By JULIE DOWNS
MONCKS CORNER After a day of talking policy and legal issues at the University of South Carolina, Helen Alvare entered the peaceful, tree-lined grounds of Mepkin Abbey Sept. 4 and addressed a topic suitable to the surroundings: spirituality.
“I feel like an electric guitar amidst acoustic guitars,” she joked, thinking of the faxes and phones ringing in her far-away office in Washington. Alvare serves as the spokesperson for the director of Planning and Information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The address in the monastery’s chapel, titled “Respect for Life: Spiritual Reflections,” was the last stop in a series of lectures and events for Alvar‚ in South Carolina, a fitting capstone to a packed and hectic two-day schedule.
“I want to slow down a little. Reflect with you and not talk at you,” Alvare told the audience of 80 people, the majority of whom were pro-life workers.
Five specific issues outlined her casual, conversational address that was interspersed with personal stories ranging from the humorous (her truck and its changing pro-life bumper stickers) to the profound (a priest whose eight-year prayerful vigil outside an abortion clinic convinced one of the workers to abandon her job). She left her fellow pro-life advocates with a message of hope on their “long journey” and a challenge to live the pro-life vision.
“People watch who you are as pro-life activists more than they listen to what you say,” she said.
Her first issue was the temptation to despair in the face of the Roe vs. Wade decision and the support of the opposition from “elite” sections of society. She urged those in the audience to allow themselves surrender, in much the same way a pregnant women is asked to surrender her fears about an unexpected pregnancy.
“Accept your imperfections, accept your limitations, surrender to that … Surrender is a big part of the pro-life movement.”
She said her office is often overwhelmed by messages from people who believe they have the answer bringing her to a second temptation: “The temptation to ‘my way.'”
“One of the greatest gifts of the right-to-life movement is the diversity of gifts,” Alvare said. She discussed the value of combining those gifts and ideas, as opposed to adhering to the “my way” philosophy. Learning to do that requires developing an ability to listen, her third point, even to those of the opposing side.
“What you hear is not a lot of people with the conviction that it is O.K. to kill … they get to that as a part of a logical chain in their mind.” Listening to those people, understanding how they think is the key, she said, and evangelization is fundamental to breaking that “logical chain. If people have a relationship with God they will not get to the end of the chain that it is O.K. to kill.”
Addressing sexual mores today was Alvare’s fourth point. Abortion is a human rights issue, she said, but in many people’s minds it remains a sexual one. And while many have the misconception that the Catholic Church’s pro-life advocacy is an attempt to police private lives, the Church should not back away from addressing sexual morality.
“If we do not step up to the plate and say something, someone else will fill the air time.” But it should be done from a positive perspective, she added, encouraging people to see their sexuality as a gift from God. “That is why we talk about it … so you can be uplifted by it and not be ruined by misuse.”
The fifth, final and most important issue she addressed was urging pro-life workers to “live the vision” in all areas of their lives. She relayed her experience on the PBS program “Crossfire,” where she calmly withstood interruptions and blustering attacks and received the most positive feedback she had ever gotten, simply for not losing her temper. She urged her audience to live their lives as witnesses to their cause “exuding peace and confidence in what you believe.”
She concluded with a story about a man who traveled to the sea to deliver a handful of shells to a friend who was homesick for the beach. “The long journey was part of the gift,” he told her. Alvare closed by acknowledging and empathizing with their work, their dedication and frustration on this long journey.
“The journey is a gift to ourselves. It is a gift to God. It is a gift to all.”