Pro-life. Read, see or hear the word and to many it conjures up a single thought: abortion. The word has become so politically charged, culturally steeped and constrictive that it can eclipse the opportunity for further discussion.
However, talk to leaders in the Diocese of Orange and the definition of pro-life accordions out to mean much, much more. It expresses their support of life in all phases — from womb to tomb.
To Greg Walgenbach, director of Life, Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Orange, pro-life means supporting “life and dignity throughout a life span.”
To U.S. Catholics magazine, “Pro-life from a U.S. Catholic readers’ perspective is definitely about a consistent ethic of life.”
“I don’t even use the term pro-life,” said Diocese of Orange Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen, noting the political weight of the word.
“I use the term, ‘respect of life,’” he said. “I think that is more of a Catholic view, promoting and supporting the full spectrum of life.”
Indeed, that is the approach the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops takes in its handling of pro-life efforts, exemplified by its national Respect Life Program.
None of which is to say that the Church is backing down on abortion in any way. It remains foundational in the faith, rooted in the Bible and Jeremiah 1: 4-5 which reads, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”
While the majority of Americans favor a woman’s right of choice in abortion and Catholic parishioners deal with complicated views on the issue, the Catholic Church is steadfast.
Pope Francis, as progressive a leader as the Church has had, spoke with the U.S. Conference in January,2020, and “agreed with the U.S. bishops ‘identifying the protection of the unborn as a preeminent priority,’” according to Catholic News Service, quoting Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
“I think we have to ask ‘Why do we respect life?’” Bishop Nguyen said. “In a nutshell, from scripture we know human life is a gift, not just from mom and dad, it’s a gift from God. And God gives us all that is good and perfect and we are called to respect it from the womb, and that means the full spectrum.”
Among his duties, Auxiliary Bishop Nguyen helps guide the diocese’s work with young mothers and its prison ministry, and is thus well-situated to see the breadth of pro-life, or respect-for-life efforts.
Stepping beyond prebirth, the Church’s pro-life activities are reflected in myriad ministries.
To Walgenbach, essential to the Church’s life and mission is to walk with those in need on their journeys through life and faith. This is seen in the diocesan support of an array of social services and referrals for everything from food collection and distribution to finding housing and healthcare. It is in the Church’s advocacy on political issues, such as immigration rights. It is found in outreach into jails and prisons, where the diocese offers worship as well as confirmation and the sacraments.
The journey continues to end-of-life, where Bishop Kevin Vann has been at the forefront.
The Church’s Whole Person Care initiatives, in partnership with medical providers, trains pastors and health ministries to work with elderly and terminally ill individuals and their families as they the approach late and end stages of life with dignity and strength.
Pro-life work also, necessarily includes young mothers and mothers-to-be, helping them to not only value life, but to nurture it.
Each year Respect Life Month, in October, highlights pro-life efforts through a series of activities. Since 1994, the Diocese of Orange’s Pennies from Heaven campaign has collected funds to support local shelters, clinics and centers that give immediate and long-term care to Orange County women and families in crisis. Annually, according to Bishop Nguyen, about $250,000 is raised.
Among programs the Diocese supports through Pennies from Heaven:
- Casa Teresa in Orange, which has provided aid to thousands of pregnant women, babies and children since 1976
- Hannah’s home, serving abused and neglected children since 1989
- Mary’s Path, with short-term residential therapeutic programs
- Precious Life of Los Alamitos, which provides residential and supportive services for homeless pregnant women
- Santa Ana Life, a drop-in center, with diapers and clothes as well as resources
For Vietnamese parishioners there is Respect Life, which offers a laundry list of resources and referrals for Vietnamese speakers.
Throughout the year, the diocese engages in and supports several pro-life efforts. They include OC 40 Days for Life, with prayer vigils outside of abortion clinics, as well as parish prayers and sacrifices during Lent. The Mother’s Day Roses Collection offers roses for a donation that supports Life Center or Birth Choice Clinic, which supports mothers in crisis pregnancies.
As Walgenbach sums up the pro-life ideal, “From the get-go, we want to journey with you.”