On Jan. 21, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the Pro-Life Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivered the homily at the opening Mass for the National Vigil for Life. The Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In his homily, transcribed below, Cardinal Rigali noted that the basilica’s new Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome gives great visibility to the Culture of Life.
Cardinal Justin Rigali
We rejoice in this beautiful “house of the Lord,” the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It is good for us to be here, gathered with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother.
With its many Masses, holy hours, Confessions and special occasions like this all night National Prayer Vigil for Life, this National Shrine is a place of year round worship, pilgrimage, evangelization and reconciliation. This monumental church gives visibility to our Catholic faith and heritage.
You have come to our nation’s capital to “give visibility” to your faith, your heritage, and your commitment to life from conception to natural death. Tomorrow you will peacefully protest the injustice of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the 1973 Supreme Court cases that legalized abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy. Tomorrow you will march in solidarity with unborn children, as well as their mothers and fathers and siblings. Tomorrow you will approach your elected officials, calling on them to protect those most at risk, the voiceless and most defenseless members of our human family.
But first, tonight! We have set this time aside to pray for an end to abortion, and to receive strength from the Lord. Millions of others are with us in spirit, watching this Mass both in the United States and abroad through the Eternal Word Television Network. Our hearts are especially with those who are homebound or serving in the military. Many others will give visible witness in their own communities at prayer vigils and walks across the country.
On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro Life Activities, I express admiration to all of you for the many sacrifices you have made to defend, protect and cherish God’s precious gift of life.
The New Incarnation Dome
Those of you who were here last year will recall the scaffolding erected in the back. The pews had to be removed and individual chairs set in their place. This year you are able to see the fruit of that work, which is the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome.
This Incarnation Dome is made up of 2.4 million pieces of colored glass cut and assembled in Italian workshops, shipped over the Atlantic in 346 boxes, and painstakingly installed over the course of five months by master mosaic artists. The whole project was a great undertaking that would not have been possible without the generosity of the Knights of Columbus and many others, and without the skills of the artists, craftsmen and scaffolding workers. It took time to craft this massive undertaking that will inspire generations of pilgrims yet unborn.
We too, dear friends, are called to a massive undertaking, to raise up, through God’s grace, what Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae called “a great campaign in support of life.” Our task is to build a culture of life in which every person is treated with the respect due to his or her human dignity, regardless of age, physical or mental ability, or stage of development.
This urgent project is well under way. But we know it is far from complete. We are reminded daily of the many direct threats to life through abortion, human embryo experimentation, and the false mercy of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Violence against the innocent unborn also spills over into disregard for other neighbors, so often erupting in violence in our homes through domestic violence and child abuse.
Our “great campaign in support of life” requires all the resources God has given us. It will take time. It will take generosity. It will take patience and sustained collaboration among so many groups. It presupposes unity in the Body of Christ and demands prayer, penance and sacrifice.
But what else can this Dome teach us about building a culture of life? The Incarnation Dome depicts four scenes from Scripture that focus on the Son of God who takes on human flesh: the Annunciation, the Birth of Jesus, His miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana, and his Transfiguration. Each has a lesson for us tonight.
First, the Annunciation. Mary was troubled by the angel coming to her. She was confused and concerned by Gabriel’s message about her conceiving the Christ Child. “How can this be?” she asked, just as you might ask when God calls you to do something you feel incapable of, something overwhelming. But the angel’s words to her echo to us today: “Do not be afraid…nothing will be impossible for God.”
Certainly mothers who have just learned they are pregnant can feel both excitement and anxiety: the joy of conception, even in the midst of concerns about the future. When Mary said yes to the angel, she said yes to life, and indeed to the Source of life Himself. We are called to be like Mary, saying yes to life in various ways.
Another young woman, Saint Agnes, who lived 1,700 years ago and whose feast we celebrate today, also said yes to God. Agnes was beautiful and many men would have waited to marry her. But as a young Christian, she had already come to know someone who gave her everything she wanted and needed. As today’s psalm says: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want … my cup overflows.” He was the one who would never use or exploit her, but loved her completely, totally, unconditionally – the way she deserved to be loved. In return, Agnes was so grateful for all He had done for her that she chose to belong to Christ and Christ alone. She chose to remain a virgin and God gave her that kind of singular, exclusive love for Him that those called to celibacy are given as a special gift. She had found that pearl of great price and was willing to “sell” everything she had to keep it. She was willing to live and even die for Him at the hands of those men who wanted to use her. She was abused, tortured and martyred because of her love for God.
Dear young people, like the young Saint Agnes, you have received the gift of faith. You have been offered the Kingdom of heaven, the pearl of great price, the treasure worth many sacrifices. How is He calling you to thank, love and serve Him? Tonight in prayer, you must ask Him to make His will known to you, and to give you the courage to follow it once His voice is clear to you. He will surely give you all the grace you need.
Every year, after the feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, exactly nine months later, December 25th, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus. This event, the Christmas story, depicted in the next scene of the Incarnation Dome, also shapes us deeply in the way we “give visibility” to the dignity of life.
When the Son of God took on our human flesh, He gave us the full example of compassion and humility. Even though as God He was all powerful and all knowing, He let Himself become powerless and completely dependent on others. From the beginning of His life to the end, He knew what it was like to grow and learn, to know joy and sorrow, and all the limitations of our human condition. Nothing in the human experience was foreign to Him, except sin. With perfect compassion, as Emmanuel, God with us, He suffered with us.
