Keeping vigil

40 Days for Life campaign kicks off with visit to St. Mary-Athens by founder Shawn Carney, Knoxville vigil

By Bill Brewer

As the Diocese of Knoxville joins Catholic dioceses across the country in sponsoring the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil this month, 40 Days for Life founder Shawn Carney delivered his inspirational pro-life message to the diocese during a series of talks in Athens.

Pro-life supporters from around the diocese met Mr. Carney on Aug. 27 in the Family Life Center of St. Mary Parish in Athens and listened to his story of starting one of the leading pro-life organizations in the country. Mr. Carney addressed audiences in two talks at St. Mary before meeting with a Protestant audience in Athens also on Aug. 27.

Paul Simoneau, vice chancellor for the Diocese of Knoxville and director of the diocese’s Office of Justice and Peace, which is coordinating the East Tennessee 40 Days for Life campaign, joined St. Mary pastor Father John Orr in presenting Mr. Carney with an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus.

Bishop Richard F. Stika inscribed a message to Mr. Carney and his wife, Marilisa, and their family thanking them for their efforts to protect the sanctity of life. East Tennessee’s 40 Days for Life began Sept. 23 and continues through Sunday, Nov. 1, at Planned Parenthood’s East Knoxville facility at 710 N. Cherry St. Pro-life supporters are encouraged to assist in the daily vigil.

Diocese of Knoxville priests, the Knights of Columbus, the Knoxville Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, Fidelis / Fraternis, Tennessee Right to Life, and parishes like Christ the King in Tazewell, Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa, Holy Trinity in Jefferson City, St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade, Immaculate Conception, All Saints, Holy Ghost, and the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, and St. John Neumann in Farragut are among the groups participating in the 40 Days vigil.

Respecting life

October is Respect Life Month, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement encouraging Catholics to allow the Gospel of Christ to touch and transform hearts and the decisions individuals make.

“It is a time to focus on God’s precious gift of human life and our responsibility to care for, protect, and defend the lives of our brothers and sisters. … Last November, the U.S. bishops reaffirmed that ‘the threat of abortion remains our pre-eminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.’ While we noted not to ‘dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty, and the death penalty,’ we renewed our commitment to protect the most fundamental of all human rights: the right to live,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City and chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

In Athens, St. Mary Parish and Full Circle Medical Center for Women sponsored Mr. Carney, who described how he and his team of pro-life advocates have worked to make 40 Days for Life successful since its inception in 2004 in the Texas communities of Bryan and College Station.

The first campaign that year was 40 days of prayer and fasting for an end to abortion with a round-the-clock, peaceful vigil outside a College Station abortion clinic. The vigil and grassroots, door-to-door outreach helped reduce the number of abortions in that area by 28 percent.

Mr. Carney went on to expand 40 Days for Life to a national and international movement. Now, 40 Days for Life has been carried out in more than 850 cities in all 50 states and 66 countries. His efforts have helped mobilize more than 1 million pro-life volunteers over the past 16 years.

Diocese of Knoxville faithful listen to Shawn Carney talk inside the St. Mary-Athens Family Life Center on Aug. 27. His talk was emceed by Julie Ladd of Full Circle Medical Center for Women.

Mr. Carney is an author who has written 40 Days for Life: Discover what God Has Done … Imagine What He Can Do, The Beginning of the End of Abortion, and To the Heart of the Matter, which is a pro-life devotional.

He has become a national spokesperson for the prolife movement and appears often in local and national religious and secular news publications and shows.

Mr. Carney, who is Catholic and lives in Texas with his wife, Marilisa, and their eight children, repeated the 40-day vigil in other cities, and then in 2007 he organized a nationwide 40 Days for Life campaign held in 89 U.S. cities in 33 states. Campaigns have continued annually since then.

Despite unrest across the country combined with the coronavirus and political tension, Mr. Carney believes the pro-life movement and its foundation in Christianity provide a solution to the chaos.

