By Mark Zimmermann
Before the Prayer Vigil for Life and Lawmakers on March 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis, Wilmington Bishop William E. Koenig reflected on the importance of prayer and action in confronting abortion and promoting a culture of life.
After being ordained as the bishop of that Delaware diocese in July 2021, later that year he joined people praying outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Wilmington. And about a month ago, he blessed an ultrasound machine funded by the Knights of Columbus at the Cecil Pregnancy and Family Resource Center in Elkton, Maryland that serves expectant mothers and supports mothers with children.
Bishop Koenig said it’s all about planting seeds in people’s minds and hearts about protecting vulnerable human life.
“We witness to the importance of life. We pray for the defense of life, and we pray that hearts will change,” the bishop said. “That’s what it comes down to, changing one heart at a time.”
The prayer vigil was sponsored by the Maryland Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the two Catholic archdioceses and one diocese in the state – the Archdiocese of Baltimore; the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes five Maryland counties surrounding the nation’s capital; and the Diocese of Wilmington, which includes counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Bishop Koenig and four other bishops serving Catholics in the state of Maryland participated in the prayer vigil, which came in a week when the Maryland State Senate approved a bill that would expand abortion access in the state, and on a day when a Senate committee heard testimony on another bill that if enacted could lead to Maryland voters deciding whether abortion will be enshrined in the state’s constitution.
Before the vigil, Susan Gibbs – a communications liaison for the Maryland Catholic Conference – noted that large numbers of Maryland Catholics have contacted their state delegates and senators in opposition to the proposed abortion legislation through the MCC’s Catholic Advocacy Network, with one alert resulting in 15,000 emails to legislators.
“It is inspiring that so many people are willing to stand up (for life) at a time when it’s very difficult to do in our culture,” said Gibbs. She added, “This is the highest engagement we’ve had in a number of years. The concern for women and children is very high in parishes across the state.”
Jenny Kraska, the Maryland Catholic Conference’s executive director, also praised the state’s Catholics for their advocacy. “It’s wonderful to see people are doing what they can do on this issue, and making their voices heard. It (such legislation) does have life and death consequences,” she said.
Also before the vigil, Andy Rivas, the manager of public policy and advocacy for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, underscored the importance of prayer in advocating for life and other issues.
“Everything starts with prayer. You pray before you discern and learn about legislation, and then you pray that you represent the Church and its teaching well, and then you pray for success,” he said, adding that in his 23 years of advocacy work, “I’ve learned prayer is the most essential part of the process.”
Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life who spoke at that evening’s prayer vigil, said afterward that prayer “is everything” in the struggle against abortion. “First and foremost, this is a spiritual battle, for people’s hearts and minds,” she said.
The approximately 90 people attending the vigil included four Little Sisters of the Poor. That religious order operates St. Martin’s Home in Catonsville, Maryland that serves 64 elderly, poor residents.
“It’s important for us to witness to life at all its stages,” said Sister Mary John Brushe, who serves as a provincial secretary for the Little Sisters’ Baltimore province.
After the vigil, Kathryn Yanik, the director of life issues for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, noted, “Our faith calls us to both prayer and action. We can’t have one without the other.” She added, “Some of the most important work we do in the pro-life movement is encountering these women and walking with them in what are sometimes the most difficult parts of their lives.”
Yanik said the proposed legislation in Maryland that would expand abortion access and potentially enshrine abortion in the state Constitution are dangerous, and she noted that the latter measure might “prevent any pro-life bills from passing in the future, even bills that would protect children with disabilities.”
She added that “these bills are a good reminder of the work we do that needs to take place on many levels. We need to support pro-life legislation, but we also need to walk with women and support them in prayer.”
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori spoke at the prayer vigil, and afterward he said that the legislation that would allow nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants to perform abortions in the state “seems to pose a real danger to the health of women.”
Archbishop Lori said that instead of Maryland enshrining abortion in its constitution, “we should be a state that invests our resources, our energy and our love in helping women facing difficult pregnancies.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how fragile human life is, he said.
“The lesson from this is that we should become a state and a country that loves life and protects life, instead of a state that takes life or sees death as a solution to our problems,” Archbishop Lori said. He added, “We should be loving the mother and the child… We should cherish both lives.”
Among those joining the prayer vigil was Deacon Darryl A. Kelley from St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Camp Springs.
“I know that prayer changes things. We shouldn’t take prayer for granted,” he said.
From 2003-07, the future deacon served as a state delegate from District 26 in Prince George’s County.
“I know the odds seem against us. I was a Democratic legislator when I had the opportunity to vote for life. I did that despite the trends at that time and as they are now,” he said.
Remembering his time serving in Maryland’s House of Delegates, he said, “I was lobbied by the MCC, and it brought to focus the issue of life and the reality of that issue, and the importance of recognizing the dignity of the human person in all people.”
He said that experience when he was a legislator and a member of the Baptist Church was a factor in inspiring him to become Catholic in 2009. Later, he felt called to become a deacon, and he was ordained to the diaconate in 2019.
Changing “one heart at a time,” came true for Deacon Kelley.
“It does make a difference. That’s why we have to keep trying and talking to legislators… I’m a witness that those efforts do work,” he said.