The 290 people from 19 parishes in the Jefferson City diocese leaving on pilgrimage for the National Mass and Prayer Vigil for Life and the 47th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. were intending to change hearts, not laws.
“We are not protesters. We are not going to debate with people,” stated Father Paul Clark, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight’s moderator for pro-life ministries in the diocese, who is leading this year’s diocesan pilgrimage.
“We are pilgrims entering into a sacred pilgrimage,” Fr. Clark stated in his homily at a Jan. 22 Mass in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City.
“The reason we go is not to overturn Roe v. Wade, the law that has allowed the taking of so many human lives in our country,” he said.
Presiding at the Mass was Bishop McKnight, who blessed the pilgrims, telling them that they would be “serving as ambassadors of me and the entire Church of the diocese of Jefferson City.”
He said the purpose of a pilgrimage is to encounter God in some way and experience conversion of heart.
He noted that when he and 14 other bishops from Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska met with Pope Francis on Jan. 16, one of the bishops asked the Pope whether abortion is “the preeminent issue of our time.”
“The Holy Father was very emphatic in his response,” said Bishop McKnight. “He said, ‘Of course, it is the preeminent issue. For without life, none of the other rights make sense.”
The Pope further cautioned the bishops against allowing the issue of abortion to become a religious issue, rather than the human-rights issue that it actually is.
“He meant, of course, that while religion has a role to play in supporting the dignity of each and every human life, it is a basic human right,” Bishop McKnight noted.
“It is not the result of one’s faith. It is the result of recognizing the humanity of one another.”
Fr. Clark emphasized in his homily that “we are witnessing to a reality, witnessing to a truth that we have come to know and to believe: that we are all beloved sons and daughters of God, and that human life is precious at all stages.”
So the people making the pilgrimage are doing so in order to change hearts through their witness.
“And the crazy thing about a pilgrimage is that the first heart that changes is our own,” the priest noted.
That’s why the pilgrims began with Mass, giving thanks to God in the Eucharist and being strengthened with the Body and Blood of Christ.
The first reading was the story of young David confidently confronting the giant Philistine warrior Goliath (1 Samuel, Chapter 17).
“What a perfect image for what we are doing as we stand up for life within a country that does not respect the life of every human being, that does not respect the reality that human beings are created by God and loved into existence by God and thus have dignity that cannot be taken away from them!” said Fr. Clark.
David was not afraid of Goliath because he knew that it was not his battle to win.
“Ultimately, the battle is the Lord’s,” said Fr. Clark. “David’s role was to answer a call from God, so that all people of Israel might recognize and see that God is with us.”
Just as the future King of Israel prepared for battle by picking up five stones, Fr. Clark urged everyone attending the pro-life pilgrimage to think of five reasons why they are going.
“And let’s carry those five stones with us, so that as we enter into Washington, D.C., by our presence and how we conduct ourselves, we will witness to the reality that we are not there to change laws but to change hearts with our witness,” he said.
Sent on a mission
Before blessing the pilgrims at the end of Mass, Bishop McKnight told them never to lose sight of their obligation to uphold the dignity of each and every human life, “especially the most vulnerable and those who have no voice of their own.”
“That’s the mission of the Church,” he stated. “And that’s the mission I now entrust to you.”