“There is a lot of bad news right now. A lot of bad news. One of the reasons, I think, we’re seeing, not just the events that have occurred in our country — the George Floyd event, the coronavirus pandemic — it’s our response to this. I think the pro-life movement can bring clarity to a time of chaos, because the response, I don’t think, is very creative. I think it’s the timeless battle of God versus godlessness,” Mr. Carney said.

“The unrest, the discontent, the upheaval that we see, well ‘the Lord is not in noise’ as the famous phrase goes. And when you see all that chaos, that’s not Our Lord. It’s what we get when you throw Him out of society, when we throw Him out of our families, when we throw him out of our schools. And we’re seeing that played out. Yet in the midst of all this, the pro-life movement is at its height of success,” he added.

He pointed out that the sanctity of life movement has endured since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 against all odds.

“And it shouldn’t be, right? In 1973, the Supreme Court — all men — forces abortion on us. And we’re supposed to just get over it. But that hasn’t happened. The pro-life movement has only grown; it’s gotten younger every single year; half the abortion facilities in America have closed since 1991; because of places like Athens, Tenn., and Full Circle, pregnancy resource centers across the country outnumber abortion providers 5-to-1. That is absolutely tremendous because this battle is being won at the most important level: the local level,” he said. “We also have this exodus of converts. This is a movement of converts: women who have had an abortion, men who have paid for an abortion, doctors who have done an abortion. We have experience with abortion, and that’s why we are rejecting abortion as a nation. So many people who just generally supported a woman’s right to choose 30 years ago no longer do.”

The Texas A&M graduate emphasized that there is good news at this unsettled time as the national election nears, and that is the babies, toddlers, kindergartners, and teenagers who have been spared from abortion who grow into adulthood.

“As a movement, when you look at our culture you think ‘what time exactly in November is the world going to end because I want to plan on it?’ When you see the daily onslaught of negativity, the pro-life movement has so much good news. It’s because we are protecting the foundation of our country, but also the foundation of every community and every human life, and that is the family. And that points back to not just the scientific reality, which we do through ultrasounds for the unborn baby, but how our nature wants to take care of this baby,” Mr. Carney said.

“The more insane our culture gets, the more we realize that. The more we see people trying to legitimize infanticide, and not whackos in the street who want to legitimize infanticide, but people who dress well and supposedly are educated who are governors and politicians saying this is part of our freedom, and part of being in a sophisticated society is that we don’t help a baby who survives an abortion. That kind of insanity causes people to swing the other way. And we are definitely seeing that. We just have to endure the chaos around us,” he noted.

Coming Full Circle

Julie Ladd, executive director of Full Circle Medical Center for Women, who emceed Mr. Carney’s appearance at St. Mary, observed that when boundaries establishing that abortion is wrong are removed, then there is a tendency to have no boundaries at all.

“I think that is exactly what we are seeing with infanticide,” she said.

But Mr. Carney noted that, as pro-abortion supporters continue trying to blur those boundary lines, the reasons to fight for life become more clear.

“We live in a time of clarity. When you redefine marriage; when you say you can show a baby on an ultrasound and say she has no rights and we will abort her, and when she survives we’ll leave her out to die on a table. That gives so much clarity in our culture. There is not a lot of gray area any more. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there was. It was a different time, and sometimes parents were late on seeing the curve on how bad it was getting. But these days it’s very clear, and it helps align yourself in your life with Jesus Christ. Because the alternative is not very attractive.”

Ms. Ladd pointed to the 1970s as the “blob of tissue days” before ultrasounds gave breadth and depth to the baby in the womb, prompting Mr. Carney to respond that gone are those days when pro-abortion supporters argued that a fetus is just a blob of cells.

“They now say it’s a baby but has no rights,” he observed.

“This whole conversation has shifted to it’s a woman’s right to choose. So it’s not about the baby anymore, it’s about the woman and what she wants. What we do at Full Circle is we really try to show them there are two lives here, not just one,” Ms. Ladd said.

Paul Simoneau, left, who leads the 40 Days for Life campaign for the Diocese of Knoxville, and Father John Orr, right, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens, present Shawn Carney with an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, with an inscription from Bishop Richard F. Stika to the Carney family thanking them for their efforts to protect the sanctity of life.

