Today, the Catholic Church in the United States observes the National Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children (the ordinary day of observance, January 22, having fallen this year on a Sunday). Catholic Christians in America are called especially to a "day of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life and of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion."
While we must continually remember and resist all of the cruelty and horrors inflicted in this world, we observe this day with a focus on the violence of abortion, because this violence is directed against the most invisible and defenseless of human persons, and it brings division to one of the most vulnerable and essential of human relationships: the relationship between mother and child.
This is why Pope Francis, speaking in particular about the dignity of unborn human persons, insists that "a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be" (Pope Francis).
So we are invited to prayer and penance, today and every day. It is a good reminder for us of the fundamental significance of own interior life, of this hidden, grace-empowered dimension of our humanity.
Prayer and penance are the irreplaceable means that we possess, as sharers in Christ's royal priesthood through baptism, in the struggle against our own sins and the sins of the world. They are the means whereby Jesus's redeeming sacrifice "extends" its human proximity through all space and time, to transform the world. And these means are always available within that immediate and specific piece of the world--of history--that has been entrusted to us.
Through our prayer and sacrifice, God's love draws closer to the anguish and destruction of human violence, to initiate and nurture (often in unseen and unheralded ways) the process of conversion, of the change of hearts, of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Here, then, is the soul of whatever other kind of political or social activism we judge to be prudent and necessary or helpful to build up the common good, to work toward protecting the dignity of every human person and healing the wounds of every kind of violence.
Prayer and sacrifice (which can be a voluntary penance or even the embrace, in faith and love, of the unavoidable sufferings of the present moment) are "activity" that anyone can carry out. They do not replace our specific social and personal responsibilities toward our brothers and sisters in justice and charity. Rather, prayer and sacrifice remain always the vivifying center of the love with which we carry out all our other actions--because we are thus united in our own hearts (which are the origin of our freedom and love) to Christ's crucified love.
We must not allow our actions and our hearts to lose this focus, because the love of Jesus is the only hope for humanity.
Prayer and sacrifice are also a kind of "power" that cannot be taken away from us, no matter how poor and oppressed we are, regardless of sickness, pain, or weakness, in whatever limitations we find ourselves.
This does not, however, give any excuse to those who hold human power to neglect their responsibilities toward those in need. Not only charity, but also justice and the proper use of political power are the concern of all of us and require our vigilance. We are all responsible for cultivating justice, peace, generosity, and community among the persons and in the places we find ourselves, within our particular circumstances with their demands and possibilities, and as members of a larger society.
We must always do what we can to love those who have been entrusted to us, and each of us is responsible before God for discerning the concrete ways he calls us to be involved in the various levels of social life. Prayer is not a substitute for the more "external" work of seeking justice and mercy in human affairs, protecting the weak, or building up our families, communities, living environments, peoples, nations, and the international community. But prayer is what carries forward all these good works, and it is also what always remains possible even when no other kind of work is possible.
Prayer is thus the most fundamental political action and also the most "democratic" in that it is always available to everyone, because the Spirit of Jesus is at work in every person's heart. Prayer has the highest aim, in that it directs itself to the One who can do all things, the God of mercy who loves us.
Anyone can pray. Anyone. And if you pray, truly, from the heart, turning to the loving and merciful God who has already redeemed the world, you can be sure that the change you seek has begun--already, in that very moment--in a new way.
For God sees, and God listens, and God works within the mysterious connections that unite us all, one with another. And when you pray, it is because he has already begun to work in you.
It is the beginning of "the revolution of the heart." It is the awakening of the politics of mercy.