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The Holy Innocents and the Church’s pro-life witness

The horror of Herod’s deed resides not in the number of infants killed but in the fact that even one would be killed.

"The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents" (1868) by Gustave Dore [WikiArt.org]

The Church, “expert in humanity” (as Pope Paul VI put it), knows that the mystery of Christmas (like that of Easter) is so great that it cannot be adequately plumbed – let alone celebrated – in a single day. And so, taking a page out of our Jewish liturgical heritage, the Church gives us an octave observance – eight full days to consider the central doctrine of the Incarnation, enabling us to reflect on it from a variety of perspectives, not unlike holding a diamond up to the sun in an attempt to appreciate its beauty from many different angles.

Oddly, it might seem, however, throughout the Christmas Octave, we encounter a number of saints’ feasts. Don’t these commemorations serve as distractions from the central mystery of the Octave on which we are meant to focus our attention? Not at all – because, as St. Paul teaches us, “God is glorious in His saints” (2 Thess 1:10). Indeed, we can say that the very first fruits of the Incarnation are saints, thecomites Christi (the companions of Christ), and in this week, the majority of them are martyrs – privileged “witnesses” to Christ: Stephen, the so-called “proto-martyr” (Dec. 27); Thomas à Becket, the medieval defender of the freedom of the Church (Dec. 29); and today, the Holy Innocents, really the first to shed their blood for Christ.

We are introduced to the “Holy Innocents” by St. Matthew (2:16-18) after he has told us of the visit of the Magi, whom Herod wanted to use as “reconnaissance” men to determine the identity of this “new-born King of the Jews.” Not obtaining the information he desired, Herod resorts to mass murder to ensure his competition is dead, ordering the execution of all male babies under the age of two in Bethlehem.

As children in our Bible history books in school and through Cecil B. DeMille-like productions, we were led to believe that hundreds or even thousands of baby boys were the victims of Herod’s treachery. Such poignant and dramatic scenes would certainly leave an impression on impressionable children. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), the real number was probably much smaller, maybe no more than a dozen since Bethlehem was a tiny, backwater town with a tiny population as Matthew himself suggests by citing the Prophet Micah’s description of the “little town of Bethlehem,” as we sing in the carol. No, the horror of Herod’s deed resides not in the number of infants killed but in the fact that even one would be killed. The historicity of the event gains considerable credibility since we know that the crazed and paranoid king even killed his own sons, so terrified was he of a usurper.

The Collect for the day’s liturgy notes that these little ones confessed the true faith, “not by speaking but by dying.” Indeed, the very word “infant” in Latin means one who cannot yet speak! The prayer goes on to ask the Lord for the great grace “that the faith in you which we confess with our lips we may also speak through the manner of our life.” Talking the talk must be matched by walking the walk. How can this feast help us do that?

Today’s Office of Readings treats us to a reflection of Quodvultdeus, a fifth-century bishop of Carthage in North Africa and a spiritual son of the great Augustine. His name means “what God wants.” The North Africans had a knack for names. Another bishop was called “Deogratias” (Thanks be to God), and Augustine named his illegitimate son “Adeodatus” (Given by God) – a reminder that all human life is sacred, even when conceived under less than optimal circumstances. These North African theologians stand as testimonies to the vitality of the Church in that region in the early centuries but a reality that was almost totally eradicated by the Muslim invasions of the seventh century, which brought death to many and, sadly, apostasy from not a few. Another reminder and warning: While the Church Universal has divine assurance of remaining until the end of time, particular churches (dioceses) do not.

But back to the contribution of Quodvultdeus. Using the literary device known as “apostrophe,” the author addresses a question to the absent Herod:Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a king? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one child whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children.

Of course, for decades now, the Church in the United States has seen in the Holy Innocents the forerunners of the millions of babies slaughtered through legalized abortion in this country since 1973. As we have protested against this monstrosity and blight on our national character, have we not all witnessed the fear and rage of those ensnared in the culture of death? But why such rage? The vast majority of pro-lifers offer a kindly protest. The rage is born of insecurity, no doubt, because – deep-down – everyone knows the truth of what is happening in the abortion clinics and everyone knows – deep-down – that Our Lord was right in asserting that “the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Dr. Bernard Nathanson came to the right conclusion, after years of aborting thousands of children, bringing him to produce the very appropriately-titled film,The Silent Scream.

The Church in our country – especially the hierarchy – have made numerous mistakes in the post-Vatican II era, however, the one area in which the Church shines is in her unrelenting pro-life witness and action. People forget that ours was a lone voice in the immediate wake of Roe v. Wade. In fact, the pro-abortionists used our solitary witness to press the anti-Catholic button, hoping to make the issue appear as a uniquely Catholic issue, as documented by Dr. Nathanson. While we rejoice in Evangelicals getting onboard with us, truth compels us to note that they were late arrivals.

