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Betsy Kneepkens: Pondering the parishioner who walked out of the abortion homily

I was sitting toward the back, and she was close to the front row. As the priest got to the third sentence of the homily, the woman grabbed her purse, stood up, entered the aisle, turned around, and walked out. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Many priests acknowledge Respect Life Month by covering the issue of abortion in a homily during October. Some priests have been beaten up enough that they avoid the topic from the pulpit. On occasion, I have heard the life issues covered a couple of times a year, but that usually happens when you include daily Masses. 

From my perspective, there is no other social issue that better matches the Gospel call to love and serve the innocent, poor, and marginalized than the topic of abortion. I am not saying the issue isn’t messy and challenging. I am saying that as Catholics, if we can’t get this right, it is pretty hard to find the justification to make any other justice issues significant. 

It was not the first time I saw someone get up from their pew. However, it was the first time I felt so compelled to know why. Admittedly, I tried to focus on the Mass, and what happened was none of my business, but I was distracted by this person’s actions. I wondered what her intent was. 

In Minnesota, there currently are practically zero restrictions on abortion, meaning there is a no longer parental notification in cases of minors seeking abortion, no 24-hour waiting period, no requirement to give procedural education to the mother, no state inspection of the facility, no limits on when the unborn can be terminated, including the moment before birth, which names just a few Minnesota “de-regulations.” From my perspective, there has never been a more critical time to inform Minnesotan Catholics about matters concerning abortion. 

I find it reasonable to listen to what the church says on the topic. If one disagrees, the situation is an excellent opportunity for people to hear opposing viewpoints, which I strive to do, because how do we remain confident in what we believe to be true without exposing ourselves to a strong argument against it? If we don’t listen to each other, we will make coming together on anything impossible. 

Since Roe was overturned, there seems to be constant coverage of pro-abortion, pro-choice, and “reproductive health” news, which no one can avoid. Most people know the church’s stance on abortion, but I think it is rare that a priest speaks directly from the pulpit on the subject. Essentially, the relentless news which covers the advocacy for woman’s access to terminate her child is battled against in 10 minutes a year by our parish priest, who is sharing an opposing message from the pulpit. The priest is our spiritual father. If he doesn’t speak about this to us, who is left doing it? 

I know the proper response to a situation when someone appears to “protest” at Mass is to ignore the problem. I tried to, and so did everyone else. I have replayed the incident several times, and each time part of me thinks I should have reached out. I wanted to know why she left, not from anger or curiosity but from a place of concern. If we indeed are sisters in Christ, and her actions were intentional, there is great value in listening. 

Abortion is complicated, messy, and contentious. The reality is that since the Supreme Court ruling was overturned, many women who have had abortions are conflicted, striving to convince themselves of their “right” decision, aloof, or even worse, dealing with old wounds being reopened. As a church, our compassion, support, and love need to be ever more present during this time. 

This woman may have left the pew because she did not feel well or due to a family emergency. That is certainly a possibility. However, there is a chance the lady left because she was protesting what she thought she would hear. If she struggled with the idea that the priest was talking about abortion from the pulpit, I wonder if she knows abortion is a central justice issue in the church. Basically, the issue of life and respect for it from conception to natural death is the foundation for all issues of social justice in God’s Kingdom. It is human life that most connects us with our Creator. If we don’t respect that, we don’t respect our Creator. 

With more than 70 million abortions since Roe v. Wade, one can surmise that at every Mass, at least one woman in the pews is directly connected to abortion. Father did speak about how God is merciful and that healing can come through Christ and the church. Unfortunately, because of the early departure, that message was not heard. If this woman experienced wounds connected to the topic of abortion, no one was there for her to offer support and help. Maybe if I had gotten up and listened, I could have shared more of God’s love for her. 

Maybe her issue is that she thinks the Catholic Church only is concerned with “forced” birth. If that was why she left frustrated, I think she has been misled. I could have told her of about 50-plus organizations in northern Minnesota that serve women from the time of conception to when they can get back on their feet again. Sometimes the support is given for years. These pro-women, pro-family, pro-life organizations were founded mainly by Catholic laypeople, staffed by Catholic volunteers, and funded by Catholics. There is almost no government support for these entities that rely on raffles and garage sales to provide needed support. In contrast, pro-abortion organizations, basically abortion clinics, rely on paid staff funded mainly by government subsidies. If she believed that our interest was just in forced birth, I wanted to let her know that her fellow Catholics make personal sacrifices to support the mothers and children, in an effort to love them back into stability and strive to live out the Gospel message. 

Perhaps this woman was concerned that the priest’s message would become a political commercial. Indeed, politics plays a huge role in abortion, but if she stayed, she was not going to hear the names of who we should vote for but rather what we need to vote for. Catholics are called to be engaged in politics and be faithful citizens. Father reminded us to do all we can for the unborn, which includes voting for candidates that respect the lives of those God entrusted to us. Father called us to choose political leaders not based on political parties or self-interest but instead on principle. 

If this woman intended to impact those at the church, she did. Where I fell short was being available to support the wounds that my fellow parishioner may have had. I don’t think we can underestimate the angst many people are carrying around with them since the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The church has not changed its beliefs since Christ, but the state certainly has. This can be so confusing on such a critical issue. 

To me, if a person must leave Christ at the altar because she has something of a greater worry, it is a significant concern for us. If she is wounded, I hope she knows she can find healing by means of us and what the church has to offer. Additionally, I pray that if I am confronted with this situation again, I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to do what is needed for that person at that time. 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.