To Engage, Persuade, and Challenge – from Tarsus to Time Square

In less then a week – on June 29th – the special jubilee year dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle by Pope Benedict XVI will be coming to a close. Commemorating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of this “Apostle to the Gentiles” (link) , the Pope hoped for Catholics to use this past year to contemplate the life and work of Paul; a once a violent persecutor of Christians, who – after falling to the ground on the way to Damascus dazzled by an apparition of the persecuted Jesus – became one of the Church’s foremost evangelizers. Back in March, I was fortunate enough to attend a symposium on the life and teaching of St. Paul sponsored by the National Pastoral Life Center at St. Paul the Apostle Church over on the Westside of Manhattan (www.nplc.org). Entitled “St. Paul: A Man of Many Cultures“, each of the four speakers examined the ministry of St. Paul and spoke of how timely his ministry is for we Christians today: like so many of us, St. Paul was a man of many different “worlds”, he was a Hellenistic Jew who lived in the very pluralistic city of Tarsus with all of the richness and complexity of any major metropolitan center today who prior to his conversion was a Pharisee (a political-religious sect of Judaism noted for its strict observance of Jewish rites, ceremonies and written law) and a violent opponent of Christ’s message. When he encountered the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus, and experienced not stern condemnation for his persecution of Jesus and his followers but instead graciousness and forgiveness, Paul turned his life around to become probably the most effective Christian teacher ever. In a manner that was certainly very counter-intuitive for this one time Pharisee, it was through an encounter with another living person, the resurrected Jesus, and not through a set of rules of practices that St. Paul was able to see the error of his ways and turn himself to Christ, with a result that changed the world.

I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about St. Paul and his effectiveness in communication as I’ve been recalling events of the past month – some hopeful, others tragic -and how they impact our Church’s efforts to support and defend human life and dignity. A little over a month ago, I remember coming across several very encouraging reports in both the secular and religious media: for the first time since the Gallup organization began asking, a majority of Americans described themselves as pro-life with respect to abortion (link). This finding detailed a trend that had started in the early 1990s with the public debates on partial-birth abortion, and showed how “out of sync” current U.S. abortion policy was with the view of most Americans. This information of course is not news to many of us who have had conversations about abortion with family, friends and colleagues; but what I thought was important was not merely the reporting of this “message”, but frankly that the “messengers” commissioning, conducting and reporting these polls were predominantly from the secular media – a realm not generally friendly to pro-life views. The fact that this story was being circulated and talked about in venues that went beyond the religious communities meant that the pro-life message was being discussed in circles beyond the “usual suspects”.

Tragically, almost immediately following up on this progress, a deranged man named Scott Roeder – who allegedly had ties to both local right-wing and anti-abortion groups – entered the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita Kansas and shot Dr. George Tiller – a doctor who ran a clinic that preformed third-trimester abortions – point blank in the head, killing him. Dr. Tiller’s murder was immediately condemned by every responsible pro-life leader and organization, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (link), but the damage had already been done. In news reports and across the “blogosphere”, blame was being levied at the pro-life movement for inciting Dr. Tiller’s murder. Worse still, this murder was followed up two weeks later by the killing of a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C by an 88 year old white supremacist. Although there were no ties between these two murders or their perpetrators, many in the mainstream media began making connections between the pro-life cause and “right-wing extremism”, some even linking these two abhorrent and violent acts to the controversy surrounding President Obama’s appearance at the Notre Dame University graduation last month. Indeed, two articles making these connections were sadly among the “top viewed” features for the New York Times last week (link). The violent events in Wichita changed the conversation on abortion in the mainstream media – tragically in ways not helpful to the pro-life cause. In what is perhaps the ultimate irony, the “logic of violence” employed by Scott Roeder in the murder of Dr. Tiller actually spurred many in the media to speak out in support of a continuing need for the late-term abortions that he provided (link).

I must admit that I writing about these situations, I understand the passions that can be stirred. When I read the articles discussing Dr. Tiller’s practice, I couldn’t help but think of my own sister Marianne, who was born with the condition anencephaly 9 years after I was and who passed away soon after birth: to use the euphemism employed in the articles, she would have been categorized as one of those pregnancies “gone tragically wrong“. When reading about Dr. Tiller’s practice in the news, having a connection like this helps put a human face on the “issue” and deepens my resolve to see things changed. Despite this, I know when confronting the tragedy of abortion that violence – in word or deed – is never the answer. Abortion represents a tear in the social fabric – and violence in response simply rends that fabric more. The “logic of violence” breeds more violence, and only postpones – but never answers – the underlying questions of any situation.

As to my own efforts, I remember that back in my “post-graduate” days I was invited by a former professor to return to school and address the seniors at an event prior to their graduation. Upon reviewing the materials provided, I responded back, thanking her for the honor but respectfully declining because the other speaker scheduled to address the class was from the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, an arm of the U.N. that I knew to be supportive of China’s forced abortion policy. I never heard back directly from the my professor, but when I was later talking with a friend who was still at the school I heard that my letter caused quite a stir when it was received; she commented that everyone was “talking” about it and that my former professor had commented that “he’ll probably wind up working for the Church someday“. Aside from my professor’s accuracy at prophecy, it’s hard for me to access how effective my actions were – in retrospect, I may have missed an opportunity by not engaging her more directly, and after all I was a very small fish in a very small pond and the event occurred anyway without me there. Still, the one thing that I was sure of is that in the “small pond” of my former school, people were “talking” – and perhaps that is exactly the point! Remember, it was through an encounter with the person of Jesus that St. Paul converted from ways of violence to love, and it was through the words of his Epistles that St. Paul in turn changed the world. Encounters and words are still changing the world today: this year marks the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Poland, an encounter that marked the first blow in the eventual demise of totalitarian communism in Europe, and even as I write conversations are still changing the world as the brave students of Iran – aided by technology – clearly demonstrate (link). For a time, the “logic of violence” may prevail, but ultimately it is through talking to each other that change takes place.

As the Pauline year concludes next Monday, and Pope Benedict confers the pallium on the new Metropolitain Archbishops including our own Archbishop Timothy Dolan at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, let us pray for both our leaders and ourselves, that we – like St. Paul – will have the courage to engage others in challenging conversations; and that through these conversations we can help change the world to reaffirm society’s commitment to the sanctity of every human life. Like Paul, we must trust in God’s providence to do the rest.

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