Like many of you, I keep pictures on my wall of the priests and bishops who have been most influential in my vocation — the heroes I try to imitate in serving Jesus and his Church. Among my pictures is a photograph of my predecessor, John Cardinal O’Connor, a brave archbishop of New York and a hero for the cause of life.
Most people know that Cardinal O’Connor was an enthusiastic champion for the poor, and especially for unborn babies and their mothers. For Cardinal O’Connor, being pro-life was a central part of what it meant to be a priest. As a bishop, he founded the Sisters of Life. He preached tirelessly about building a culture of life. He worked for laws to protect the unborn and their families. He prayed often for an end to abortion. And he encouraged his priests and his brother bishops to do the same.
In 1990, Cardinal O’Connor wrote that the cause of life needs every single priest, each dedicated to “advance the cause of life” through his ministry. Most especially, he said, priests “must be people of prayer” for life. He told priests that “the unborn will be ‘borne’ on the wings of your prayers so that even if they never see the light of day in this world, we can have every reason to hope that they will see the light of God’s face in the next world.”
I often look at Cardinal O’Connor’s picture, and I pray that my ministry as a bishop will “advance the cause of life.” I try to pray as earnestly as he did for the unborn, and for their mothers and fathers, and that all of us priests live up to the example he set.
There is one way, especially, that the prayers of every priest can build a culture of life. Pope Benedict XVI taught that, each day, when we celebrate holy Mass, “the Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of … self-giving.” When we celebrate the Eucharist, we give ourselves, as Jesus did, for all those who need mercy, including the unborn.
The Eucharist is the center and source of a culture of life and a civilization of love. Deus Caritas Est says that “Eucharistic communion includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn.” When we celebrate the Eucharist, we draw all Catholics into the love that will end abortion and build a culture of life. And we are sent, along with the whole Church, to carry that love into the world. “A Mass that does not pass over into the practice of love,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “is intrinsically fragmented.” To be pro-life as a priest is to see that every person who comes to the rectory needing help, or every family who visits us in crisis, or every hospital call we get in the middle of the night represents a chance to love selflessly, as Jesus loves us in the Eucharist. We advance the cause of life when we give witness to the extraordinary worth and dignity of each person who crosses our path. And that kind of witness depends on our constant prayer.
“I urge you,” Cardinal O’Connor wrote, “to continue to work for the cause of life as though everything depended on you, and to pray for the cause of life as though everything depended on God. You will never regret it.”
I have never regretted working and praying to “advance the cause of life” each day of my priesthood. And I’m certain that you never will.
CARDINAL TIMOTHY M. DOLAN is the archbishop of New York and chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities.