A Battle between Heaven and Hell

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I went to see David Bereit, one of the founders of the 40 Days for Life movement, when he came to give encouragement and support to those involved in the vigils outside the Wistons clinic in Brighton, at a talk last night.

There were many positive and encouraging stories of what the movement has achieved, how a simple one-hour prayer vigil by a group of 3 friends outside a clinic in Texas in 2004 has rapidly expanded to become a worldwide and global movement, and the importance of the UK in this effort. Colette, one of the volunteers I met in London during the last campaign had travelled here in order to be a part of it, having been so impressed by what she’d read and has now taken the campaign back to her home country of South Africa. Another volunteer has also taken the campaign to Russia; the UK is seen as an international hub or a global gateway, what happens here influences other countries, so seen in this context its not surprising that the opposition has been quite so vociferous.

David talked about a seminal moment in his pro-life journey which sent shivers down my spine – whatever the explanation for events, there could be no doubting his sincerity and it certainly played well with the mainly Evangelical attendees.  David sees the mass slaughter of the unborn as the great spiritual battle of our age and attempts to rouse people out of their apathy and reluctance. Abortion is, he says, the defining crisis of our generation, it is literally a battle between  life and death, a battle between heaven and hell and what we will be accountable to God for. What we did and what we did not do.

In terms of the eschatological terminology I think he definitely has a point. Though many of the topics of this blog are unpalatable to many, it is without a doubt, the posts regarding abortion and the 40 days for life movement in particular, that arouse the most anger, vitriol and abuse, especially anything where I might write about pro-life witness. Someone once said to me ‘Caroline, you’re really rattling the cages of hell here’ and whilst I would eschew any description that would attempt to paint me in any sort of saintly, righteous or pious light, knowing that I am very very far from being pure in heart, it does sometimes feel like there are dark forces at work, not least in terms of anger and various attempts to prevent or put stumbling blocks in the way of 40 Days for Life, which has three elements at its heart – prayer and fasting, clinic vigils and community outreach.

Had the local feminist collective known about last night’s visit, they would no doubt have been protesting outside, with banners about ‘slut-shaming’ and removing their rights, we would have been seen as a group of moralisers seeking to oppress them and violently force them into gruesome births or seedy filthy backstreet abortions involving coat-hangers, whereas actually the discussion revolved around women’s welfare, what more could be done to help, how to make outreach compassionate and effective. There was no judgement about the women themselves let alone their sexual morality. This was a group of Christians wanting to bear witness and demonstrate caritas in action.

40 Days for Life was chosen as a result of its many biblical references – Noah was in the ark for 40 days and nights whilst God punished the world with a flood, Moses spent 40 days and nights on a mountain with God on two occasions, Goliath taunted the Israelite army for 4o days, God was planning to destroy the city of Ninevah in 40 days, before he saw the acts of repentance of the Ninevites and had compassion on them and in the New Testament, Jesus was fasted and was tempted by the devil when he was at his weakest after 40 days and 40 nights and of course following the Resurrection, he appeared to his followers and disciples for a period of 40 days before He ascended into heaven. Forty days is then a time of testing and a time of transformation.

Forty days for life is living God’s vision as if we were being salt and light. The clinic vigils take place because we know that whenever two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus, he is there among them. It is to bring Christ’s presence where it is most needed – outside the abortion clinics and to awaken the conscience of the Christian community. The frequent turnarounds (there have been at least 10 already in the past 8 days in London) show that sometimes God can reach the heart of the mother.

Which brings me on to the hard part. There is something troubling my conscience about which I have agonised over, in terms of whether or not to remain silent. I mentioned that last night the meeting was mainly attended by the Evangelical stalwarts of the campaign. Only 4 Catholics attended, including myself and the head of the Worthing branch of SPUC, despite the fact that Brighton and Hove is a thriving deanery. The Wistons clinics conducts 4,000 abortions every year, equivalent to two and half classes of schoolchildren every week, in the heart of our city.

