During his inaugural address, Bishop Philip Egan the new Bishop of Portsmouth has urged Catholics to fight “the strangling counter-culture of death”. Specifically he spoke about how we as Christians must offer the salvific message of the Good News and the “civilisation of love it occasions. We must communicate imaginatively, with confidence and clarity, together with our fellow Christians, and all people of faith and good will, to the people of England, this wonderful land, Mary’s Dowry.”
It echoed the reflection issued today, on the first day of the Forty Days for Life campaign and answers the critics who ask why Christians feel the need to pray outside abortion clinics. As Christians, we are messengers, ambassadors for Christ, not coming with messages of condemnation or hate, but simply with love. Why do we stand outside clinics? It’s not to condemn or harass but to let people know that we are there, offering prayers not only for the unborn children and their mothers but also for the abortion clinic workers. Shawn Cawney, the director of Forty Days for Life in the US, testifies that it’s the prayer and peacefulness of the campaign that has affected many workers, particularly the presence of the same volunteers, day after day in all winds and weathers, that really begins to shift previously deeply entrenched attitudes. In relation to her own conversion of heart, former abortion clinic worker Jewels Green notes:
“The 40 Days for Life movement has changed the hearts and minds of not just those outside the clinic, but inside as well. For those who work inside, they feel what’s going on outside the door. That makes it easier to leave — if you know that you’ll be accepted into open, forgiving and loving arms outside.”
Clinic vigils take place for a variety of reasons and none of them are about hassling or intimidating women. The clinics are places of death and destruction of human life and so it is only natural to go and pray at the scenes where human lives are eviscerated, in the same way that vigils are held outside prisons when a sentence of death is being carried out. There is the indisputable fact that many women are influenced by the presence of the volunteers, particularly those who are feeling uncertain and especially those who are being pressurised or coerced. The very existence of the volunteers provides a last ditch opportunity for women to turn back and experience shows it is those who want to turn back, who don’t really want to abort, who are the ones to initiate contact. It is a hand outstretched in love, never a finger pointed in hate or condemnation. It is the act that is abhorrent, not the person, who is made in the same likeness and image of Christ as ourselves. The volunteers know full well that societal and personal pressures often convince women that they really do have no other choice; these are very often women living on the margins of society who literally have nothing, no access to benefits and are scratching a living, or women who simply have not been offered a true choice in terms of the opportunity to explore the options around keeping the child.
The other aspects of 40 days for life are naturally downplayed by the media, but just as important as the clinic vigils themselves, is the community outreach, prayer and fasting. The community outreach consists of attempts to engage with passers by and those in the area, again, never forcing themselves on anyone, but the offering of scientifically correct information – refusals are graciously accepted.
In terms of prayer, for those who cannot attend the vigils, it is asked that people say a rosary, or an extra rosary if it is said daily, for the intentions of Forty Days for Life. On days of prayer and fasting – the next one coming up is this Friday, 28 September, people can also offer an extra effort such as going to Mass, or an extra Mass, or attending Adoration. Another good discipline is to sign up to the mailing list to receive daily reflections, passages from Scripture and prayer intentions. Fasting can be either a total fast aside from bread and water, or an eschewing of a particular food or luxury, but it must consist of something sacrificial and not be merely a token gesture.
Bishop Kieran Conry summed up the spirit of Forty Days for Life when he called for a return to public prayer on the first Friday of every month to mark the Year of Faith, not only as a way of deepening one’s personal relationship with Christ, but also as a way of quietly and confidently witnessing your faith to those around you. As Catholics, as Christians, we are called to live our faith, which entails an element of public witness, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to the typically reserved English psyche. We should not be ashamed to fight for a voice in the public square and we should not succumb to the secular agenda who would wish us not to manifest any symbols or practices of faith outside of our homes and churches.
What some Catholic pro-lifers forget, is that 40 Days for Life and groups such as the Good Counsel Network or Helpers of God’s Precious Infants are absolutely not about the politics but are apostolates, ones that must be supported and encouraged being wholly in accordance with church doctrine. They are truth and charity in action, a complement to what must happen in the ante-rooms and chambers of Westminster, a totally separate mission from the political manoeuvrings. As Catholics we must support and encourage good deeds and spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Politics and prayer are not mutually exclusive. We should not be afraid to display that we are motivated by faith, despite not requiring it to make a cogent watertight pro-life case to the wider world.
If we want to participate in the New Evangelisation, to articulate the message of Christ, to bring about conversion of heart, this civilisation of love and reclaim Mary’s Dowry from the chokehold of the culture of death, then the prayers, fasting and vigils that consist of the Forty Days for Life campaign is a very good place to start.