This counter-cultural stance has been powerfully aided by our Catholic school system, which has provided strength and youthfulness to the pro-life movement. A few days after the 2010 March for Life in Washington, D. C., a journalist in favor of “abortion rights” wrote an article in theWashington Post (also strongly pro-abortion) noting that he was “expecting to write about [the March’s] irrelevance,” however, he indicated: “I was especially struck by the large number of young people among the tens of thousands at the march.” He highlighted the fact that the vast majority came from Catholic schools who “were taught from an early age to oppose abortion.” The piece ended up being remarkably fair and even positive.

The Shrine and Parish of the Holy Innocents (where I have happily provided assistance for more than a quarter of a century) in Midtown Manhattan is home to the Shrine of the Unborn. Quodvultdeus reproached Herod:You are not restrained by the love of weeping mothers or fathers mourning the deaths of their sons, nor by the cries and sobs of the children. You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart. You imagine that if you accomplish your desire you can prolong your own life, though you are seeking to kill Life himself. This shrine allows parents to mourn the loss of their unborn children (whether through abortion or miscarriage), entering the names of their children into a Book of Life.

Europeans are stunned by the vitality of the pro-life movement in America; most of them have given up on the cause a long time ago. Abortion is still a lively and hotly contested dimension of American politics, as was on clear display in the shameful confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Most interesting of all is that young people, perhaps realizing that they themselves could have been aborted or impressed by what science tells us about life in the womb, are among the most pro-life of all. This past year has seen a bumper-crop of pro-life legislation across the country, with much more sure to follow if the Supreme Court moves in the direction most suppose will happen in theDobbs case.

The innocent unborn, then, have not died in vain. Quodvultdeus ends his homily thus:To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

Centuries later, Cardinal Newman would rhapsodize on our little saints, preaching on this feast in 1833 thus:

The longer we live in the world, and the further removed we are from the feelings and remembrances of childhood (and especially if removed from the sight of children), the more reason we have to recollect our Lord’s impressive action and word, when He called a little child unto Him, and set him in the midst of His disciples, and said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” And in order to remind us of this our Saviour’s judgment, the Church, like a careful teacher, calls us back year by year upon this day from the bustle and fever of the world. She takes advantage of the Massacre of the Innocents recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, to bring before us a truth which else we might think little of; to sober our wishes and hopes of this world, our high ambitious thoughts, or our anxious fears, jealousies, and cares, by the picture of the purity, peace, and contentment which are the characteristics of little children. (The Mind of Little Children, PPS 2:6)

All you Holy Innocents, although speechless in life, pray now that the witness of our lives will always match the words of our lips.

(Editor’s note: This essay is an expanded version of an essay that was first posted at CWR on December 28, 2018.)


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 224 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

15 Comments

  1. Thank you Father Stravinskas for this article. The 28th of December is also my birthday. Back when I was still considering converting to Catholicism, I initially had some problems accepting the Church’s teachings on issues such as contraception and abortion, which I accepted were non-negotiable requirements for me to join the Catholic Church. I prayed on this, and one day decided to look into a book of the Saints to see whose Feast Day falls on my birthday. When I discovered it was the Holy Innocents, I thought to myself that God had indeed answered my prayer, albeit that He could have been more subtle.

    Of course I have now accepted the Church’s teachings and regard them as holding great value in our morally relativistic world.

  2. Our Catholic institutions have recently taken a big hit in credibility with the cover up scandals emerging, but a even bigger question mark about our faith and church came to light when Pope Francis gave a speech to the United States Congress and spoke for almost an hour and talked about the sanctity of life for about 3 seconds. His ambiguous speech left more questions about our faith and our biggest moral dilemma,The killing of approximately 2 billion babies worldwide since the 1970’s. Who are we to judge?

  3. Apparently, I am to be the lone voice in the wilderness, but it is impossible from a moral or Constitutional perspective for abortion to be “legalized.” The Supreme Court is not a law-making body-it decides cases-and because abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution (which only applies to the federal government) it is a state issue (by the 10th Amendment) and can’t be reviewed or “struck down” by the Supreme Court on Constitutional grounds. Furthermore, of course there can be no just “law” passed (by any government) which allows the direct killing of an innocent human life. The right to life is an inalienable natural right. Any “law” which allows the abridgment of this natural right violates the natural law and therefore is unjust.

    Roe vs. Wade is a piece of legal sophistry, and is an evil, unjust, and false judgment. That it has passed muster as a perfectly valid decision (which somehow has “legalized” abortion by “striking down” state laws against abortion) in the public square exposes the general ignorance of the population and the tacit complicity of those who should know better and either do not know, are silent when they shouldn’t be (or their voices are being excluded by the mainstream media), or secretly support the wickedness.