One of the attendees. Michael Petek (who comments here on Protect the Pope) discussed his disappointment having read on a local parish newsletter, that the local deanery clergy were in consensus that Catholics should not attend the 40 Days for Life vigils because of the negative press coverage and because it undermined the educational work of other pro-life charities such as LIFE.

This has been weighing really heavily on me since I saw the announcement myself on a pewsheet on Sunday and it’s caused me many tears and anguish for a number of reasons. Firstly I know the clergy of the deanery, they are good wise and holy men and I have no doubt as to their integrity or that this is a considered decision. Secondly, I don’t want to be seen as an agitator or denouncer and someone who doesn’t know her place. The thing is that I’m very much of the WSIWYG school – what you see is very much what you get with me, I wear my heart on my sleeve much more than is probably wise and it’s why I would never consider a career in politics or the diplomatic service. I am worried that I am the wrong person to speak out on this one, for a variety of reasons, but what I would say is that my concerns and hurt are not personal grievances with individuals.

Like many Catholics, I respect, trust and look up to our clergy. If they advise me as to a course of action, I will follow their guidance. Therefore if they are advising people not to join the 40 Days for Life vigils, it feels like something of act of disobedience to participate. Whilst I know that clergy are not infallible and we have to be aware of clericalism, to participate in a prayer vigil, now feels like an open act of defiance. It will certainly deter many of the faithful from getting involved, knowing that the diocesan clergy seem to have reached a consensus (according to the notice) that the vigils are not a good thing for Catholics.

Personally I can’t help but feel very hurt and almost betrayed, given that I do volunteer a lot of my precious spare time and energy to this cause trying to shake people out of their apathy, which is obviously seen as being unhelpful and counterproductive. One of the other Catholics who attended last night’s meeting, kept repeating in disbelief,’ is this really what was being said’, such was her incredulity. Catholics, innate defenders of the unborn, are being urged not to publicly pray outside abortion clinics, because of what other people might think and because it might obscure the pro-life message in schools.

Think about that for a minute. Priests are telling Catholics not to pray in public, for fear of public opinion. It just feels so innately wrong and if nothing else, hands a huge victory to the pro-choicers. I am not clear as to how 40 days for Life might damage the work of LIFE in schools either.

I don’t wish to sow discord or more factionalism. I am more sad and hurt than anything else, but to me this seems symptomatic of the spiritual battle we are facing, one which I think we will win and one that I am proud to play my part in, despite the smears of those who would wish to portray  us as fundamentalist nutters looking to harass and threaten, when we, along with others, know the truth. Compare and contrast what the Good Counsel Network are offering with what the pro-choicers are offering.

Unborn children are saved, they may be small in number, but they are every bit as precious and valuable. Hearts and minds are changed by peaceful prayerful witness and surely as Christians we believe that God answers prayer and in the power of vigils? I cannot get my head around Catholics being asked to stay away from public prayer vigils for the unborn in this Year of Faith, by those who have care of souls. I am deeply deeply troubled and scandalised, whilst not wishing to cause scandal or escalate matters. I am writing this with a very heavy heart indeed.

As I said, I am no saint, but I have been praying here to Bernadette Soubirous, someone else whose public prayer was discouraged by the clergy. To me, this is simply yet another manifestation of David’s words, this is spiritual warfare, this is the battle between heaven and hell and I pray to God that I’m on the right side. One day my children and grandchildren will ask me ‘what did you do in the fight against abortion’ and I hope to be able to tell them how I tried my best, I wasn’t afraid to be painted as a nutter and face public vitriol and abuse for praying for the unborn, that I tried to reach out and help women and change hearts and minds.  I hope to be able to say the same to my Creator as well.

And before complaints come flooding in about the diocese or particular individuals (which won’t be published) I will state that this is an initiative that seems to be being supported by our diocese. 

Please join me in prayers that it isn’t too late to change hearts and minds in Brighton. And let me know your thoughts from a Catholic perspective.