This was preached on January 24 (in a slightly modified form), the morning of the March for Life, to a congregation of Jesuit high school and university students at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, DC. For the details of the Mass, sponsored by the US Jesuit Conference, the Ignatian Pro-Life Network, and the Apostleship of Prayer, see the Mass for Life Program 2011. The Gospel text was Matthew 5:1-12a, the Beatitudes.
There’s an important and easily-overlooked detail in today’s Gospel passage, one that suggests why we’re here at the March and why we’re here at this Mass. It’s the intended audience of Jesus’ preaching. When Jesus sees the “crowds” approaching, he doesn’t begin teaching them directly. Instead, Jesus walks up a mountain, He lets His disciples approach Him, and He proceeds to teach them. The them seem to be the disciples. Initially, there’s no indication that the “crowds” follow Jesus up the mountain. Plus, y’all have been to enough stadiums and auditoriums to know that, if your priority is really to be heard by the greatest number, you don’t climb to the top of a mountain and shout down at people. You stay on the valley floor and arrange your audience up and down the side of the hill.
Why? Was Jesus just indifferent to the crowds that followed him around? Far from it. But I think Jesus was keenly aware that simply scattering His words among these ever-shifting “crowds,” many of whom were simply curiosity-seekers, would have little positive effect. The crowds might come know his words, but they wouldn’t know HIM. No, in order for His words to remain true, in order for them to gain power in culture and in laws, in order for the Gospel of Life to thrive, Jesus would need living words. He would need disciples formed after his own heart. And it was through these steady followers that he desired, ultimately, to touch the “crowds.”
This, to my mind, goes a long way toward explaining why we’re here at Mass on the morning of the March for Life. We march to witness to the Truth before the “crowds.” We march to change minds and hearts. But, in order to do so effectively, we first have to spend time with Christ, to let Him form His heart in us.
To that end, I though I might highlight three qualities of Christ’s heart particularly relevant to the defense of women and the unborn. These are three of the beatitudes from today’s Gospel, which, taken together, are nothing other than a portrait of Christ’s heart.
First, Jesus was persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Now being Pro-Life here in the US rarely requires us to endure mob violence or imprisonment. But it does require a little bit of social courage—a willingness to looked down on, to be excluded from certain circles. But isn’t it worth it? To suffer a snub for the sake of justice, for the sake of witnessing to that inconvenient truth: that last year, in the US alone, there were 1.25 million violent—and legally-sanctioned—attacks on human life in the form of abortion? This does number does not even take into account the tremendous emotional and spiritual injury done to the mothers and fathers of these children, many of whom were deceived into thinking they had no other choice. Few are sufficiently awake to this fact. For that reason, awakening others will require courage: people tend to be grumpy when they’re first woken from sleep.
Second, Jesus is clean of heart: I grow every year more convinced that sexual purity has to be at the heart of the Pro-Life movement. It’s no secret that modern media and a permissive culture present us with many more temptations against purity than ever before. But to be truly Pro-Life, we have to resist. The more lust controls our hearts and those of our contemporaries, the less ready we will be to accept the consequences of sex—including the consequence of new life. This means more than just avoiding the culture of random hook-ups—though that’s a pretty good start. It may even mean rethinking our entertainment choices. Do I lend support to the Culture of Death, even against my stated intentions, by the movies that I watch and the music I listen to? Will we let Jesus be our model even here?
Third, Jesus is merciful. I don’t think this can be stressed enough—and this for a couple reasons. First, once someone has become personally involved in abortion, he or she doesn’t want to hear arguments. The wounds are too deep and the personal stakes are too high. The best hope for their conversion of heart is that they encounter someone truly merciful—that they encounter Christ or someone very like Him. Only when we meet someone who accepts before he judges, can we let our guards down.
Second, abortion affects people we may not expect. It mostly affects people your age. It may affect your dorm-mate or your teammate. And they may not tell you. Hence, we may not know when people are studying us, to gauge whether we are merciful, whether they can trust us. In order to change hearts, mercy must become a habit of our heart. And, in order to cultivate a merciful heart, we must first open ourselves to mercy. We must return to Christ again and again—especially through sacramental confession.
Being Pro-Life means transformation at so many levels. Yes, we march to denounce structures of injustice that promote abortion, of which the Roe decision is today the most striking. But there is something still more challenging. To be thoroughly Pro-Life, we have to begin to erase the traces of the culture of death in our own hearts. That means permitting Christ to form in us hearts that are clean, courageous, merciful. With such witnesses, with such hearts, Christ desires to transform the “crowds,” to heal our nation.