The Very Rev. Fr. John Lankeit urged churchgoers at the 40 Days for Life opening Mass to see abortionists and their supporters as God does: not as the enemy, but as people captive to Satan’s lie that abortion is a “human right” that does not violate God’s law.

“If we are going to win this war, we have to know what (this) is about,” Fr. Lankeit said Feb. 18 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral.

“We are not on the frontlines of this pro-life battle to save babies. We are on the frontlines because what is at stake is the image of God in the human person. We know abortion is a horrible, prominent, far-too-frequent symptom of that problem,” Fr. Lankeit said.
Equally important is identifying who the campaign is aimed at.

“The enemy is not the abortionists, not the medical people, the system, the escorts, or the politicians who promote this. The enemy is Satan,” he explained. “And these people are captive to him.”

That captivity has led abortion supporters to promote the practice as “safe, legal” and “a human right,” which Fr. Lankeit labeled a “horrible distortion.”

“But just as… we have abhorrent thoughts about the fact they cannot see the image of God in a tiny human being, we run the same risk ourselves to not see the image of God in our President, Speaker of the House, the other politicians who call themselves Catholic; the abortionists, people who assist them, escorts; men who pressure women to do this. If we fail to see the image of God in them, the devil is winning on both sides,” he said.

Some well-meaning Catholics who attend Mass regularly and practice their faith routinely fall into this category, Fr. Lankeit noted.

“This is the battle: the darkened conscience. I have had a difficult time praying for pro-abortion Catholics other than for them to change. But that’s not how Jesus wants us to pray. He wants us to pray for their good, for their repentance and conversion,” he said.

Learn more about the Phoenix-area 40 Days for Life campaign.

The Mass kicked off 40 Days for Life’s annual Phoenix area spring campaign, which is continuing through March. The visible, public centerpiece is a focused, 40-day, nonstop, round-the-clock prayer vigil outside a Planned Parenthood center or other abortion facility. Door-to-door petitions and education drives often accompany the campaign. Supporters can be identified by their wristbands, yard signs or bumper stickers.

In addition to Phoenix, Tempe and Glendale, activities planned in Tucson and Flagstaff, according to Nancy Brady, 40 Days Phoenix campaign leader.

Coach Jose Lucero and members of the St. Mary’s High School football team in Phoenix have committed
to praying twice a week before school at Family Planning Associates. The clinic is a mile from the school. (Courtesy Ellen Sweeney)

The effort is part of global program that got its start 14 years ago in a small Texas city, where a group of four people prayed outside the site of a Planned Parenthood facility in Bryan/College Station. The center opened, but the group vowed to seek God’s direction to stop abortion. Today, 40 Days for Life reaches over 1,000 communities in 63 countries. By its account, it has saved 18,012 lives and closed 107 abortion centers.

“Every time we pray, we send forth the Holy Spirit to touch the hearts and minds of these women to choose life, and (for) a healing grace to come over them,” explained Cindy Ketcherside, parishioner at St. Theresa in Phoenix and 40 Days volunteer. “Our presence and prayers make a difference, not only in these women’s lives but in ours. We are in spiritual warfare, and we can feel it on the sidewalk. But we know at the end of the story, Jesus wins,” she said.

Another volunteer, Laura Beltran of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Phoenix, said participants’ presence is important to those heading into clinics even if it appears the women is sure of herself and her decision.

“We don’t know what the situation is, whether it is pressure or force. You’re out there, praying, (and) it gives them hope. Sometimes people just ask for a sign, and if you’re there, that’s the sign they ask for.”

Beltran should know.

More than 40 years ago, when her mother was five months pregnant, Laura’s father urged the woman to seek an abortion and took her to a clinic. But as Laura’s mother approached the clinic doors, she noticed a group of men and women outside praying. Suddenly, she felt strengthened. At peace, she told her husband she would not go through with the procedure. Today, Laura shares her story with others, including those attending the Cathedral Mass.

“It’s because of people like you that I am here today,” she told the congregation immediately after Mass.

Volunteer Laura Beltran addresses the congregation following the 40 Days for Life Opening Mass on Feb. 18, 2021,
at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (JEFF GRANT/CATHOLIC SUN)

Later, speaking outside, she said she holds no ill feelings toward her father.

“I don’t have anything against my dad. God told me, ‘Forgive your dad, pray for him.’ How can I not love him? God always has been there for me.”

In addition to the spiritual challenge, this year’s campaign continues despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Volunteer Libby Bender urged her colleagues to observe all state and local health recommendations and adhere to any safety rules while praying and counseling in addition to their usual precautions.

“Always participate with at least one prayer partner. Stay alert. Have your cell phone charged and ready to record video, if necessary. Maintain adherence to all state and local health recommendations,” Bender advised.

While the pandemic forced cancellation of a number of activities last year, 2021 is different, according to Brady.

She and others within 40 Days for Life believe a new Washington administration and congressional leadership that is pro-abortion has energized her colleagues.

“We’re doing really well,” she said. “We’ve had at least 80 percent of our prayer slots filled. We’ve (also) begun the 365 campaign. In addition to a regular 40 Days campaign, we are covering business hours throughout the year in front of family clinics with prayer. We just started that this year. We began at the beginning of January and expanded to all business days, Monday through Saturday.”

“Last year, we encouraged our volunteers to pray from home. But because the sidewalk is so big, it permits social distancing. When someone counsels, they will have their mask on. They will ask the woman to come and talk with them. I don’t know if anyone is more afraid of talking to someone with a mask on outside than being inside a waiting room with other women.”

Volunteers said clinics were not allowing family to accompany women into the building because of the pandemic.

Campaign buttons on a table outside Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix
prior to the 40 Days for Life Opening Mass on Feb. 18, 2021. (JEFF GRANT/CATHOLIC SUN)

Ellen Sweeney, co-leader of the Phoenix campaign, said while Catholic presence in the organization is strong, anyone from any denomination can participate.

“We don’t make ’em show us their Catholic badge,” she said.

Not all counseling ends with a woman deciding to keep her baby. But even those who have had the procedure will find a willing ear and loving heart from 40 Days’ members. Sweeney points out they offer to counsel even if a woman has gone through with the procedure – part of seeing the individual as God does — with love not condemnation.

“We are the last sign of hope as they enter,” she explained, “and the first sign of mercy as they leave.”