Friday Book Pick: Pro-Life Champion: The Untold Story of Monsignor Philip J. Reilly and His Helpers of God’s Precious Infants by Fredrick W. Marks, Ph.D.
After more than four decades of legalized, protected and state-funded abortion, I’m afraid we’ve become used to it. We are accustomed to living in a country that not only tolerates abortion but values it and defends it as a right. It is not easy to keep the flames of righteous indignation alive for over four decades—to maintain an unwavering, clear and uncompromising voice amid the din of relativism, ambiguity and compromise. Msgr. Reilly, the subject of this inspiring book, has been that voice—and he is still.
Monsignor Philip J. Reilly, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, has been on the front line of the fight for Life since well before many Catholics grasped the dark and demonic turn our nation was taking. The introduction of the contraception pill into mainstream use was the forerunner to the increased acceptance and availability of abortion. The sacred marital act (intended to lovingly unite husband and wife while remaining open to the wondrous possibility of offspring) has now been dissected and sterilized by “the pill.” If plan A (contraception) fails, then there must be a plan B (abortion). The acceptance of one intrinsic evil led to the acceptance of another. Fr. Reilly understood the implications of the pill and other aspects of the cultural revolution of the 1960’s, and like the prophets of old, he voiced his opposition vociferously from the beginning. Already in 1967 Fr. Reilly was writing letters to the speaker of the New York assembly and organizing street protests—even so, New York became the third state to legalize abortion. And seven years later, with Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court would legalize abortion during all nine months of pregnancy—nationwide.
This shocking development lit a fire under Msgr. Reilly. He began leading monthly all-night prayer vigils; he spoke out; he wrote letters; and he educated and mobilized others. He participated in a 100-mile walk through Death Valley. He participated in Operation Rescue (he assisted in 21 rescues in four states). He was arrested six times. Decade after decade this has been the story of Msgr. Reilly’s life: a focused fight against the evil of abortion. He is a knight in the army of Jesus Christ.
The cause for Life is necessarily multi-faceted. One aspect is education, another aspect is political involvement. Of critical importance is support for pregnant mothers. There is also a need for healing opportunities after an abortion and spiritual resources for families affected by abortion. Additionally, there is outreach needed for abortionists and other clinic workers wishing to get out of the business of abortion. Clearly there is need for prayer—ongoing and committed prayer—and penance. And there are many other links in the pro-life chain. Msgr. Reilly seems to have made a contribution in nearly all aspects of the movement.
With his varied pro-life experience, in 1989 Msgr. Reilly went from being a dedicated pro-life “jack-of-all-trades” to becoming the founder of what would become an international prayer movement for Life: “The Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.” Fredrick Marks points out that America was locked in confrontation over abortion at this time and sites the repeated acts of violence against abortion clinics and abortionists as the historical backdrop against which we can understand the impact Msgr. Reilly’s organization had on the Pro-Life movement. “In all there were approximately 700 acts of violence during a 20-year period beginning in 1976, and about 200 clinics were damaged.” Emerging from this volatile and sometimes violent era, Msgr. Reilly’s vision seems to have been clarified, and his energies became focused on organizing people to be a peaceful, prayerful presence at locations where abortions take place. During these “vigils,” as Msgr. calls them, some people are assigned to do “sidewalk counseling”—offering helpful literature for women going inside, presumably for an abortion, while dozens or even hundreds of other people simply stand facing the site and pray the Rosary.
If you have never participated in or seen this kind of non-confrontational, peaceful prayer procession, you could join us in Manhattan. On the first Saturday of the month (every month) around 150 – 200 of us gather at Old St. Pat’s on Mott and Prince streets for an 8 am Mass. After Mass we process to the Planned Parenthood on Bleeker Street while praying the Rosary. When we get there, we pray more Rosaries. We don’t speak to anyone, except Jesus and Mary. We don’t carry signs; we don’t chant slogans. We aren’t picketing or even protesting: we are praying, and we are making small acts of penance. Our simple presence might baffle some people. Why bother? We are not affecting legislation by being in front of the abortion clinic. We are not seen or understood by many people; we are not impacting public opinion in favor of Life (and there is even a chance we are inciting public opinion against our cause). Standing there in prayer, we are not directly helping pregnant women or anyone, really. Why be there? Why wake up early on a Saturday morning and stand in the cold while passers-by jeer and curse (there are always at least a few). Wouldn’t it be better (certainly easier) to just pray inside the church?
When someone is dying, he or she should be surrounded by human love. When Jesus was dying, most people fled. Few stayed. Jesus is suffering again, and every abortion clinic is another Calvary. Innocent children are dying—unaccompanied, unwanted. As we stand with them in prayer, our presence says, “You matter. Your life matters. You are wanted and you are loved.” Those innocent victims will be with God after their tragically short lives on this earth, lived only in the dark wombs of their mothers. But our presence is for their mothers too. They, too, are victims and they, too, need accompaniment—a witness of truth and mercy, a possibility even up to the last moment for another choice. Our presence is for the mothers, and for the fathers, and for everyone with eyes to see.
Do we accomplish anything by being there? Yes. In standing vigilantly before a place where abortions happen, we stand publicly with Jesus: the innocent, suffering One. Our prayers of reparation cry out to heaven to be heard and God will, no doubt, answer them. It was Msgr. Reilly who brought this mystical perspective to pro-life activism. His vision helped make authentic resistance otherworldly.
This past year we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. When the topic of the war atrocities, concentration camps and gas chambers come up in conversation, there is inevitably head-shaking disbelief that such a thing could have happened, that man is capable of such reprehensible evil on such a massive scale. We wonder in disbelief that there was not more protest, more resistance, more outcry.
When the war on the unborn is finally over, and when future students of history ask the very same questions of our time: Where was the public outcry? Where was the protest? How could Americans have accepted the killing of children as normal and routine and called it “health care”? Was there no voice crying out in defense of the defenseless? Was there no resistance, no indignation? The historical record will show, in part thanks to Pro-Life Champion, by Fredrick Marks, that not everyone slumbered though the horror of the American Genocide. There was a watchman who kept vigil, and his name was Msgr. Philip J. Reilly.
Mother Clare, CFR