Mr. Carney singled out the Knights of Columbus for their efforts to supply pregnancy resource centers like Full Circle with ultrasound machines. Knights of Columbus Council 8396 at St. Mary provided Full Circle with an ultrasound machine in May.

“What’s beautiful about Full Circle is that is the easy part, right? Over 90 percent of the women choose life. But when you get them in that room and you show them that baby (on an ultrasound), it’s so much more than that. It’s the love in which you welcome her, don’t judge her, share with her. And this is often the first time these women have experienced authentic love. You’re just somebody who is willing to help, and help for free. This is the beauty of the pro-life movement. It’s not just in principle we’re pro-life, it’s in practice and in charity, in Christian charity. That’s why we do it. As Mother Teresa said, ‘I’m not a social worker. I do this for Jesus Christ,’” Mr. Carney said.

Mr. Carney said he is originally from East Texas, and he went to a small Catholic school before attending Texas A&M. He recalled attending a pro-life service at a large Baptist church in his community when he was age 13 in the eighth grade. The rally speaker was Carol Everett, a former abortionist in Texas who became a pro-life advocate in the 1990s.

Ms. Everett’s testimony made a lasting impact on young Shawn Carney. And then as a college student he reluctantly joined his then-girlfriend, now his wife, in praying at a Planned Parenthood facility in College Station. He watched as his peers , 18- and 19-year-old coeds, went inside for abortions, many unaccompanied by the boyfriend. That also had a major impact on Mr. Carney.

“What do we hear? Millions of women have done this through the history of our country. This is just a basic thing. That’s how the abortion industry sells it. Well, they do nearly 3,000 a day. And yet it should be as simple as that. But it’s not because it’s a lie. And that is written all over their faces as they come out. The first time I went out, I could see that. And even going in. No one goes in for knee surgery or brain surgery or to have wisdom teeth removed, which is the second most common surgery in America behind abortion, with the body language of somebody who goes in for an abortion. The abortion industry is always trying to normalize and make this regular,” Mr. Carney said.

“There’s a new, casual approach: shout your abortion, it’s no big deal, the abortion spas. This is the approach

they have to take, that it’s just no big deal. They are disconnecting themselves from the women they claim to serve, because the body language of the women going in, and especially coming out, the relief that technically should be there, that was promised to them, is absolutely nowhere to be found. It is not the end, although it is certainly the end of their unborn child’s life, but there is no relief. It is very much the beginning. That is why for 40 Days for Life it is so important that we are there before, during, and after an abortion and after the last abortion worker leaves,” he added.

He noted that the one common denominator is that no one wants to be there. Women don’t grow up wanting to have an abortion. Doctors don’t grow up wanting to be the best abortion doctor. People don’t grow up saying I want to run a Planned Parenthood abortion facility. The workers don’t want to be there. The women don’t want to be there. But the prayer volunteers do want to be there. “We ought to be there, and there is that desire to be there.”

Mr. Carney explained that 40 Days for Life has two campaigns per year, and the one currently underway is the largest it has had, with 588 cities all at once participating, “which is a great sign in 2020 because people are not timid; they’re ready to go.”

He said when 40 Days for Life was launched, the organizers wanted women to choose life, and they did. The first abortion worker encountered was in upstate New York and remarked to the 40 Days volunteers that “today is day one. When is this stupid 40 Days thing going to be over?” This same worker had a conversion of heart and by the time day 40 arrived, she was praying with the others in the vigil.

When Shawn met Abby

Mr. Carney went on to say he first met popular pro-life activist Abby Johnson when she worked at a Planned Parenthood facility in Bryan, Texas. He said he had known Ms. Johnson for eight years before her book “Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line” was made into a movie. Their professional relationship was part of the book and movie, including an instance when she was working for Planned Parenthood and turned the water sprinkler on Mr. Carney and other 40 Days for Life volunteers. He shepherded her through her conversion.

