On the 48th anniversary of Roe V. Wade, I was deeply disappointed that I was unable to be present at Christ Cathedral for the commemorative Mass. As you know, pro-life issues are of utmost importance to me, but I was dealing with the symptoms of a head cold and still recuperating from the effects of the coronavirus which I contracted in early December. I am grateful that Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen, a great preacher and speaker, was able to celebrate this Mass.
Because these issues mean so much to me, I have spent time working on this reflection for several days, going back and forth between technology and real-life needs of the moment. Each year I attend the great witness of “One Life LA,” which my good friend Archbishop Gomez began in Los Angeles a number of years ago. I look forward to walking at this event with my fellow pro-lifers, but this year the circumstances of the pandemic meant I was unable to attend in person. This joy-filled gathering, which draws many people each year who give powerful testimony to the gift of all stages of life (especially when it is most vulnerable), is a blessing to us here and an example of Archbishop Gomez’s leadership.
As I was attending this year’s event virtually, I got a difficult call from some friends in Texas about a family member who was dying of Covid. I left my writing, connected with this family member virtually, and prayed the rosary with her while speaking words of comfort. Just as I was finishing that, I got another call about a local friend who was critically ill. Safe to say, my life was spinning at that point, trying to keep all my tasks and duties together, while being fully present to people at one of the most important times in their lives.
In the midst of all of this I happened to find one of my mother’s prayer cards from when she passed away in 2012. The card bore many images of her, all of which are beautiful, but the image she was probably she most proud of (apart from family) is the picture taken of her at the time of her graduation from St. John’s School of Nursing in Springfield, Illinois. Looking snazzy and professional in her 1949 nurse’s uniform and cap, she has the happy glow of someone who had just accomplished something special.
That is how so many folks knew, and still remember Mom from her years as a maternity nurse and instructor at the School of Nursing. Her intense focus was on the dignity and well being of incredibly fragile human life: both before birth and after. She also cared deeply for women and mothers. For Mom, it was never “either/or” but “both/and” for mother and baby!
I recently found a phrase used by the moral theologian Charlie Camosy (check out his book titled “Resisting Throwaway Culture”) which describes my mother’s concerns very well: “prenatal justice.” In a recent letter to the Holy Father, Camosy said, “…how forceful you have been on prenatal justice. Indeed the very next day after your interview…you addressed the OB-GYN physicians in Rome by saying: ‘Every unborn child, though unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of the Lord.’”
Mom spent most of her life living the concept of prenatal justice. For her it was not just words or theories, but her personal and professional life was a profound witness to the many facets of prenatal justice. After being a staff nurse in labor and delivery for many years she and some of her nurse friends spent even more years driving 200 miles round trip, two days a week— to Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois. The result was her getting two master’s degrees in Maternal Child Health so, as she told me, she could teach pro-life values (in today’s terminology “prenatal justice”) to student nurses.
Keep in mind that she did this while continuing to raise all of the six of us kids, and while on the faculty of St. John’s Hospital School of Nursing, and occasionally being a staff nurse! My father was always supportive of my mother in these nursing opportunities, especially her returning to school. When Mom wasn’t home, especially when we were very young, Dad was always there with us.
Some of my fondest memories are of her telling me all these inspiring stories. Her dedication to the health and welfare of preborn life, and to the mothers, was a constant witness and inspiration—not only to those who knew her closely, but also to the students for whom she advocated. On one particular night at home, I remember Mom speaking with one of the student nurses who often “babysat” for us, who was trying to assist in a complicated delivery and be of support to the father. She was trying to give the student nurse advice and support her as well. And Mom was absolutely insistent that a nursing education should be accessible to those who might not be able to afford it. That is one reason why our family has established a scholarship in her memory at St. John’s College School of Nursing.
Friends of my mother, like Joan “Fritzie” Belz and Joan Reardon, also made sure that her values lived on by founding a place called The Care Center—a wonderful resource available to both mothers and children so that they can indeed “choose life.”
My mother, I know, was very deeply disturbed by the decision of Roe v. Wade and what she foresaw as its consequences. The witness of Mom (and friends of hers like Joan, Fritzie and others) always come back to me during this time and remind me—unlike caricatures which I occasionally see—that my prenatal justice convictions and witness were given to me and taught by the witness of dedicated women like Mom. She taught me, and so many others, that being pro-life and pro-woman go hand in hand!
I am grateful to share these reflections about Mom and her passion in life for the witness and work of prenatal justice. God bless you all in this new year, with all of its challenges, and thank you in particular for your witness and commitment to life.