Saturday night at the vigil Mass for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the celebrant, a retired priest originally from Ireland, Father Walsh, proclaimed the Gospel according to Luke (Chapter 5) about the mustard seed:
Father began his homily by asking: "How may people here this evening know that tomorrow is Respect Life Sunday?" I raised my hand half way because of course I know that Respect Life Sunday comes in October but truly, I did not approach mass aware that it was today.
But, no one else raised their hands either.
"Well, then," Father Walsh continued, "I used to be a tiny baby, too, a tiny embryo like a mustard seed no one could see. How did this happen? Well, let me tell you about how my parents met and I came to be.
"A long time ago, my father, Jack, who was one of 13 children, lived in Dublin on the east coast of Ireland, and my mother, Mary, lived in a small town far away on the west coast of Ireland. How did they come together? Well, instead of going on to school, my father had to work to help support his family. He got a job at a bank. But he was a single man, so the bank sent him to work in one of the branches in a small town.
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"My mother was the bookkeeper for her father's shop. Every evening she would go to the bank to make a deposit. After some time her father began to wonder why it was taking longer and longer to count the money.
"For them to continue keeping company, Jack had to go to Sunday dinner and have a talk with the man who would become my grandfather, Tom. After dinner, Mary and her mother and siblings went into the kitchen so the men could talk. After a half an hour, my mother and her siblings crowded around the key hole in the kitchen door and saw that Jack and Tom were sound asleep in their chairs before the fire.
"As I heard the story, my grandfather thought afterward when Jack asked permission to marry my mother, 'Well, if he can sleep so peacefully beside me, why not my daughter?'
"So my parents were married and nine months later to the day I was born. And not a minute sooner, mind you!"
Father Walsh paused and then said, "I was just this tiny embryo in my mother's womb and they had no idea that all the information on who I was and who I would become was contained in that tiny embryo, like a mustard seed.
"They took care of me, and the occasional Guinness didn't hurt either!"
But like my co-parishioners, I had not read the article in The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, that had arrived on Friday. An article titled "Archdiocese Launches Creation Sustainability Ministry on October 4th" by Doris Benavides, states that "October 4 is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the ecology, and the day after Respect Life Sunday designated by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. Respecting creation, St. Francis believed, is an essential step in addressing poverty and all attacks on life." There were also articles about the death penalty in California.
There was nothing in the parish bulletin about Respect Life Sunday or this new initiative. Just to see what another diocese was doing, I checked the online bulletin for St. Joseph's Cathedral in San Diego and there was mention of October as Respect Life Month.
I posted a reflection in Facebook, and a friend commented right away that the homily in her parish in suburban Washington, D.C., was about how much God will bless us if we tithe 10% - no mention of Respect Life Sunday or month for that matter.
Reflecting on our Respect Life efforts as Church in the United States, I recalled how impressed I was when I heard what President Obama said on Sept. 28 when a woman asked him about his Christian identity and his views on abortion. He said that decisions about abortions should be made by families, not the government.
After Mass last night I visited the USCCB's Respect Life Program site to check for current resources, and they have online all the materials , posters, study guides, prayers, they have prepared since 1996. Then I went to the page with the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities: A Campaign in Support of Life, last revised in 2001. The main themes are abortion, contraception and capital punishment. But a careful look at the suggestions for parents to talk about critical life issues with children, got only minimal mention at the very bottom of the list of action items.
My conclusion this Sunday is that there is not a concerted pastoral effort on the level of family life to promote respect for life from conception to natural death. After all, the number of abortions each year in this country has remained the same for the last decade. What we have is a loud pro-life and anti-abortion lobby fighting for legislation to protect life and assure that our tax dollars do not go to the support of abortion and contraception. And we need this though the timbre is so shrill people tend to turn it off. But if we are not promoting life by living our Christian values and talking about them within the family first of all, then laws and culture are not going to change. If parents are not watching movies and television with their kids or talking about what the lyrics of the songs they listen to and what they mean, then the storytellers are in charge of the culture.
The storytellers of tomorrow, the lawmakers, the politicians, the medical professionals, the parents of tomorrow, are in our pews, living rooms and classrooms right now.
Let's move the family to the top of the list of Respect Life strategies. When a girl or woman considers an abortion, to what or to whom does she turn for advice and support to keep her child? What family values and lessons did she learn while growing up? Does the family have a wholesome and authentic attitude toward love and sexuality? If a girl becomes pregnant, does she know her family will support her no matter what? If a mother without means or a husband becomes pregnant, does she know where to turn? And what are we doing to form the fathers of tomorrow? Perhaps a new family emphasis on Respect Life will help parents be parents so that love can transcend and motivate the choices parents and families make.
Obama had a point. Why are we not advocating for family support and life catechesis so abortion is never even considered an option? Why are all our efforts focused on politicians and lawmakers? Abortion is not a family's choice as the President suggests because it can never be a moral option. But it is for families to talk and teach about respect for life first of all and to live family love.
The congregation laughed all the way through Father Walsh's brief homily. Then the cantor for the Mass did something she has never done in all the years I have been going to this parish. Before beginning the recessional song, she said, "Let's all thank Father Walsh for that wonderful story!" and everyone clapped and clapped. And I bet everyone knew it was Right to Life Sunday when they left the church after Mass
Parents and grandparents, won't you tell your kids your love stories today? Everyone loves a love story.
(Some of the names here are fictitious, but the story is true.)