Following is the homily of Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, given Jan. 25 at the Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
In the name of Jesus Christ, I welcome all of you who have come today to celebrate God’s greatest gift to us — the gift of human life — and to commemorate with sadness that tragic decision, 40 years ago, that has led to the deaths of over 55 million innocent children, fellow citizens whose rights were not respected or defended.
We come together at this celebration of the Mass to thank God for this gift of life and to pray for a change of heart for those who do not respect life from the moment of conception to its natural end. We began our pilgrimage last night with the Mass; many of you have spent the night in prayer, and now it is time to go beyond the doors of this “House of Mary” and to give witness to the whole world as St. Mark tells us in today’s Gospel: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
How appropriate it is that today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Most of us, when we think of St. Paul, we think of the great apostle, the great preacher of the word of God, the great missionary, the one who was not afraid to stand in the center of Athens and preach the word of God to politicians and intellectuals.
We think of St. Paul as the one who preached “in season and out of season,” as the apostle who was a great missionary to cultures that were totally indifferent or openly hostile to the Christian way of life, as the man who wrote so many letters to the early Christian communities, explaining the faith to the people, and as the great evangelizer. Yes, most of us think of Paul as a man filled with zeal for Christ and his word.
However, there was another side to Paul. Just as he was zealous about teaching and giving witness to Jesus Christ, he was, before his conversion, just as zealous about persecuting the followers of Christ. His hatred of Christ and his message, before his conversion, was in direct proportion to the great love and apostolic zeal he experienced after his conversion.
On this 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the example of Paul’s conversion fills us with great hope. If Jesus and his word could change the heart of Paul, his word can change the minds and the hearts of those who do not respect human life.
Over the past 40 years, we have labored in the name of Jesus to rid our nation of the tragic scourge of abortion. We have had some success. Today, there is a nationwide decline in both the number and rate of abortions. More and more people understand the truth that the child in the womb is a human being. Sadly, over 1 million innocent children lose their lives each year through abortion. After these 40 years of hard work, we may feel like the “chosen people” of the Old Testament, who wandered through the desert for 40 years. The Lord made a covenant with them — that they would inherit the Promised Land — but, with all the setbacks, the discouragement, the suffering and pain and the passage of time, they began to lose hope. Without faith, we too can begin to lose hope of ever changing the hearts of those who do not believe in the sanctity of human life. There is a real danger that we too can become complacent.
Dear brothers and sisters, Christ has promised us that his word will prevail. We cannot lose hope. We must continue the struggle in positive, life-affirming ways. We must pray, and we must continue to make our voices heard, so that our elected leaders know that there are many who stand for life. We must never give up.
At times, we can fall on our knees before God and complain, as did the apostles, “Lord, we have labored all night and caught nothing.” In his name, we will cast the nets. We will continue; we will not lose hope.
It is important to note that the 40th anniversary occurs during the Year of Faith. In announcing this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict states that “we must open our hearts to be touched and transformed by the grace and word of God” (Porta Fidei, 1). The Year of Faith is a call to all of us to put more “life and energy into our faith.” It is a time to recommit ourselves to living our faith and living the gospel of life. It is also a time to examine how we teach or preach the word of God. The New Evangelization is about how we communicate the message of the Gospel to others.
Blessed John Paul II, in his encyclical letter “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae), reminds us that, “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life” (21). If we wish to change the “culture of death” in our society, we must restore God to the center of our lives. The power of the Gospel is to transform humanity from within and to make it new. Like the yeast which leavens bread, the Gospel is meant to permeate all cultures and give them life from within, so that they may express the full truth about the human person and about human life.
Brothers and sisters, in this Year of Faith, we need to renew our commitment to building a culture of life in our communities. We need to refocus our energies. A culture of life is not only a deterrent to abortion, but it is the answer to many of the evils that afflict our society today: It would promote respect for all human life, in every situation, circumstance and stage of life.
A culture of life would never permit the violence that permeates our lives; it would never permit the lack of reverence and respect for the dignity of every human person. It is time for us to focus more on the need to change the minds and hearts of people, as Jesus did, one person at a time. We can change the world as Jesus did by placing more emphasis on the teaching of the word of God, just as we are called to do in the New Evangelization.
The apostles carried on the work of building up the Church in a world and culture that was totally opposed to the teaching of Jesus. Blessed John Paul, when he challenged us to create a culture of life, knew that many times we would find ourselves in situations where civil laws would be contrary to God’s law; he knew that we would be called to live our faith in cultures that were adverse to the Gospel; he understood that we had to do all that we could to change the laws or make them inoperative by creating in our communities a culture that would instinctively reject such laws or such a philosophy of life. This is the work which Pope Benedict calls us to in this Year of Faith.
Brothers and sisters, let us renew our faith and our commitment to give witness to the Gospel of Christ. Let us not yield to discouragement, and let us never lose hope. We shall overcome all the difficulties and challenges we have to face. Jesus promised us that his word would prevail.
We gather this morning in prayer so that we may be nourished by the Bread of Life. We are convinced that our voice will become irresistible — because we will speak with the power of love, the love of Jesus for humanity. And, as we do so, we will create a culture of life.
On this day in which we commemorate the conversion of St. Paul, let us be filled with the zeal of Paul. Let us imitate Peter and Paul and preach the Gospel, even in Rome and Athens, even to those who do not wish to hear it. Peter and Paul transformed the world with the word of God.
Let us go forth from this church today filled with the zeal of Paul and ready to evangelize and give witness to the faith we have received.
May God bless each one of you.