Location, location, location

Praying in front of Planned Parenthood is one of the last places I ever thought I’d find myself. But that’s exactly where God invited me on a cold day last winter.

It was prompted by my job. The Catholic apostolate where I worked at the time was supporting 40 Days for Life, and I was charged with enlisting volunteers to sign up to pray during one-hour time slots on that particular day.

I was not supportive of our organization getting behind this project. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always considered myself pro-life. But praying outside of an abortion clinic? It just felt so, uncomfortable. Wouldn’t my going there make me a participant in the divisiveness of the cause? How does that help? And after all, isn’t prayer just as effective from my own home as it is in front of Planned Parenthood?

I didn’t know it then, but these questions were tricks that Satan was using to get me to rationalize away God’s beautiful invitation to have a profound encounter with him at the location of his choosing. I even went to my boss, and presented her with a thorough explanation as to why our organization could still be pro-life and not champion this particular endeavor. I voiced to her that to invite our participants to pray at Planned Parenthood “might make some of the people we serve uncomfortable.”

Uncomfortable.

Looking back, I now realize that the person I was most concerned about making uncomfortable was me.

She told me that I didn’t have to participate, but that our organization still would.

Check that off the list. Or so I thought.

Even though I had received the outcome I wanted, I was left unsettled. It’s hard to describe the way I felt—it was a disorder of sorts. On top of it, I was frustrated and annoyed that I didn’t have the tidy sense of closure I’d expected.

I recognized the feeling: the one that comes when I don’t prayerfully ask for God’s help when he’s inviting me to do something that stretches me. The feeling grew, so I decided to go. I wasn’t happy about it, and I didn’t want to. But I knew God wanted me to.

Enter my dear friend Julia. I didn’t ask her if she would go with me, I simply told her the situation and she said she’d be there. She’s that friend.

We met at Planned Parenthood early in the morning on that chilly day. Because 40 Days for Life has a peaceful mission, ours was a gentle, prayerful approach. We said the rosary together along with another woman who asked if she could join us.

I have not been the same since.

Looking into the faces of the employees and the patients who drove right past us, God did something in my heart that completely altered my understanding of what pro-life really is. I’m not sure why it happened so intensely, but it did. No longer was “pro-life” a mere cause for me to subscribe to. It became a spirituality by which to live—one that arises from the truth of the Gospel. Pro-life is not just a matter of my mind anymore. It is an orientation of my heart.

Was I uncomfortable while I was there? At first, yes. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the essence of such times early in his papacy: “The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.”

I need God’s help to live this spirituality of life to encounter all of the goodness that Christ offers. Sometimes I fall. And when I do, he helps me back up.

God offered me a sacred invitation to pray for the most innocent victims among us at a location that made me uncomfortable. Looking back, I’m fairly sure the invitation wasn’t because of what I could do for the people for whom I was praying. I think God invited me there because of how much he knew it would do for me, so that I could better live the Gospel of life.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.