The City of Reading is situated between Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty, and the town of Gettysburg, where a great battle for the meaning of that liberty and who was entitled to that liberty was fought. Gettysburg is approximately 87 miles from Reading. In fact, it is four score and seven miles from here.
Some of my Irish ancestors from Pennsylvania fought for the Union in the Civil War, perhaps even in the Battle of Gettysburg. A book written in 1865, entitled Memorial of the Patriotism of Schuylkill County in the American Slaveholder's Rebellion, gives me the impression that fighting for the liberty of people who were enslaved was an important reason that many of them volunteered to serve their country in its greatest moment of crisis.
Over 8000 men died in three days at the Battle of Gettysburg. Tens of thousands more were wounded. The ravages of war were still evident when President Lincoln visited that battlefield to commemorate those who had fallen. President Lincoln recalled the vision our Founding Fathers had of our nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the notion that all men were created equal.
At Gettysburg, President Lincoln reminded America of who she was. His intent was to bring to the forefront of the minds of his listeners the original vision our Founding Fathers had for our nation when they or their ancestors came to this continent from Europe.
Less than 60 miles from here the following words were written and adopted by our Founding Fathers:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
We meet in Reading today to march for life. In doing so we are not trying to impose anything alien on the American people. We respect the legitimate secularity of government. We are not seeking to impose a religious doctrine on others. We are not seeking to establish a theocracy on this nation. What we are doing is standing up for a basic human and civil right. Indeed, it is the most fundamental right that we have – the right to life.
Today America is sharply divided over very basic issues of life, marriage and the nature and purpose of government. Among the issues that divide us are:
1) Whether one person has a right to chose to take the life of another human being through an act of violence called abortion.
2) Whether the elderly sick and handicapped will be respected and protected. Are people disposable? Can they be dehumanized, ignored and done away when they are expensive or inconvenient to take care of?
3) The definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
4) Whether a nation whose founding documents acknowledge that we have unalienable rights by which we were endowed by our Creator, can acknowledge the existence of that Creator in our public life.
On the 10th Anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America, on September 17, 1796 President George Washington delivered his farewell address to the nation. In it he said:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
George Washington and many of the other Founding Fathers were influenced by the Great Awakening – a spiritual revival that swept this nation between the years 1740 and 1780. Before the ideas that led to the American Revolution were spread through newspapers, pamphlets and finally recorded in our founding documents, they were proclaimed from the pulpits of America, because those principles have their roots in the Bible.
The Founders believed that our rights were not granted by any king or government, but by God. They believed that the purpose of government is to secure the rights we have from God; that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed; that the first and foremost right that we have is the right to life. They believed that people have a right to follow their conscience as long as they don’t trample on the rights of another person. God gave us liberty not simply to do what we want, but to do what we ought. Our Founders gave us a nation in which we would be able to express our ideas freely and practice our faith publicly. They established a government that guaranteed freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
The Founders left us a great heritage. It is up to us to preserve it and call America to live up to the noble principles expressed in our founding documents. As President Abraham Lincoln called for a rebirth of America at Gettysburg based on the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, so also we work for the protection of human life call America to live up those same principles.
In the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also challenged America to live up to these principles. He called the Declaration of Independence a promissory note for African-Americans , that is, a promise that had yet to be fulfilled for them. I am privileged to work with Dr. Alveda King, who is one of the pastoral associates at Priests For life who is helping especially to raise awareness about the threat of the culture of death among the African-American community.
Like President Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II called America to live up to her founding documents. Before leaving the United States on a visit to Baltimore in 1995, Pope John Paul II said this about our system of government:
Democracy needs wisdom. Democracy needs virtue, if it is not to turn against everything that it is meant to defend and encourage. Democracy stands or falls with the truths and values which it embodies and promotes.
Democracy serves what is true and right when it safeguards the dignity of every human person, when it respects inviolable and inalienable human rights, when it makes the common good the end and criterion regulating all public and social life. But these values themselves must have an objective content. Otherwise they correspond only to the power of the majority, or the wishes of the most vocal. If an attitude of skepticism were to succeed in calling into question even the fundamental principles of the moral law, the democratic system itself would be shaken in its foundations (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 70).
But after giving us this warning the Pope also gave these words of encouragement:
The United States possesses a safeguard, a great bulwark, against this happening. I speak of your founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These documents are grounded in and embody unchanging principles of the natural law whose permanent truth and validity can be known by reason, for it is the law written by God in human hearts (cf. Rom 2:25).
At the center of the moral vision of your founding documents is the recognition of the rights of the human person, and especially respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life in all conditions and at all stages of development. I say to you again, America, in the light of your own tradition: love life, cherish life, defend life, from conception to natural death.
Today as we celebrate the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the disciples gathered in the Upper Room at Pentecost let us pray for another great awakening in our nation. Pray to the Holy Spirit to grant our leaders and all of our citizens wisdom. Pray to the Holy Spirit, who transformed weak and timid men into courageous evangelizers, that we will speak up for and act on what we know in our hearts is right. The Holy Spirit is our Advocate. He calls us to be advocates too.
We march today to send a message that human life is sacred and to call back America to the noble principles expressed in our founding documents, especially as we advocate for legal protection for unborn babies who cannot speak for themselves.