” Thank you so very much for all that you do for us. You are an inspiration! Thank you! God bless you in your ministry. You are always in my prayers.

  4. I’m going to guess the solemn high mass in the evening was more appropriate for the solemnity of the day than the pep rally/Mass that happened in the morning.

    why does pro-life = bad liturgy so often?

  5. The poetic justice is that the very people who fall for this idea that human life is defined by the branches of the government will be deemed inefficient, obsolete and an unnecessary burden on society, the economy and ecology at some point in their secular utopian. It will come down to the haves and the have nots, The ruling class and the working class. The working class only has value if it benefits the ruling class, A WORLD WITHOUT GOD IS A WORLD WITHOUT HEART. Love comes from the heart. otherwise we are relegated to instincts. My instincts tell me that my life is of eternal Spirti. A secularist’s end stincts too but it doesn’t tell them anything.

  6. Thank you Msgr. Pope for your words and your witness. I’m sure that you did indeed plant seeds in those Pro-abortion protesters. Through your prayers, sacrifices and witness and most of all God’s grace, those seeds are being “watered”. Again, thank you for your strength and guidance to all. Your blog is truly appreciated and you give me strength too to fight the good fight.

  7. Thanks for your hard work, Msgr. You are truly on the battle lines out there. The pro-abort woman, I think, summed up the whole pro-abortion when she said, “I don’t care about them, I only care about me.” Underneath all the talk of being “pro-choice” and being for “women’s rights” their true philosophy shines through in this candid statement. Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

    1. Exactly! The same I suppose can be said about all sin but particularly so in this case.

  8. It is discouraging, but as more people see the evil of abortion, only the most hardened hearts are left. Bless you for taking the time to engage those who cannot yet see.

    1. “…only the most hardened hearts are left…” or the most abjectly destitute, perhaps?
      “Forty-two percent of women who obtained abortions in 2008 were living below the poverty line. In 1973, by contrast, 75 percent of the women who obtained legal abortions were white. Many pro-lifers view this shift of abortion services to the poor and minorities as a sign that society has refused to offer substantive solutions to the problems that impoverished women face, and has instead simply encouraged them to terminate their pregnancies.”

      For what its worth, to crack the ice ask someone when they became a she or a he

      … and you will have opened a chink to thaw their heart to discuss desire. Their desire to be ‘me’ began back then, 5-6 weeks after conception (ie a circa 7-8 week pregnancy). Their desire for justice isn’t infantile, its inbuilt. Reflexive consciousness (what we call conscience) is a gift of the Holy Spirit, not something that can be coerced on a street corner at will… it is a mutual gift that requires a certain humility in self-donation that I’m afraid Msgr. I don’t think your approach to conversation rose to.

      Mental engagement is fine in intellectual pursuits that benefit from that kind of abstract rhetorical detachment, but true persuasion requires us to put some skin in the game, to share the vulnerabilty of fallen humanity’s mortal coil, so to speak. The steps of the Supreme Court is not the place for the kind of self-donation the Lord wants you to seek from your interlocutors: he wants them to “give up yer aul sins” under the sacramental seal of mercy:
      (wee correction: at the close of this charming animation the role of Salome is conflated with that of her adulterous mother)
      We need a society that is more able to be respectful even in the face of ignorance, a society that is safe even when mistakes (and serious sins) are committed, willfully or not. We need more of the robust subsidiarity inherent in Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s argument for anti-fragility:
      Only the Catholic Church values the philosophical legacy needed to cure today’s ills whether at home or across the world where what is considered ‘trendy’ began as an American fashion deseminated by privilige and power.

  9. It doesn’t sound to me like you weren’t very effective. I’m pretty sure the woman will remember that conversation for a long, long time – especially since she opened herself up for the biggest part of it. Conversions usually take years and years. Perhaps you started her on the path, or at least gave her another milepost.

    1. Indeed it is like in Pale Rider when the prospector was convinced there was a valuable nugget of gold in the center of a massive boulder. It took many repeated blows of the sledge hammer before the hard exterior gave way revealing the truth. If one wasn’t around when it broke, they might be tempted to say it was just that last blow that made the stone yield, but it was just the culmination of hundreds of blows.

  10. Yes, witnessing is hard work. Monsignor, you show a lot of courage and faithfulness. The important thing is that those “seeds” are “scattered”. It is God’s will that we bear much fruit; I have no doubt that your words will. Let us all continue to pray!!

  11. May God bless you, Monsignor, for carrying on His mission to love one’s enemies. It is painful to witness to those whose hearts have been hardened, especially when you bring a message of love. Each one of us has been loved into existence by God, even those who deny Him. My prayers are joined with yours for these lost souls.

    “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” –Jeremiah 1:5

  12. Thank you Monsignor for your efforts! Related to some of your previous blog posts, I found it interesting that Bishop Perry noted that holding a pro-life position is what marks a person as a serious Catholic.

    As an aside, I didn’t know anything about Bishop Perry but was very impressed by his presence, his homily and his support for the traditional liturgy.

  13. I support you efforts to talk to pro-abortion people; it was like a pro-life rally within a pro-life rally.

  14. Bravo! I always look for those people at the end–but wouldn’t have the freedom to speak to them if I could find them, with my own kids in tow and the requirement to stay with my fellow parish marchers so as to not leave anyone behind.