“The woman in upstate New York was the first worker, and the workers had become very personal for me when Abby walked into my office. I had known her for eight years, and we had had many conversations through the fence. Her book, and the movie ‘Unplanned’ made from it, are very accurate. She did turn the sprinklers on. She walked into my office on Oct. 5, 2009. She was the 26th abortion worker out of 206 abortion-facility workers that we helped through 40 Days for Life. I knew her, and that was a grace.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t believe her at all. And there were a lot of people who didn’t believe me and thought I was going to look stupid when she goes back to work at Planned Parenthood. And I probably would have felt that way, too, if I lived in Athens, Tenn., and I had heard about this story. Because I knew her I knew that it was authentic; I knew it was genuine. She’s incapable of hiding anything. She wears it on her sleeve. Her story is so powerful and it speaks to what Full Circle does and is the reason why 40 Days for Life works so closely with pregnancy resource centers. It’s not a cliché to say this is about hearts and minds. It really is. This is the most unnatural, barbaric act man has ever engaged in, where we are killing our own on a massive scale that no other part of human history has ever seen and couldn’t fathom. We have to speak to the heart, and the mind, and to the truth. God chips away at us or He’ll hit us with a 2-by-4, and Abby got the 2-by-4,” Mr. Carney said.

Some 6,400 abortions were performed in the facility where Ms. Johnson worked, which now is closed. That building now serves as the offices for 40 Days for Life, and the room where so many of the abortions were performed is now a memorial for those babies who were killed.

A culture of life

Ms. Ladd told Mr. Carney she appreciated his focus on local organizations like Full Circle and she asked him what he would say to people who believe government-backed abortion is permanent and will never change.

Shawn Carney emphasizes a point during his talk at St. Mary Parish in Athens. Julie Ladd, executive director of Full Circle Medical Center for Women in Athens, emceed the talk as part of the 40 Days for Life campaign.

“Local is so important. That is where America is. That is where people live. And that’s where abortions are done. They’re not done on the bench in the Supreme Court or in the halls of Congress. They’re done in very unassuming neighborhoods. 40 Days for Life works closest with pregnancy resource centers. We help create pregnancy resource centers. Our campaign in Napa, Calif., bought the property next door to Planned Parenthood, where a new pregnancy center is being launched. We’ve had great campaigns there for years. That’s just the common trend,” Mr. Carney said.

“When you look at 56 million abortions every year, 56 million people die every year from other causes put together, then we abort 56 million lives every single year… I don’t think prolifers should go around saying ‘my holocaust can beat up your holocaust.’ That’s not what it is. The common thread is that you dehumanize a segment of your population. Dred Scott did it to Blacks, Roe v. Wade did it to the unborn, Nazi law did it to Jews. You dehumanize them, then you can do whatever you want with them.

“If you look at stats alone and compare it to other holocausts or genocides, there is nothing even close to abortion. It would be nice if this was a mere religious belief and we just thought we should extend dignity to this glob of cells, but science doesn’t say that. And we don’t act like that. We don’t let pregnant women on roller coasters, and we do surgery on children in utero. It is amazing how we show dignity for the unborn,” he noted.

He said a “huge case” that will come up before the Supreme Court when it revisits Roe v. Wade is the highly publicized case of Scott Peterson, who was convicted of first-degree murder in California in 2004 in the death of his pregnant wife and also was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his unborn child. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 2005. His case was automatically appealed, and in August his death sentence was overturned but his conviction was upheld.

“Walking into Full Circle is polar opposite from walking into the lobby of Planned Parenthood. It’s a totally different experience. It’s not just the medical help that Full Circle provides, which through donors you’re able to do and we need to do, but it’s the love in which you provide it. That is nowhere to be found in an abortion facility,” Mr. Carney said.

“We need to be praying. We need to be fasting. We need to be drawing closer to Our Lord. Thomas Aquinas said we’re either moving closer to Him or farther away. There’s no just sitting there. In our culture, we have to gradually continue to take small steps to get closer to Christ. In our culture, which is very dark right now, that is a bright light. And it comes with joy. … And we have to trust in what happened on Good Friday. He really did die for our sins. He really did conquer death. As one great Baptist preacher once told me, ‘the world hasn’t ended yet, so God still wants something from me,” he added.

