Agents of Conversion
The following is the homily from the Pro–Life Vigil Mass offered by Cardinal Dolan in Washington, DC on January 21.
Pro – Life Vigil Mass
National Shrine, January 21, 2016
“I know that God is with us, for God, in whose promise we glory, for in God we trust without fear. What can death do against us?”
Those noble sentiments of this evening’s psalm are certainly our own as we keep a vigil of thanksgiving for the sacred gift of life, a vigil of repentance for attacks upon life, a vigil of supplication for its protection.
Like that crowd around Jesus in this evening’s gospel, we, too, have followed the Lord here in large numbers, from all over this great country we cherish as our earthly home, trusting that, like He did in our gospel, Jesus will cure us and our nation from the “unclean spirit” that tempts us to treat the human person with less than the dignity he or she deserves, or human life with anything but the reverence and tenderness God intends.
During the first week of Advent, a sad but gripping episode captivated my home city of New York. A tiny new born, umbilical cord still attached, carefully wrapped in a big, clean bath towel, was left – – get this – – in the crib of the manger scene in Holy Child Jesus Parish in Queens. The infant had not been there long when people heard the crying and found the abandoned baby in the Nativity scene.
No one knew where the baby had come from, or who left him there . . . until, a week later, the sobbing mother, a young Mexican woman, remaining anonymous, told her story to a journalist.
She was so scared when she discovered she was pregnant, she explained to the reporter, that she told no one, not even the baby’s father still in Mexico, who was trying his hardest to unite with her and come to New York. Not even her tia, with whom she was staying, was aware of her condition. The Madrecita was so petrified, but wanted above all to bring her baby to life, and asked Jesus to take care of her child.
“Then the time of her confinement was over” . . . Let me read her narrative:
“I was so afraid, and, all alone in the house, suddenly went into labor. I must have been in excruciating pain for at least two hours. I started pushing because, each time I did, the pain let up. I pushed for fifteen minutes and the baby, a boy, finally came out. He didn’t cry at first, so I was afraid he was not alright. I didn’t know what to do, so I left the umbilical cord on. I wrapped him in a clean towel and started to look for some place safe and warm.
I’m very religious, so right away I thought of my church, Holy Child Jesus. I go there a lot, and the priests and people are so good. I just knew if I left him in God’s hands, my baby would be ok. So, I ran into my church and put him in the empty crib. Then he started crying. I just hoped he was warm enough. I hid in the back of church, knowing Father would find my baby and the people would help him. They did . . .”
True story . . . and I submit it as Exhibit A in our case for promoting the culture of life.
God bless that baby – – who I hear is doing well and is named José after the foster father of Jesus; God bless that frightened, young mom who refused to believe in what Pope Francis has termed our “throw away culture”; God bless Holy Child Jesus Parish in Queens, for radiating such a spirit of welcome, joy, warmth, and outreach that our Mexican mother spontaneously knew her baby would be safe there; God bless this culture of life!
It’s not farfetched to imagine what might have happened: that mother’s legitimate and understandable apprehension and isolation could have led her to Planned Parenthood; she could have been going to a parish which she found unwelcoming, cold, impersonal, where she did not feel safe, near to the Lord, or at home, and where she would not have been inclined to turn in her crisis; or, in those fretful minutes after her baby’s birth, she might have run to a church to find it bolted–up, with a sign on the outside telling her, probably in English, to come back during office hours. Thank God that nightmare remains only a “might–have–been.”
My brother and sister apostles in the culture of life: let every parish in our nation be Holy Child Jesus Parish! Let every priest be like Father Christopher Ryan Heanue! Let all our people be like those parishioners whose smile, greeting, welcome, and sense of love assured our young mom that her baby would be safe there! In a world that often says “no room at the inn” to those in need, she found a manger, a sanctuary, in the Church!
Did you hear that a week or so after Christmas, the Holy Father made an unannounced visit to Greccio, the hill village where his patron, Saint Francis, had put up the first nativity scene. There he told the surprised Franciscans — who were not expecting him, and had to quickly change from their relaxing, informal clothes into their habits — that all of us are called to make our lives, our surroundings, a nativity set, where the searching and the troubled are welcome, and where God can be reborn.
He then popped in at a youth meeting at the shrine, telling the startled but exhilarated teenagers that, just as we see God when we gaze upon the Holy Infant in the crib, so do we see the divine in the “smallest and most vulnerable” around us now.
Four months ago when Pope Francis entered Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, I was told by the trip organizers he would probably stop and greet some lucky people as he slowly walked up the center aisle. I admit I had positioned some friends and major donors along that aisle, hoping he would shake their hands, with a little nudge from me. As we stared up the aisle and I looked ahead, I did not know for sure if he would stop and greet my chosen; oh, but I could already make a sure bet on the ones I knew he’d hug: the newborn baby in its mother’s arms, the obviously pregnant woman; the little girl baldheaded from chemo; the elderly man bent over with Parkinson’s and arthritis; the policeman on a mobile bed paralyzed from a bullet taken in duty; the little boy twisted with cerebral palsy . . . and, sure enough, he embraced them all.
My brother and sister apostles in the culture of life, we need the interior radar, the eyes, heart, and hands of Jesus, of Pope Francis, to detect those at the side of the road, especially the tiniest and most fragile, the baby in the womb.
God’s word at Mass this evening tells us about a dramatic conversion of heart: Jonathan was able to convert his father, King Saul, from a fixation on death to a choice for life, convincing him not to murder David.
We are summoned to be such agents of conversion. Yes, we do it by reasoned and compelling argument; sure, we do it by advocacy; you bet, we do it in law and political action; don’t forget, so obvious tonight, we do it by prayers and fasting . . . but we most successfully accomplish this conversion from the culture of death to the culture of life, from the “throw away culture” to the culture of tenderness and mercy, by imitating those priests and people of Holy Child Jesus Parish in New York City, by acknowledging that Jose, that abandoned newborn baby, José was nowhere more at home than in the empty manger of their parish nativity scene, because he, too, is a child of God.
When the at-the-time agnostic author, Malcolm Muggeridge, asked Mother Teresa how in-the-world she could hug, kiss, bathe, and carry the dying, filthy, discarded abandoned beggars in the gutters of Calcutta, people, Malcolm Muggeridge admitted, that made him gag even to look at, soon-to-be Saint Teresa of Calcutta replied, “Because in them I see the face of Jesus.”
In the tiny baby, born or pre-born, we see the infant Jesus; in that child’s mother, especially when confused, scared, and hopeless, we see Mary at the crib of Bethlehem.
Fifteen minutes ago, our choir chanted, “Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has destroyed death, and brought us light and life!”
No wonder we replied, “Alleluia!”