(27th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 2 October, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich R.I.)
I think that all of us by now are familiar with the images of the destruction left in the wake of the hurricanes that hit the gulf coast. We can only imagine what it would be like to return to a home that has been transformed, overnight, into ruins.
And that is the very picture we are given in the first reading this morning. Isaiah describes a vineyard which was carefully established by God, a vineyard that was built to bear fruit and new life, but instead it has yielded nothing but wild grapes. The owner of that vineyard returns to find it quite the opposite from what had intended all along.
This Sunday is Respect Life Sunday, a chance for all of us to thank God for the gift of life, but also an opportunity for us to look at our own backyard, our own vineyard—as a country or perhaps even more locally as a state—and to ask if it is everything that the Lord intended.
Ten years ago, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life. In that encyclical he spoke about two opposing forces that he called the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death.
It is easy to see that the second of those two is not at all what God had in mind when he created us. Taking just a couple of sentences from that encyclical, you can figure out whose vineyard John Paul II is talking about. He writes:
Broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom . . .
The fact that legislation in many countries, perhaps even departing from basic principles in their Constitutions, has determined not to punish these practices against life, and even to make them altogether legal, is both a disturbing symptom and significant cause of grave moral decline.
-Evangelium Vitae, #4
It is the vineyard described by the prophet Isaiah, something altogether different from the plan God began in the Garden of Eden.
And the numbers can be so daunting, the issues in biomedical ethics so complicated, the Culture of Death so nebulous and vast, that we can begin to wonder if anything that we do will make any difference whatsoever. We can easily feel helpless to change the vineyard around us into the Culture of Life that God intended from the beginning.
I used to pray the rosary, on Saturday mornings, outside the abortion clinic on Atwells Avenue. There were always dozens of people who would go and pray there, hoping to turn away at least one person, to possibly change one person’s mind. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it did not.
I remember one day in particular, as we prayed on the sidewalk of that clinic, I looked up into the large plate-glass window of the second floor and saw a young woman who had entered the clinic earlier that morning.
She was facing out, her hands pressed against the glass, as if she could leave that place just by wishing with all her might and all her will that she was someplace else; someplace far, far away. I felt so completely helpless and so terribly sad for that woman, who probably understood very little of what was taking place around her.
Not long after that I entered the seminary, and I was away studying when I learned about what happened to that clinic on Atwells Avenue. You may have heard of the Mother of Life Center. It is a building in Providence, directly across the street from that clinic on Atwells Avenue. It was built by several people of our diocese who were determined to do something to respond to the Culture of Death so evident in our own backyard.
They received permission from Bishop Mulvee to put a chapel in that Mother of Life Center, and to reserve the Blessed Sacrament there. Not long after that, they discovered that the abortion clinic across the street was closing down.
It might not sound like much and it doesn’t eliminate all the problems that still exist, but it’s something. It’s a ray of hope and a reminder to us all that the Culture of Life that God intended still has a place in this world.
In 1994, a doctor named Theresa Karminski Burke published a book called Rachel’s Vineyard; It described a support group model for counselors, that offered help for women who were grieving the loss of their aborted children. One year later, the same year that John Paul II wrote Evangelium Vitae, Dr. Burke began to organize retreats for women who had suffered that tragic loss.
Women from all over the country began to travel great distances to attend these retreats. Today they are available in almost every state, offering healing and hope to thousands of mothers who have suffered the loss of a child through abortion, and the tremendous pain, guilt and sorrow that goes along with that.
Again, it may not seem like much on the grand scale. It doesn’t solve everything. But it points to the reality that God has not yet given up on this vineyard. Through places like the Mother of Life Center, and programs like Rachel’s Vineyard, God is taking back the vineyard, one abortion clinic at a time, one woman at a time, one mind and heart at a time, for each and every one of us who will listen.
This morning we need to listen carefully to discover what exactly God is asking us to do. We won’t all be called to build a center for unwed mothers; most of us won’t write a book. But all of us can pray the rosary. We can all stand up and witness to the Culture of Life in some way, somehow, in the world we live in. Christ is counting on us to do exactly that.