The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on Jan. 21 during the Respect Life Mass at St. Mary Church in Alexandria.
Once again, as we gather to celebrate our monthly Respect Life Mass, we find ourselves honoring a martyr. Today, our sacred liturgy focuses on St. Agnes, virgin and martyr. The word "martyr" means "witness." Is this not what the Lord is calling us to do " to witness to the Truth which He proclaims through the Gospel? Our late Holy Father Pope John Paul II reminded us that "The Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel" (Evangelium Vitae, No. 2).
The Lord calls us to be witnesses in real situations. Often, our witness will be unwelcome, misunderstood, ridiculed and even opposed. But, witness we must despite the negative reaction we may encounter.
Our witness will often be made in the midst of a divided community, sometimes even within our own household of the faith. Of course, this should not surprise us, since division within a church community has been a real part of our history since the beginning. Today's first reading is taken from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. The Church at Corinth was divided into factions. Ambition and arrogance distorted the response of the Corinthians to the Truth which St. Paul was proclaiming.
The sad situation which we face today is that those who claim to be followers of Christ are divided in terms of the life issues. One such issue is stem-cell research. This week Bishop DiLorenzo and I have addressed a pastoral letter to the Catholics in Virginia, explaining the Church's teaching on stem-cell research; this letter was published in Thursday's edition of the Arlington Catholic Herald. Permit me to quote one of its paragraphs:
"Because every human life is sacred, our Church embraces scientific and medical advances that save lives, cure diseases, and improve health, as long as those advances are not made by exploiting, harming, or killing another member of our human family. Viewed in this light, research on stem cells offers both great promises and grave pitfalls. Catholic teaching affirms the great good that can be derived from research on stem cells that are obtained from morally licit sources, like adult tissues and umbilical-cord blood. Indeed, such stem cells have already helped thousands of patients with dozens of different conditions. But just as the Church supports life-affirming research, it also opposes research on stem cells obtained by destroying human embryos. In their efforts to find treatments and even cures of debilitating conditions, researchers must never deliberately extinguish the lives of others."
Much education needs to be done on this issue, so that our society can understand clearly what to advance and what to prohibit and the reasons for these decisions. You and I are to be true witnesses to the Truth in this issue. That will require prayer, penance and ongoing reflection rooted in the Church's clear teaching.
Obviously, we are called to continue our witness about life at its very beginning at conception. Every abortion denies and defies this truth. On Monday, the annual March for Life will take place in our nation's capital. Again, we must be true witnesses. Such witness is grounded in an authentically holy life. Prayer and penance are essential ingredients in the process to become holy. Let us make every effort to pray and to do penance on Monday. Above all, let us seek the Lord's transforming grace in the Eucharist. For those among us who are able, let us join our fellow witnesses by marching on Monday, thereby giving a tangible expression to our united witness.
This witness continues throughout the year as well. This monthly Respect Life Masses and praying the Rosary outside an abortion facility make our witness more evident and visible, thereby encouraging others to understand the Truth about life and to join us in our efforts to change the present culture of death into a new culture of life. Recently Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the culture of death, stating that it ""makes of man a thing, so to speak, as it no longer considers him a person, with personal love, with fidelity, but turns him into merchandise" (Homily on Jan. 8, 2006).
Yes, our witness must be given in real situations; it must be tangible and evident; it must be both individual and communal.
Because witnessing is not easy, we need to be encouraged. The saint we honor today, herself a virgin and martyr, does indeed give us renewed energy and zeal. She was only a child, yet she willingly gave up her life in witness to virginity for the sake of the kingdom. She had found the pearl of great price " Jesus Himself, and she was absolutely clear about giving up everything " including her life " for her Beloved.
The witness of St. Agnes does encourage and strengthen us as we seek from the Lord the grace to be faithful witnesses to His Truth about life. Ultimately, witness is stronger and more enduring, so we willingly and joyfully recommit ourselves today to the call we have received: to be loyal to the Faith which St. Agnes professed and to witness to the Gospel of Life in all its integrity and fullness, whatever the cost. Amen!