    I wonder–how do they feel about standing there while hundreds of thousands of happy people walk by? I’m always struck by the joy at the March for Life and can’t imagine that those very few pro-abortion protesters do not see that joy. It must be awful to stand there defending murder in the faces of such vibrant, young, happiness and peace.

    You did good, faithful servant. If you didn’t poke at their consciences, they wouldn’t have reacted to you the way that they did. They didn’t have anything intelligent to say–and they know it, but won’t admit it. God bless you.

  15. Cheer up, Father, when we scrub out a spot or a stain, that last little bit is the hardest to get out.

  16. Was it nervous laughter on the part of the gentleman you first approached, Msgr. Pope? I wondered about that. I think too, that your words were of benefit to those folks. I will hope that one day, when they are in need, alone and maybe feeling abandoned, maybe, your words will ring loud and clear in their memory.
    Maybe, the good Lord will use what you spoke to them that “fateful day” to turn them inside out and have them see as He sees, what life is, what a gift it is, what dignity and respect it deserves. I learned the hard way to understand the beauty that is life because when I was younger, all I cared about was myself too and my wants and my comforts.
    I let a dear friend down when she came to me for help in choosing life or death for her unborn child. I remember now, how I was cold and indifferent towards her and her “problem.” To this day, after 30 years, I regret very much I did not support her in encouraging her to bring her pregnancy to fruition.
    Our friendship died as a result, when she reproached me for such and I cannot blame her. i did apologize but I now understand that an apology was not enough for her since she did mourn the loss of her unborn child and there was nothing I could do.
    So, I pray and remember and hope never to repeat such a selfish attitude on my part, again. Please pray for me and for all who like me who have failed someone in need.
    I sense your words will weigh heavy on those whom you reached out to that day…they have on me.
    God bless you always.

  17. As always, thanks for your bravery in speaking with these people with grace and compassion. I wish I had the same level of fortitude. They indeed know it is wrong, but are stuck in the confusion of respect and freedom.

    That said, articles like the link below this do not help our cause. In your other post on your plan for the 50-yr anniversary (pray it does not come–though your plan is outstanding). I think a part of the plan is for once being ahead of the message. When things like this happen, we need to have an all-points bulletin first to the faithful before the anti-Catholic press jumps hold of it.

    Any comments on how we can fight inconsistency of message (or any corrections to the story) would be grealtly appreciated here or in private conversations…

  18. Dear Monsignor, I have had many conversations of a similar nature. I still have conversations that amount to a face full of expletives coming from folk with pro-abortion mindsets. I have yet to have a rational discussion with the pro-abortion shock troops on the mere facts of biology and genetics, i.e., that the child conceived and growing in her mother’s womb is a human being and that conception and birth are stages of human development.

    In those times of confrontation, I recall that our war is with principalities and powers, the dark presences which cloud people’s minds to the truth about the unborn child and the truth that abortion is murder. In those times, it matters not what we say as much as what we are, and that God works through our imperfect speech. As one wise monsignor once said to me: you are a sign of contradiction by virtue of what you believe and who you are, a Catholic. You only have to be who you are, a Catholic. By simply being a faithful Catholic, we speak volumes. Or, rather, God through His faithful servant can speak volumes. Our opponents are desperate to undermine our beliefs, and because they cannot, they try to undermine our right to speak and to practice our religion. In short, because they have no valid arguments of their own, they try to inhibit our ability to communicate the truth. The pro-life mission is very much about promoting all inalienable rights.

    I see the encounters you mentioned, Monsignor Pope, as a sign that the pro-death camp is desperate. It always has been desperate. The enemy is desperate, and it is using its human resources to damn society in a war that began long before any of us were born. The more we expose the pro-abortion camp’s malfeasance and sophistry to the light of reason the more they will cling to their contradictions and lash out at others. They sense their day is ending. They cannot use reason because they have abandoned all reason. So, they use brainless slogans, intimidation tactics or vulgar, crass behaviour intended to demean and dismiss. For, that is what they have made themselves, and thus uncivilized behaviour is all they can do. After all, it’s what comes out of a man’s mouth that makes him unclean.

    We need thick skins, big brave hearts, sharp minds and loving arms as we attempt to reach out to our human adversaries. As for the demons who skulk around, we enlist the help of the Lord and His angels in our struggle to reclaim society for life.

    Peace be with you, Monsignor.

  19. Each time I begin to think we’re making progress, that a dialogue is beginning, I run across a post like this
    where Mary Elizabeth Williams actually says things like “All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers.” and “I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.”

    It’s really a disturbing post, perhaps emblematic of much of the other side’s sentiments. . . and it’s then that you realize that there really is such a thing as evil.

    In these cases, perhaps only prayer and fasting. . Vitae Victoria Erit

  20. Msgr, you nurtured the seeds of doubt in their minds that they have been trained to outwardly deny. The seeds were planted by God, as you say. I know this because of arguments I had with preachers on the Quadrangle at the University of Illinois at Champaign. I stood firmly in my outward appearance, but several things they said stuck in my mind and slowly weakened my resolve over the years. I discovered I was angry at God and blamed Him for things in my life that weren’t working out. Anyway, the point is that your attempts were NOT fruitless. It’s simply that you may never personally see the fruit your work bears.

    And with that said, I want to share a link to my blog where I posted pictures from the March on Friday. Share them if you’d like, but please link back to the source (my blog). Thanks.

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