Those who participate in 40 Days for Life are confronting the culture of death head-on, said Archbishop Alexander Sample during the Feb. 20 Mass at St. Rose Church. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Those who participate in 40 Days for Life are confronting the culture of death head-on, said Archbishop Alexander Sample during the Feb. 20 Mass at St. Rose Church. (Katie Scott/Catholic Sentinel)
Abortion is the clearest sign of an intensifying culture of death, said Archbishop Alexander Sample at an opening Mass for the spring 40 Days for Life campaign Feb. 20.

During Lent the faithful prepare themselves for Easter and the renewal of their baptismal promises, “but I think we are preparing ourselves in these days for something much bigger,” the archbishop said. “I predict — and I’m not a prophet – I predict difficult times ahead for the church, for the disciples of Christ. Because the culture of death is gaining strength.”

Celebrated at St. Rose of Lima Church in Northeast Portland, the vigil Mass was held for the first Sunday of Lent and was a spiritual start to the nationwide 40 Days for Life campaign, a twice-yearly effort that includes prayer, fasting and peaceful vigil at abortion clinics.

The liturgy was concelebrated by Father Matt Libra, pastor of St. Rose and vicar of respect life activities for the Portland Archdiocese, and Father George Kuforiji, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Southeast Portland. The Mass originally was scheduled for the previous week but was postponed due to the area’s large snowstorm.

Archbishop Sample, a member of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, began his homily by speaking about the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before his public ministry.

If Jesus, Son of God, needed to pray and fast, “what makes us think we can get by without it?” he asked. “He gives us the example; he sets the bar for us.”

To prepare for Easter, we must also repent, said the archbishop, adding that talking about sin has gone out of fashion, but we are all sinners.

The good news is that “no matter how awful a sinner we might think we are, nothing is too big for God’s mercy,” he said.

“It is the evil one who wants to keep us in darkness. And one of the darknesses in the world that we need to combat is the darkness and the evil of the culture of death.”

That culture is growing stronger, not weaker, said Archbishop Sample. “I fear we are headed for a kind of ultimate showdown, if you will, between the culture of life and the culture of death. We are supposed to carry the culture of life.”

Those who participate in 40 Days for Life are confronting head-on the culture of death “as experienced through the horror of abortion,” the archbishop said.

He reminded worshippers, who wore masks and were spaced throughout the church, that more than 62 million unborn children have been lost to abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

“This is the clearest sign of the culture of death, and really I think everything else follows from that,” he said. “If we cannot respect the most innocent, the most vulnerable of all life, is it any wonder we don’t respect other forms of life – the aging, the handicapped, the sick, those who are no longer seen as useful?”

Racism, exploitation of women and other forms of human injustice “start when we can no longer respect the most innocent,” he said.

The archbishop applauded those who participate in the pro-life campaign. “You have my profound respect and esteem and gratitude,” he said.

Christine and Dr. Paul Cieslak, members of St. Rose Parish, have been longtime supporters of the pro-life movement and attended the vigil Mass.

The couple donate regularly to an Oregon Right to Life fund that supports women in crisis pregnancies with practical needs such as food, diapers and car seats.

When their six children were young, Christine brought them to 40 Days for Life vigils outside Lovejoy Surgicenter, a clinic in Northwest Portland that offered late-term abortions. The clinic closed Jan. 16, and many attribute the closure to prayer.

“We’d go during Lent and it was a good opportunity for the kids, though they were nervous,” said Christine Cieslak.

Drivers sometimes shouted angry words at the vigilgoers, which Cieslak said highlighted a powerful dichotomy for her children. “There was the screaming and then the peaceful prayer of those in front of the clinic,” she said.

“I’ve been pro-life my whole life,” she added, “but standing in front of abortion clinics praying — that’s where the rubber meets the road.”