In May 2017, upon my return to Austin after speaking at a conference in the Diocese of Biloxi, and visiting seminarians of the Diocese of Austin at St. Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, I suffered a heart attack after working a “simple” 13-hour day. Always resilient, I returned to work a couple of weeks later. In September 2019, I suffered two mild strokes at a national meeting in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Again, always resilient, I returned to “the saddle” before too long. Considering these two events in my life, I believe the Lord has a purpose for me and my work in the life of the church, in society and in my family.
I am honored to serve in the Diocese of Austin, particularly as the leader of a secretariat whose mission is to help the faithful to strive — by common effort — to promote the execution of apostolic work and Catholic action. While the church is diverse, there is equality in baptism, and by virtue of that baptism, each of us has been made sharers in the priestly, prophetic and royal work of Christ. As canon law says, the whole church must continue to take seriously the call “to engage in efforts of evangelization, to exercise works of piety or charity and to animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit.”
Recently, the universal church commemorated the centenary of Maximum Illud, Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical calling on Catholics to bring the Good News to all peoples (Missio Ad Gentes). At the same time, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops launched the 2019-2020 Respect Life Program, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II’s encyclical, calling on us to offer “new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.”
These observances remind us of our duty to call each other to conversion in our ways of thinking, speaking and acting relative to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or class. By participating in parish ministries, increasing community outreach and educating ourselves about the implications a lack of respect for life can have on all people, we are responding to the call to offer “new signs of hope.”
When we say we are pro-life, we must also be pro-family, pro-charity and pro-justice. To be clear, pro-justice is not justice in the human estimation, rather, it is God’s justice, a divine characteristic of the Lord who is perfectly just and always merciful. When we say we are pro-life, then we are called to exercise a profound respect for the dignity of every person, regardless of stations in life or the precarious moments on the spectrum of human life. As a pro-life people, we must stand up for what is right and just and witness to the salvific power of God. There is no place in the human heart for prejudice, racism, intolerance, bias, narrow-mindedness and chauvinism.
Earlier this year, Bishop Joe Vásquez called on Catholics to “listen with an open heart and mind to the stories of our brothers and sisters who have experienced racism,” and he asked our priests to “listen to the stories of people within their own parishes and learn from them.” In response to the U.S. bishops’ recent pastoral letter, Open Wide our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, our bishop hosted a Listening Session on Racism, together with Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux and chair of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
During the listening session at St. Edward’s University, five people of color spoke about their personal experiences of racism within the church and society. Describing her own experience within our diocese, one young woman said, “As a minority, resilience is built through continually walking into spaces that make you feel like an afterthought or an interruption to the regularly scheduled majority’s status quo.”
Another speaker explained his dismay that racism is not preached against in our diocese with any significance by clergy. Of the priests who participated in the listening session, one pastor shared a homily he described as the fruit from the listening session on racism. Admitting it was the first time he had broached the subject in a homily, he felt “challenged by the listening session to at least try.”
When we profess to be a pro-life people, we offer, as St. John Paul II said, “new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love!” I believe the Lord has a purpose for each of us and our work in the life of the church and society. As long as we have breath, may we accept with vigor our indispensable role in the mission of the church: to build a culture of life!