Below is the text of the homily Archbishop J. Peter Sartain delivered at the Mass for Life January 22 at St. Michael Church in Olympia:
Several years ago, I initiated some amateur genealogical research, and in the process of gathering family birth and death records I came across a number of newspaper obituaries. One in particular caught my attention: that of my uncle, William Reilly Sartain, who died in the summer of 1911 at the age of 8 months. Let me share with you part of his obituary, which appeared in the July 11, 1911, issue of The South Pittsburg [Tennessee] Hustler.
“On Monday morning of this week, the death angel visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. L.B. Sartain on Holly Avenue and plucked from the garden to transplant amid the roses of heaven, little William Reilly, their eight-month old son, who had suffered several days with an abscess of the head and who had undergone an operation by Dr. Steele, the celebrated Chattanooga specialist. But little hopes of the child’s recovery were entertained from the beginning, yet everything was done it seems that could be, but the Giver of all good saw fit to take the little one unto himself and he departed this life as an angel and is now at the right hand of God beckoning the loved ones on this side to come over to him and the righteous evermore. Funeral services were conducted at the Catholic Church Tuesday morning at 10:00 o’clock by Father Devery of the Paulist Fathers, Winchester and interment followed in Patton cemetery attended by a large number of friends and relatives of the parents. To the bereaved, we extend condolence.”
Reading the clipping, I cannot help being moved by the pain my grandparents must have felt at the death of their little boy, the second son they had lost. That same summer of 1911, my grandmother was pregnant with my father, and she must have been drained by anxiety over the health of the little one about to be born as well as the health of her two surviving sons. Since my grandfather was the town druggist, I am confident that, just as the obituary stated, “everything was done … that could be” to save my infant uncle’s life.
Reading the obituary, I am also struck by the gentleness of its words and the respect for human life it conveys. It is as if the little boy who died was the reporter’s own, as if the whole community had suffered a great loss. Even more, I am struck by the way the reporter wrote un-self-consciously about the spiritual meaning of this death; he acknowledged that “the Giver of all good saw fit to take the little one unto himself.” God was in charge.
Those were simpler days in many ways, to be sure. One might say that the circumstances surrounding my uncle’s brief life were very different from those with which we are concerned this morning. This child was treated with the utmost reverence and care — “Everything was done … that could be done.” And as it happened, my grandmother herself died only three years later, of a ruptured appendix, at the age of 35. Years later, a druggist like his father before him, my father often questioned whether his older brothers and mother would have died had they enjoyed the benefit of today’s medical knowledge.
But there are also similarities between our gathering today and those sad circumstances of 1911: anxious parents; a pregnant mother with many worries; a fragile infant; the need for good medical care; a passion to do absolutely everything possible to save a life; the responsibility of the wider community to offer help; strained family relationships spawned by an unexpected turn of events; the need for God’s healing.
Today is not about nostalgia, however. We do not ask to bring back the old days. I can tell you that my father would never have wanted to bring back the time when, as he used to say, “little boys died of ear aches,” and young mothers died of appendicitis. Instead, today we are about calling to mind the truth that binds us to that generation and every other.
We believe that human life is sacred. Our task is to let that truth permeate every single aspect of our lives, every relationship, every decision we make, every success we enjoy, our every word and every action. Just as Roe v. Wade evolved from a gradual erosion of values in every aspect of society, so must the road to healing cover every track. An end to abortion on demand will not be secure if we do not examine our individual and collective consciences and let God teach us how to live and how to submit every facet of life and society to his sovereign wisdom.
You and I are here because we believe that we will be judged on how we treat the most innocent and most vulnerable — the unborn, the frail elderly, the disabled, the terminally ill, the foreigner.
It is tragic that the further we advance in time from 1973, many in our nation have resigned themselves to the misconception that abortion is a “right” and will always remain so. To assert that anyone has a “right” to take an unborn human life is wrong, terribly wrong. If anyone’s rights need protection, it is those of the unborn. You and I must speak for them.
But let there be no mistake: Even should Roe v. Wade be reversed by the Supreme Court tomorrow, you and I have accepted an awesome responsibility to advocate for an even deeper change — not just change in the law of our nation, but change in the heart of our nation. And we must admit, openly and humbly, that such conversion must begin with ourselves. We must also remember that even should Roe v. Wade be reversed, the state of Washington would still have a law on its books permitting abortion.
Jesus taught that the commandment against killing has broad implications. Anger and abuse kill, too, in their own way. So does indifference to the poor Lazarus at the gate. And prejudice. And refusing to forgive. And violence in any form. The end of abortion begins with a change in each of our hearts and a resolve to do no harm to anyone under any circumstances. It ends when we reach out as a matter of justice to those women and men who feel trapped into considering abortion as a “solution” to a “problem.” If we are truly against abortion, we must extend a hand, and open our pocketbooks, to those who need material assistance in carrying a pregnancy to full term, who need love, and who need moral support in making truly moral choices.
As Jesus teaches us, turning away from violence in all its forms, and offering God’s love to all who suffer, is the way we demonstrate that we are children of our heavenly Father.
We must also offer a firm hand of compassion to women who by exercising a legal “choice” have become victims of abortion themselves. They are our sisters, our mothers, our own. To them we offer assurance of God’s forgiveness and our pledge to help the healing. But won’t our words of mercy ring even more true if we also ask forgiveness of them for any action on our part that contributed to the culture of death in which such desperate choices are made? Please forgive us for not noticing the pain in your eyes, for our selfishness, our unaccepting ways, our murmured gossip, the cold shoulder we turned to you in your time of need, for not going out of our way to offer you another choice. We need your mercy, too.
Thank God the days have passed when little boys have to die of ear aches, young mothers of appendicitis. And thank God for the advancements medicine has made. But may the days soon return when everyone recognizes that all of life is sacred, when the culture of death has died, and when we are at peace because we have given to God everything we have and are. Let us pray that we can be great and effective witnesses for life, witnesses for love, witnesses for mercy. Every human life is “Unique From Day One.”
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