A very interesting and providential confluence of events occurred recently over three days in my ministry as your archbishop. On a Friday evening I had the real privilege and honor of celebrating Holy Mass and visiting with prisoners at Santiam Correctional Institution near Salem. On Saturday evening I celebrated Mass with the African- American Catholic Community of Oregon for their annual observance of Martin Luther King Day at the Cathedral. Finally, on Sunday afternoon I gathered with a large crowd in Pioneer Courthouse Square to deliver a message and offer a prayer at the Respect Life Rally marking the 41st anniversary of the tragic Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, legalizing abortion in this country.

I could not help but see a strong and profound thread running through these three events, namely the dignity of the human person. Every person is created in the image and likeness of God and is worthy of our love and our willingness to recognize that innate dignity which they possess from the hand of their Creator. As the Declaration of Independence so forcefully proposed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The key point is that every human person possesses this dignity and is endowed with these rights, not because we as a society decide to provide them. We simply do not have that authority. Rather, they come from the hand of God, and they cannot and must not be violated. We do not decide who receives them or who is worthy of them. God has already decided that simply by creating them.

Dr. Martin Luther King spent his very life advocating for and peacefully fighting for the recognition of the dignity of African Americans in this country. In his famous “I have a dream” speech given 51 years ago on the Washington Mall, he delivered the following line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Dr. King spoke these words in recognition of the fact that we are indeed all created equal in the sight of Almighty God, and that applies to every human person regardless of color, race, creed, or social position. In advocating for African-Americans, he in fact advocated for all of God’s children.

Those who are imprisoned are often the forgotten in our midst. We lock them away in punishment for the crimes they have committed, as is just for those who are guilty. But then we dismiss them, or even demonize them for their crimes, their sins and their mistakes. We somehow strip them of their dignity as sons and daughters of the same loving Father who is our Father.

We must recall the words of Jesus: “I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:36). Jesus personally identifies himself with the imprisoned – and with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the sick. One who is in prison is not stripped of the human dignity God gave him, no matter the crime.

I had a fairly extensive experience of prison ministry during my time as priest in Michigan. Some of the most powerful experiences of conversion and a rediscovery of faith happened there among men whom society sometimes writes off. I have been deeply touched by the experiences of these prisoners, and I saw some of the same powerful grace at work among the men I met at Santiam Correctional. A very special “thank you” goes out to all those who volunteer in our prison ministries. They “get it.”

Finally, I can say that Dr. King’s “dream” has not yet been fully realized. This is true for citizens who walk among us, but is especially true for the unborn child in the womb. Their precious and vulnerable lives remain at risk in a society that simply refuses to recognize their innate dignity and right to life. Their “unalienable right to life” has indeed been violated in the most horrific of ways. Dr. King fought so that African-Americans would be fully recognized as equal human beings. The unborn have yet to receive that same recognition.

What has happened is that those of us in society who have been given the right to be born have usurped the Creator’s role, and now we decide which lives in the womb are wanted, desired and worthy to be born, and which are not. Consider two unborn children in the womb, one destined to be born, the other condemned to the death of abortion. What makes them different? One is wanted, the other is not. One is “granted” human dignity, the other is denied it.

Until the voiceless in the womb are granted the same right to life as those of us privileged to see the light of day, we will walk in the darkness of these terrible violations of human dignity. If we will not recognize the dignity and right to life of the most vulnerable among us, the unborn child, violence in society will continue and recognition of the dignity of every human person will never be realized. A society that allows the destruction of its own children in the womb can in no way call itself “civilized.” Human dignity. God alone bestows it. We are called to simply respect it.