When we are strong and able bodied, feeling in complete control, do we value and protect those who are weak, as Scripture calls them: the “lowly and despised of the world who count for nothing,” or do they make us feel uncomfortable, uneasy? And when we become weak, will we allow others to care for us in sickness or old age? When frustrated or embarrassed by our incapacity, the helpless Christ Child helps us resist the temptation to despair. Our value does not come from being so called “productive” members of society, but from Emmanuel, God always with us. As the psalm, so beautifully assures us, “even though I walk through the valley of darkness, I fear no evil for you are at my side.”
The remaining two scenes of the Incarnation Dome – namely, the Wedding Feast of Cana and the Transfiguration – now attract more attention because John Paul II introduced the luminous mysteries of the Rosary. These mysteries do not involve the conception or birth of children. What do they have to do then with defending life?
At the Wedding Feast of Cana, Mary plays an active role in her Son’s ministry to the world. As a woman, she is deeply attuned to the needs of others, in this case, the bridal party and their guests. In His love for her, Jesus honors her request that He “do something” about the wine that has run out. In her faith in Him, Mary trusted that He would provide, while not knowing exactly how.
At times it may seem as if our “wine” is also running out, that we just do not have what we need to continue in this struggle, or that our efforts are not making much of a difference. Like Mary, we must learn to trust that God will provide abundantly, in His way, in His time. We possess, or will be given, enough time and resources to build a culture of life together. Our role is to have expectant faith and to follow the counsel of Mary, who said: “Do whatever he tells you.”
In the Transfiguration, God the Father gives the three closest disciples of Jesus a glimpse of Jesus’ full glory, His divinity. His clothes ”shone as the sun,” and the mosaic depicts them in brilliant white on a bright yellow background. Besides manifesting momentarily His full identity, Jesus also revealed to Peter, James and John that our humanity is meant for glory, destined for heaven. He gave them a glimpse of life beyond the grave. As we say in the Nicene Creed: “”I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
But if our imperfect bodies will someday be glorified, then no one can be defined by his or her current level of physical or mental ability. Each human person is lovable and destined for eternal glory. We must defend the lives of persons with disabilities, as well as those who are mentally ill, addicted, sick or in particular need of our care.
Yes, dear friends, this Dome indeed “”makes visible” a great deal about the culture of life.
A Vibrant Mosaic
In a mosaic, some pieces are shiny, some matte. Some are brightly colored, others plain. But each piece plays its role, contributing to the overarching grandeur of the final work. Whether young or not so young, single, married or widowed, living in consecrated life or Holy Orders, you are all part of God’s great mosaic, making His love visible in your families, parishes, schools, communities, work places and neighborhoods. You are the painstaking work of His hands – planned from the beginning of time and loved into existence by the Eternal Master Craftsman.
He now sends you out, thousands upon thousands strong, to do your part in forming a vibrant mosaic on behalf of life. You must be the “”rich color” He created you to be. You must play your role in His overarching design, and be patient with others as they seek to do the same.
Tomorrow as you march, you will be surrounded by many courageous witnesses to the dignity of life. All the marchers are different from one another, and yet unified in one common goal: bringing an end to abortion and all attacks on life, and building a culture that always welcomes life!
Then there may be some who will taunt you from the sidelines in angry, accusatory ways. Try not to judge them or to define them by their anger and bitterness. They are fellow human beings in need of reconciliation and healing. They too are invited to a change of heart and to join in the “”great campaign” for life. Many like them have already bent before the gentle power of God’s grace.
The Incarnation Dome is not made of huge, impressive pieces of glass. Its beauty and impact lie in the intricate interplay of so many tiny pieces. God is good at using many humble ”pieces,” as we heard in our reading from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. Instead of choosing “great” or impressive people in the eyes of the world, God uses the humble, the foolish, the weak and “those who count for nothing” to accomplish His purposes.
It is when we least expect it that the tiniest among us can humble the powerful. One day not long ago, a very influential stem-cell researcher, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, was humbled when he was looking through a microscope at a human embryo in a fertility clinic. As the New York Times reports:
“The glimpse changed his scientific career. ‘When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,’ said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two. ‘I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way’.”
As they say, the rest is history. Dr. Yamanaka used his scientific knowledge to discover a new approach to stem cell research that many of his colleagues say will make embryonic stem cells obsolete.
If God can use a helpless embryo to change a human heart, He can certainly use us with all our limitations and weaknesses. Dear friends: by seeking holiness and using the gifts God has given you to accomplish His will in your life, you are contributing mightily to that Kingdom we all long for, where there will be no more crying or pain or death. Certainly no abortion. No euthanasia. No assisted suicide. No deep freezing of embryos as though they were merchandise. And no destruction of human life in the name of science.
We are all called to make use of the graces we receive here tonight, to change the world tomorrow, and each day after returning home. We are invited to pray for the protection of human life and to ask others to do so. We are challenged to care for those around us who are in need physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, especially those who would consider participating in an abortion. And finally we need to allow others to care for us when we can no longer care for ourselves.
All of us have an important place in conversations about the value of human life, and all of us can make a significant contribution in the political process. It is your right and duty as citizens, whether or not you are old enough to vote, to help shape society by offering to everyone the profound convictions of your faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord of life. In His name you are also called to pray for an end to abortion in the United States and throughout the world. Roe v. Wade is incompatible with human dignity. It must not stand. It cannot stand. It will not stand.
Over and above all the compelling reasons that nature gives us to respect, protect, love and serve life – every human life – the mighty Dome of the Incarnation that we look up to tonight in this Basilica confirms us in an even deeper certitude. The eternal Son of God who took flesh from the Virgin Mary, was born and lived and died for our salvation has uplifted all humanity to a further dignity and destiny: to share in His divine life forever –in the communion of the Most Blessed Trinity. For this reason we know that life indeed will be victorious. And so, with Saint Paul, we say: “For this we toil and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God….” (1 Timothy 4:10), who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and who is blessed forever. Amen.