Following Mr. Carney’s talk at St. Mary, Mr. Simoneau echoed remarks that amid the current din of protests and political arguments is a perfect time for pro-life advocates to be heard.

“The culture of life has to stand up and make itself seen and heard, particular when death is the major concern of people who are worried about the coronavirus, been affected by it, and lost loved ones to it. The culture of death doesn’t take time off,” Mr. Simoneau pointed out. “Nationwide, those in that culture have gotten themselves to be counted as essential healthcare workers. We can’t let our voice die away. We are called to evangelize in season and out of season. Especially at a time of national election, that voice needs to be heard even more.”

Mr. Simoneau continued, “I don’t think, no matter how this election turns out, that the voice is going to change. We never stop praying. We witness to life because our witness is prayer and we never stop praying. We are commanded to pray always, and pray we must. We pray in our witness and we pray in our worship. We’re not going to stop our worship of God and we’re not going to stop reverencing the mystery of life from conception to natural death.”

Mr. Simoneau said the East Tennessee 40 Days for Life campaign was off to a good start and is a strong daily witness to life.

“We know our numbers will be smaller this year, and some of that is due to concerns about COVID-19, but also the general tensions that exist in our communities now nationwide. Our hope is to have a very successful peaceful and prayerful vigil because it’s always been about the prayer and fasting, and our hope is to have a core team of committed Catholics and Christian people who want to pray for peace in the womb and peace in society, peace in the hearts of men and women. This is about a prayerful, peaceful presence.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, left, and his wife, Tennessee Right to Life leader Stacy Dunn, right, lead 40 Days for Life volunteers in the rosary across from the Planned Parenthood abortion facility on Washington Avenue at Cherry Street in East Knoxville.

“Our success is about giving hope to others, and it may be that clinic worker who feels something very wrong about what they’ve been doing and that what they believed in was helping others, that they believed truly as Abby Johnson said, ‘We thought we were doing good for women and giving them hope for their future.’ Our witness is a witness of hope, and it is augmented by our prayer. Our prayer is the soul of our witness and the hope that we convey by our presence there,” he said.

Mr. Simoneau noted that the 40 Days for Life vigil is a prayerful, quiet, peaceful presence that is a welcome alternative to the recent riots across the country.

“It has never been a protest. We’re there to be the face of Christ and to pray and offer hope to those who think their only hope is to have an abortion,” he said.

He agreed with Mr. Carney that the pro-life movement has turned an important corner in its mission to end abortion.

“The pro-life movement has only grown in numbers and it’s gotten younger. And I think that is the most incredible sign of where we are. It’s the sign of the growing numbers of people picking up the banner of the Gospel of life. It’s growing, and it’s not going to stop growing. Adversity makes us want to proclaim the Gospel even more because we know its more important in these times when evil seems to be growing at such a rapid pace,” Mr. Simoneau said.

“We’re seeing so much violence and hatred and we need that voice that says all life is sacred from conception to natural death, a child in the womb and the inmate on death row, who though he or she has committed a heinous capital crime, still retains the dignity of one created in the image of God. We allow God to be the judge, but we must exercise mercy in our witness always,” he noted.

He pointed out that lessons taught as far back as the Old Testament still apply today. And we need to continue to learn from those lessons.

“The ancient injunction in the Old Testament to love the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner — well the foreigner is all around us, and they, too, are journeying in this life. It’s not about a journey that ends in a country; it’s about a journey that ultimately should end in our heavenly reward in the kingdom of God. That’s the journey we all share,” Mr. Simoneau said. “We’re all migrant journeyers in this walk of faith. And the one language we all need to be fluent in is the language of faith, with the accent of hope and the face and heart of love. It’s the widow and orphan we forget about. Who are the new widows and orphans of our times? Single women or married women whose boyfriends or husbands have abandoned responsibility to them and the life they helped to conceive. These are the new widows and orphans of our times, and that’s why we need to be a witness of hope to them.”

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