"We have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary..." These are consoling words we heard in this evening's reading from the Bible. And here we gather in this splendid shrine of the Mother of Jesus, whom he gave to us as our mother, too, from his cross before he died.
The Italians, the Spanish-speaking, would call this, not a shrine, but a santuario, a sanctuary.
How fitting indeed that we would assemble in a sanctuary, as we seek protection, grace, mercy and guidance in a holy, safe, secure place that reeks of the divine, that envelops us in God's embrace, where we sense the presence of our heavenly mother, as we are renewed by prayer, encouraged by the solidarity of so many brothers and sisters in the faith, as we are heartened by his Word, as we are nourished by the bread of angels, as we are sent out in confidence for our pro-life testimony tomorrow.
"We do indeed have confidence within this sanctuary."
Our ancestors in the faith, the People of Israel, sought such divine solace in their sanctuaries, remember?
Mary and Joseph brought Jesus annually to the sanctuary of the great temple in Jerusalem, didn't they?
Through church history, those scared, in trouble or need, those on the run escaping pursuers, would claim the right of sanctuary as they rushed frightened and breathless in the safety of their Father's house, the sanctuaries of great churches like this one.
The pilgrims who left religious harassment in England sought such sanctuary in this land we now, with them, gratefully cherish as our earthly home.
Our grandparents and ancestors continued that grand tradition, coming to this country as immigrants, with hardly anything but the clothes on their back, but clinging within to that "pearl of great price," their faith, which inspired dreams and hopes for safety and security in a land they approached as a sanctuary.
Today, refugees and immigrants continue to believe that this nation is still a sanctuary, as they arrive with relief and thanksgiving, and we pray they are never let down!
We come together this evening in a church we call a sanctuary, in a land historically termed a sanctuary, on a planet the Creator intended as an environment of a sanctuary.
To reclaim the belief of nature and supernature that a mother's womb is the primal sanctuary, where a helpless, innocent, fragile, tiny baby is safe, secure, nurtured and protected.
Should it shock us, as Pope Francis asks in his ongoing global examination of conscience, that a culture that violently intrudes upon the life of a baby in the sanctuary of his or her mother's womb, would soon lose reverence for all places intended by God as safe, secure, and nurturing; that such a society would begin to treat the sanctuary of the earth's environment as a toxic waste dump; would begin to consider homes and neighborhoods as dangerous instead of as sanctuaries where families are protected and fostered; would commence to approach the poor as bothersome instead of brothers; would lock the doors to a nation celebrated as a sanctuary to scared, scarred, and shivering immigrants eager for a new home, and would burden the dying with guilt for peacefully and patiently savoring each day until God takes them, pressuring them instead to suicide?
Can any of us be safe, can any of us claim a sanctuary anywhere when the first and most significant sanctuary of them all, the mother's womb protecting a tiny life, can be raided and ravaged?
I think this evening of another sanctuary, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the massive square leading into it, brilliantly designed by Bernini. When asked about the geometry of the massive colonnades surrounding the square, the artist explained that these were the arms of God, the outreach of Jesus gathering us in, the embrace of our Mother Mary and holy Mother Church, tenderly protecting her children.
Behold our model, our paradigm...a sanctuary which beckons us, where we are safe and secure in our mother's tender yet strong embrace, where the Creator himself assures us of protection and life itself, a sanctuary God has designed for us to protect our lives now and in eternity.
Behold the baby in the sanctuary of the womb. Once that's violated, once a society deems it legal to invade it, the integrity of the natural and the supernatural are ruptured, and we have no place safe and secure left to go.
We praise you, dear God, for your assurances and encouragement of this evening; we have confidence in the sacredness of sanctuary, you intended to protect your children;p and we entrust to you all our efforts to uphold the sacredness of human life.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York
As soon as I read this sermon, I knew that Cardinal Dolan, current chair of the U.S.C.C.B. committee for pro-life activities, was alluding to the spirit and person of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, a former chair of the same committee. For it was Cardinal Bernardin who popularized the important concept of the "consistent ethic of life." In this understanding of Catholic moral theology, all human life has to be protected, from womb to tomb. It was a way of linking opposition to abortion, capital punishment, economic injustice, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and unjust war. The consistent ethic of life was also known by the image of a "seamless garment," in reference (John 19:23) to the garment taken from Jesus before he was crucified.
Since Bernardin's death in 1996, many anti-abortionists and pro-lifers moved away from the seamless garment image and concept. They felt that it allowed Catholic politicians to support Roe v. Wade while still remaining Catholic; they felt that it knocked abortion down to "just one issue among many." From my reading of Bernardin's many sermons and talks, and others who followed up with theological reflection on this, I fervently disagree. But there is no doubt that a small but vocal slice of public Catholicism rejected and continues to reject the seamless garment, even as they sneered at Bernardin and his efforts to bring Catholic teaching into the public square of American culture and politics.
So, hurray for you, Cardinal Dolan. No one can doubt your bona fides as an out-spoken opponent of abortion. No one can doubt your orthodoxy as a Catholic churchman. And, perhaps for a new, younger, generation of pro-life advocates, you can again link determined opposition to abortion with several of the other anti-life evils of our world, in a seamless garment.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996)