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Bernard Nathanson: ‘Profoundly Catholic’ in Approach to Life

The priest who will preach at the pro-life leader’s funeral describes Communion calls to his home.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011 3:38 PM Comments (1)

I just updated our obituary of abortionist-turned-pro-life leader Dr. Bernard Nathanson, which Stephen Vincent reported for us. When we broke the story on Monday, it was way too early to report on funeral arrangements.

But Father Gerald Murray, who anointed Dr. Nathanson as he lay dying in New York last week, just told me that the funeral will be held at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral next Monday, Feb. 28, at 10am.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan will be the principal celebrant of the Mass, but Father Murray, a former judge on the tribunal in the archdiocese and now a pastor in Manhattan will preach.

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Father Murray explained to me that Dr. Nathanson’s family had asked Archbishop Dolan to celebrate the Mass, and the archbishop was happy to do so. But he asked Father Murray to preach.

“I’ve been bringing him Communion for the last couple of years,” Father Murray said. “He wasn’t able to get to Mass.”

The priest said that he got to know about Dr. Nathanson as did many people: from his 1985 film The Silent Scream, but that over the past couple of years he’s gotten to know him better.

He said that the period has been a “slow decline” for Dr. Nathanson, who had battled cancer for years. “The last few months it’s been very tough for him. But he was very strong and hung on to life. He was very devout and very happy to receive Communion.”

Nathanson, once one of the leaders in the movement to legalize abortion, had a change of heart when he first saw an ultrasound image of an unborn baby. He became pro-life and began working for the overturning of the very laws he had helped to pass.

Eventually, he became a Catholic, being baptized by Cardinal John O’Connor in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. Father C. John McCloskey, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, had guided Nathanson into the Church. Because Father McCloskey was not living in New York during the time Dr. Nathanson was too ill to go out to Mass, he asked Father Murray if he could bring him Communion.

Father Murray went weekly to the Nathanson home, which was on Manhattan’s upper West Side and quite a distance from his parish on 23rd Street, but toward the end he was going more frequently.

“He became profoundly Catholic in his whole approach to life and showed great devotion and great faith,” Father Murray continued. “You could tell he was not a cradle Catholic by any means, but it was a St. Augustine story in many ways.”

Nathanson, who conceived of free-standing clinics to facilitate abortions rather than hospitals, and who claims to have performed some 5,000 abortions and been responsible for tens of thousands more, reportedly spent much of his time later in life doing penance. His godmother for baptism, Joan Andrews Bell, a pro-life heroine in her own right, told Stephen Vincent that “he had a deep pain for what he had done in terms of abortion. I remember there were periods he was fasting; he underwent huge amounts of fasting to make up for it.”

Said Father Murray, regarding the way Dr. Nathanson faced cancer in his final days, “You could see his whole focus toward the end was acceptance of this suffering.”

Filed under abortion, abortionist, bernard nathanson, naral, pro-life, the silent scream

About John Burger

John Burger
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John Burger came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University and has taught in China and France.