Your Excellency:

It’s the lusty month of May, and you are doubtless zipping from parish to parish, dabbing chrism oil onto the foreheads of gawky teenagers.  (Incidentally, would you ever consider restoring the slap on the cheek that once accompanied this rite?  Several young people of my acquaintance could use one.)

As you and your driver cruise from Charlotte to Boone, from Winston-Salem to Franklin, perhaps you’ll find the time to read the enclosed article from Time. “The Grassroots Abortion War” is set here in Asheville, my hometown and a city of your diocese.  The article mentions Asheville’s diversity (a few years back, Rolling Stone called Downtown Asheville “the freak capital of the United States”), the occasional cultural clashes, the local crisis pregnancy center, the Orange Street abortuary, and some members of a conservative Presbyterian church who regularly meet with the abortion clinic’s staff to hold a “dialogue.”  What the article didn’t mention were the local Catholic churches and agencies.

This omission is both appropriate and damning, Your Excellency.  As you are surely aware, the rambling Victorian house next to the abortion clinic is the home of Catholic Social Services.  Some good old boys in these mountains could spit tobacco juice from the roof of that house and hit the abortuary parking lot.  Despite this close proximity to a battlefront in the abortion war, the CSS staff has never supported the pro-life counselors—other than to allow them, somewhat reluctantly, the use of CSS rest-rooms.  In fact, when CSS first opened operations in that house, the director pointedly informed the local paper that the move next to the abortion clinic was coincidental and that CSS had no intention of interfering in any way with the abortuary’s operations.

Once, I approached a friend, a parishioner at the Basilica of Saint Lawrence who has stood in prayer at the abortion clinic two or three mornings every week for 20 years.  How many times, I asked her, had a Catholic priest appeared to pray at the clinic?  My friend counted carefully to herself.  “Six times,” she concluded, “and Bishop Donohue came about fifteen years ago.”

Seven appearances on the front lines in 20 years strikes me as pathetic, Your Excellency, especially from a Church so eager to proclaim Herself a friend to the unborn.  My friend’s comments reminded me of other local Catholic moments related to abortion: the monsignor who, when invited to pray on the sidewalk, replied, “Been there, done that”; the priest who makes it a point never to speak publicly about abortion and, on the Church’s much-vaunted Pro-Life Sunday, never mentions any issues involving human conception and birth; the local Knights of Columbus—those guys who throw such a wickedly festive Mardi Gras party—who voted to discontinue support of the pro-life bus to Washington, D.C.

In the midst of these dreary musings, Your Excellency, life or fate or God presented me with a way to ease my concerns.  The day after that issue of Time arrived, I received a form letter from your office requesting money for the Diocesan Support Appeal.  As your bookkeepers know, I have given financial support to the DSA in the past.  The amount of my gift was never great—I’m a former bookseller turned writer and teacher with the requisite cavalier disregard for pecuniary affairs—but, nevertheless, I have given some money each year.

This year, your letter proved an inspiration.  Since those who offer aid and sidewalk counseling to expectant mothers drink humility the way I drink bourbon (they will take no credit for what they do), and since none of them receive any material payment whatsoever, and since the odds that the Church will recognize their efforts, at least on this earth, are about a million to one, I have decided to institute an award for these people.  Rather than send my money to Charlotte’s diocesan offices, I will spend it on a local person who has helped the cause of the unborn.  Not only will this plan save your office the cost of processing my check, but it may even inspire others to practice charity personally rather than corporately.

I shall call my award the Asheville Life Advocates Medal.  It will be of the schoolyard variety, cheaply inscribed; the award will also include the Sunday buffet for two at the renowned Grove Park Inn.

The friend I mentioned earlier will be the first recipient of this medal.  Supported spiritually by her faithful husband, this woman has stood outside the abortion clinic on at least 1,500 occasions, has helped save at least 500 children from death by abortion, and has led the pro-life presence there for two decades.

One example may suffice to account for my friend’s character.  Several years ago, the Asheville police arrested her for using a megaphone outside the clinic.  A jury found her guilty of violating the city’s noise ordinance.  When the judge sentenced her to a fine of $300 or 15 days in jail, she responded, “Your Honor, my conscience in this matter won’t allow me to pay that fine.”

The judge, an astute man who by now had wearied of the trial, took nearly another minute to size up his opponent.  “You must have misunderstood me,” he said at last.  “I said you’re free to go.”

Guts, Your Excellency.  Guts, a rosary, a spark in the eye, and the grace of God—these have helped save 500 Asheville babies from death, while Catholic Social Services and our Church go blithely about their business.

In its advertising for the DSA, our diocese urges us to give of our talent or treasure.  I am pleased to offer the priests and staff of our diocese the same opportunity.  If you’d like to contribute financially to the Asheville Life Advocates Award, if you’d like to send a letter of commendation, or if you’d like to appear in person to present the award, please let me know.

Here’s wishing you a restful June.  May God bless us both,

Joe Ecclesia