This is Bishop Bonnar’s homily for the Diocese of Youngstown’s annual Mass for Respect Life Month, which was celebrated at St. Paul Parish in North Canton on Sunday, October 1, 2023.
When I was a young priest, I remember going on my annual retreat and the retreat master said something that really helped me to appreciate who I am and what I do. He said, “The priest has a front row seat in the drama of life.” Indeed, we priests see a lot. But it is not always life, but it is also in death.
Recently, I was asked by a family who were former parishioners of mine to officiate at a committal service at Calvary Cemetery in Youngstown for a twelve-week-old baby who died in the womb of her mother. The service was very private inasmuch as it involved simply the young married couple and the mother’s parents and two cemetery employees. It is in moments such as these, when there are seemingly no words, that we priests rely upon the words of the Church provided in the Funeral Ritual. I was humbled to have shared this intimate and painful moment with this loving couple.
And yet, as is so often the case, they did more for me than I could ever do for them. It began with how they reverently cradled the box with the mortal remains of that precious life as if the little one’s heart was beating. But even though there was no longer any sign of life, they sacredly beheld that life even in death. What really struck me, a sight I will never forget, was when they both placed the box with the remains in the ground. It was done with such reverence and grace because they knew in their heart of hearts that this box contained the fruit of their marital love and the concrete reality of human life that from conception demands respect and dignity. In short, this moment in the cemetery strengthened my conviction that life begins in the womb and that all life is sacred and precious. Moreover, this sad but faith filled moment reaffirmed my responsibility as a bishop to promote a culture of life and a civilization of love.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where this conviction about life is being challenged and the responsibility to safeguard it is being overshadowed by personal rights and freedoms resulting in the loss of life. Here in our state of Ohio there is a proposed amendment on the November ballot that is extreme and dangerous on three levels. First, this proposed amendment puts women at risk as it will remove existing health and safety standards when it comes to abortions. Current Ohio laws require abortion providers to explain procedure risks and ensure access to hospital transfer if needed. These health and safety standards, and others, could be seen as a ‘burden’ and be eliminated, making it even less safe for women seeking an abortion.
Second, this proposed amendment would threaten parental rights. By using the term “individual” instead of adult or woman, anyone under 18 (male or female) can obtain birth control, an abortion, or other “reproductive decisions,” without parental notification or consent. The language of the amendment states, “Every individual has a right to make and carry out their own reproductive decisions.” Do you think a thirteen-year-old girl should make that decision without some counsel from parents?
Finally, this amendment is extreme and dangerous because it allows for painful abortions of fully formed babies in the womb. In this amendment, abortion is legal at any time in pregnancy for any “health” reason which could include physical, emotional, psychological, familial, or the woman’s age, allowing for abortions when the baby can feel pain or even up until birth. There is nothing so horrific than watching or knowing a little one is suffering. In addition, with this amendment doctors decide at what point the baby could survive outside the womb, meaning no limit to abortion, even if the baby is fully formed.
The readings for today’s Mass speak to this current issue of life. In the first reading, the prophet Ezekiel raises the issue of fairness. He says, “Thus says the Lord, you say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!’ Is it my ways that are not unfair, or is it your ways unfair?” There are some in this debate who believe it is unfair to deny someone an abortion. They ask, “How can the government or the Church tell me what to do with my body?” This is captured in the phrase, “My body, my rights.” We must acknowledge that, below the surface of this slogan is the real worry and anxiety some pregnant women feel. We must walk with women in their anxiety. At the same time, as people committed to life we must always shine a light on the rights of the voiceless, the life conceived in the womb. How fair is it that preborn life can be thrown away? How fair is it that this November’s amendment would make it even easier? How fair is it that both preborn children and the health and safety of women are being put at risk in our “throwaway culture?”
The psalmist cries out, “Remember your mercies, O Lord.” As this debate continues, we cannot lose sight that God is the judge and the Father of Mercy. As passionate as we might be on either side of the equation, we need to resist the temptation to be angry, judge, or condemn others. Our God is a merciful God whose love and forgiveness cannot be limited or contained. We ask God for special mercies and favors on those little ones who never had a chance, upon all those who have participated in an abortion and upon anyone who has condemned them for it. In my 35 years of priesthood, I have found that there is a trauma associated with abortion that never leaves someone. I have also found that there are many courageous and faith-filled women who humbly confront this loss with a renewed appreciation for life thanks to those who accompany them. Wherever we are in this debate, we can never give up on each other. God calls us to be his mercy.
In the second reading, Saint Paul tells the Philippians and us these words, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” This is our moment, brothers and sisters, to put others before ourselves, most notably, the unborn in the womb, women, minors, parents and all those who seek proper health care. As this debate focuses in large part on abortion, we cannot forget the others in our world who suffer from injustice, namely, the elderly, the poor, the orphaned, the widow, the incarcerated especially those on death row, migrants, the undocumented, and refugees. In what has become more and more a culture of me, we must not lose sight of the we and the fact that we are all in this together.
Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus tells a story that centers on two simple words that can become so complex when they take us beyond the lips, namely, “yes,” and “no.” Jesus demonstrates that while we may say “yes” in word we may fall short in deed. The same could be said about “no.” We may say “no” on our lips, but our actions may say something differently. It is in these responses or lack thereof that we live out our lives.
I stand here today not as a politician but as a faith leader who cares very deeply about life and the dignity of every human person. In a little over a month, we will exercise our faithful citizenship by going to the polls to vote on an issue that has divided our country, churches, and families. I realize that given our human nature that the debate will rage on. Nevertheless, I am asking you to say “NO” to the amendment allowing abortion in our state because of its extreme and dangerous consequences that put women at risk, threaten parental rights, and allow for painful late-term abortions.
As you may know, my episcopal motto is “That all may be one.” Even in our division over this issue, I still believe that this prayer of Jesus can draw us together to face this challenge. In this assembly are people who have worked against abortion for many years. Among us also may be some who are pro-choice. Due to the extreme and dangerous aspects of this amendment I ask that all of us vote “No.” I ask that we come together in this moment to defeat an amendment that simply goes too far. I ask that we come together to look out for one another and for the gift of life at its earliest stages.