  4. Glad to hear of The Church of the Holy Innocents 🙂
    The darkness of the event of the lighting up of the world trade center , that exhorted families , to bring the fire of the demon of Molech , into own hearts , to be instead turned into the light of God’s goodness , in His gift of life and His plans to forth the joy of gratitude for same, even in the silent song in the souls of His littlest and precious .
    ‘Russia will spread her errors …in the end , my Immaculate heart will triumph .’
    the participation of the young , in prolife activities may be one such sign ;
    as to the ‘error ‘ of Russia , the pride and rebellion to use The Church there , as a means to serve the temporal power of the state , all the while denying , in
    fear , The ( Catholic ) Church , enough of holiness for legitimacy , thus almost like the ‘user ‘ /prostituting ways in contracepting marriages .
    We witness its fruits at vast levels , as in the words of St.Paul, wanting to hand over those in such relationships , to the enemy , for destruction of the ‘flesh ‘ / the body .. thus may be , the widespread apostasy as well as the many ailments of the body ..
    Ironic too that , those who collude with the enemy , in such matters are the ones trying to come after those who uphold life and its dignity .
    Glad too , that one of the comments helped to read the address of the Holy Father , to The U.N .-http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/september/documents/papa-francesco_20150925_onu-visita.html

    Again , he knows he is amidst mostly wolves , who has to be led to the truth , very gently , in non threatening manner , being subtle enough to evoke the goodness in hearts , towards may be nonthreatening areas such as care for the earth ,
    since , life and its relationships might have become sources of deep hidden fears and hatreds in many , from the satanic holds – from having asked to be ‘ handed over’ ,
    through evil choices ..
    Reading his words carefully , one can hear a cry in his voice as well, like that of a G. Pa , trying to reach out to a recalcitrant young Herod may be ..and that deep sigh , united with that of many , to reach out to the heavens , to help in
    The Triumph 🙂

  5. Fr. Stravinskas’ mindset here is reflective of the minds of many who think they are “pro-life” when actually they are only “anti-abortion,” or at best “pro-birth.” Their stand is only for the unborn while neglecting to stand for all the other “un’s” which is covered and stood for by official Catholic teaching. Talking about the Holy Innocents here, Fr. Stravinskas makes himself look life a trapeze artist by jumping to the born (holy innocent babies) from the unborn (fetuses) and then reason out that simply because one fights for the unborn one can then consider himself a “pro-life” advocate. This is too inadequate and limited and does not reflect the “pro-life” teaching and stance of the Church which covers all of life from womb to tomb, and the matrix of life itself. The Church’s pro-life position stands for not only the unborn, but also for the undead (vs. death penalty), unhoused (homeless), undocumented (for all immigrants), unwell (for health care reform), uncapable (for the poor vs. economic inequity), unfed (hungry), plus many others, and now especially, for the unsustainable (for ecological integrity). Think of Matthew 25, Acts 2, and the Social Teachings of the Church, these teach us Catholics, especially Fr. Stravinskas, to be not only “anti-abortion” but to be geniune “pro-life” advocates.

    • Not only do you protest too much, you assume even more, both about Fr. Stravinskas’s thought and about what is not said. The focus on abortion is natural here, as it is “Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs”, not the Feast of the Unwell or of the Imprisoned, etc. Methinks you might want to read up a bit on calumny.

      • Catherine Hadro resigned and EWTN has given too little indication what comes next. It seems that whoever got it going gave her to do it inside of a void. They left all the explaining to be done by herself and she could not fairly position herself in light of what might ensue. Both her going and this saddened me immensely.

        What are you doing EWTN? Youngsters are watching you.

        • CNA has a Resources page that goes to Addresses and Articles. JPII wrote to Bernard Law December 29 1997, these enduring observations.

          ‘ But the proliferation of procured abortions has also had deleterious effects on society at large, not least in a weakening of respect for the life of the elderly and the infirm, and a coarsening of the moral sense. When the killing of the innocent is sanctioned by law, the distinction between good and evil is obscured and society is led to justify even such clearly immoral procedures as partial-birth abortion.

          …..

          In particular, I call upon young men and women to involve themselves in this great campaign in defence of God’s gift of life. You are a sign of hope to the Church and the world. Do not be discouraged or afraid! The risen Lord calls us all to proclaim, celebrate and serve life, and he will give us the strength to accomplish his will. ‘

          https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resource/55006/pope-john-paul-ii-letter-to-cardinal-bernard-law

    •  “The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights-for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture- is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”

      –Pope St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (1988), no. 38

  6. No one can accuse the Catholic Church of not having taken strong positive steps towards being more accepting of abortion (regrettably)
    Their whole pro vax stance has been a worldwide, progressive and leading role in pushing the abortion derived product on as many people as possible
    Again the church straddles 2 horses, the official position for the true believers and the de facto reality of their true loyalty

  7. Thank you, Father Stravinskas, and we hope, some day, to visit your awesome parish. I could only add a footnote, discovered in Magnificent magazine for this day. The meditation on was from Mother Angelica, striking in that it pondered the mystery of the grief of the parents of these first martyrs of Heaven. The Flight Into Egypt leading to slaughter of Innocents. The parents did not know. But God’s grace worked to bring good out of unspeakable tragedy and save them to witness in the new Church.

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