I did not sleep well last night. I woke up about 1:30 a.m. and could not sleep. Maybe I was upset over the news I heard the evening before about another family in my parish awaiting a deportation hearing: both parents might be deported leaving behind six children — one with a very serious health condition.
Maybe it was the note from a parishioner fuming (justifiably so) over New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signing into law on Jan. 22 a bill that opened wide open abortion in New York state. The law allows abortion through the entire pregnancy (to save the life or “health of the mother”) and lets non-doctors commit abortions. The law, the Reproductive Health Act, also erases the state’s recognition of preborn babies older than 24 weeks as potential homicide victims.
Sometimes when I cannot sleep, I pray. This time I picked up my Breviary (the church’s official daily prayer book) and immediately came upon two Scripture passages:
“Do what is right and just. Rescue the victim from the hand of his oppressor. Do not wrong or oppress the resident alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood” (Jer 22:3) and
“Injure not the poor because they are poor, nor crush the needy at the gate; For the Lord will defend their cause, and will plunder the lives of those who plunder them” (Prv 22:22-23).
The message was crystal clear: life is precious and must be defended.
All my life I have been taught to love and defend life — all life: born and preborn; to reach out to and assist those in need; to defend those whose health and life are being threatened; to see all, young or old, healthy or infirmed, of any race, ethnicity, gender or language as a brother or sister, a child of God.
In 1973, when I was 10 years old, my father would drag me along with my brother early Saturday morning to march and pray the rosary in front of Crozer Chester Medical Center where abortions were being performed. In high school, I volunteered in the Saint Edmund’s Guild: a group that visited severely physically and mentally impaired people. Even one of my high school teachers, Father Bill Atkinson, an Augustinian and quadriplegic, now a Servant of God whose cause is up for sainthood, showed me that life is worth living despite overwhelming odds.
After high school, I entered the Servants of Charity, a religious congregation that serves the poor, sick and people in need. I served for over 20 years people on the margins of society because of disability or infirmity who, in many cases, were neglected, abused or even abandoned. Literally we saved lives, lives that would have perished because of extreme poverty, neglect or abandonment. Once we even took in an employee, whose husband was abusing her, and sheltered her. While studying for my master’s in counseling, I did my practicum at Covenant House in Detroit, an organization that serves homeless and street youth.
When coming into the Diocese of Camden, my experience turned to parish life: over the years I, along with parishioners, diocesan and civic organizations, have helped homeless families; single parents struggling to survive; pregnant, abandoned women; families struggling with addicted, infirmed or disabled members, or just living under the heavy weight of financial strain, crime, or a broken immigration system. Often these situations came up unexpectantly (inconveniently) and, at times, I felt helpless and inadequate. Yet, somehow, some way, God sent the people and means to lift (and save) lives.
Now I am in a parish in the poorest county of New Jersey; yet, very robust is our outreach to the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the addicted and imprisoned. Often, too, we (both clergy and laity) visit the dying, the elderly and sick at home, in the hospital, or in a nursing facility.
I believe that my sleepless night was a wake-up call. Human life and health cannot be taken for granted; all is not well. Lives are being directly threatened: the preborn, the abused, the chronically ill and dying, and those who are trafficked and live in crime infested towns. As Catholics and as a church, we need wake-up calls. Yes, as Catholics we have done much to serve life; yet, so much more needs to be done. We are called to take a stand and to do “what is right and just” (Jer 22:3), to be a people of life, a church of life. All this despite opposition or rage we might face. Respect for life as well as justice, both in the church as well as outside her, are still a challenge, even a struggle. Sometimes this unexpected and inconvenient reality is still a wake-up call. Yet, finally, experience has taught me that despite our fears and inadequacies, and even ourselves, God provides and will show the way as long as we do the just, right and courageous thing.
Father Matthew R. Weber is pastor of Holy Cross Parish, Bridgeton.