CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG
A woman kneels and reaches out and touches a replica of the icon of the Black Madonna.
An icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the so-called Black Madonna, entered Canada March 17 as part of a worldwide pilgrimage in defence of human life.
"Just as the Jews would bring the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle, so also we're bringing the icon into the battle against the culture of death and to build a culture of life," said Human Life International (HLI) vice president of missions Father Peter West.
West, a Newark, N.J., diocesan priest living in Virginia where he works out of HLI headquarters, will accompany the icon on the Canadian and American leg of the pilgrimage that began in Vladivostok on Russia's Pacific Coast in 2012.
Pope John Paul II, he said, "talked about a clash between a culture that affirms, cherishes and celebrates life and a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings - the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others considered to be un-useful - to be outside the boundaries of legal protection."
"We believe that every human being is a living icon, made in the image and likeness of God. Only God is the master of human life, only God has the power to give a human life and only God has the right to choose to take an innocent human life to himself," West said in an interview.
The icon was a gift by HLI's Polish country director Ewa Kowalewska to the Russian Orthodox prolife movement. It was their idea to launch the pilgrimage, he said.
From Vladivostok, the icon's pilgrimage made its way across Siberia and through places where there were few roads, through Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and ending in Portugal, he said. The icon traveled to the United States in August and will continue to visit various stops in North America for several more months.
The icon is a faithful replica of the famed Our Lady of Czestochowa icon in Poland, "written" in the traditional way and liturgically united with the original, he said. It has been touched to the original in Poland's Jasna Gora Monastery and blessed by the archbishop of Czestochowa. Canada is the 26th country the icon has visited.
West said as the icon passed through Russia, women who had had abortions, something very common there, "came up spontaneously to confess their sins of past abortions."
When the icon visited Germantown, Md., where late-term abortions are performed, a group sang hymns and prayed outside the abortion facility.
"We sang hymns, we prayed the rosary, we processed through the streets," West said. "That day three women changed their minds and decided not to go through with that approach."
"So Our Lady is having an effect," he said. "She is changing minds and she's changing hearts. She's healing hearts and she's saved lives."
The Black Madonna's first stop in Canada was Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Montreal, a Polish parish. Then she came to Ottawa for a special Mass March 18 to honour the icon's visit.
Archbishop Terrence Prendergast
Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast's homily urged Catholics to become active in the prolife cause.
"You see, many of us are timid about the life issues and witnessing to our faith because we live in a society that – according to the media and the bully pulpits in universities – is deeply convinced that we're wrong," Prendergast said.
"But Christians have stood against the world in every age since the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was for this reason that Christians were willing to die or to undergo the tribulations that came their way."
Prendergast also urged Catholics to fight efforts to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Legal safeguards, he said, are impossible and "legislation to allow voluntary euthanasia or mercy killing would lead to widespread involuntary euthanasia." Many, perhaps a majority of those being injected lethally, would be subject to the procedure without their consent and often against their will.
In Holland, studies show "more than 50 per cent of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, with all the pressure this places on those who are sick; and 25 per cent of these doctors admit to ending patients' lives without their consent," the archbishop said.
There were 550 people euthanized in the Netherlands without an explicit request in 2005, he said.
"If permission was ever given to Canadian doctors and nurses to kill, those who 'know better,' who feel a patient is no longer worthy of life because of her suffering, or because he is too expensive to care for, will be empowered to take the law regularly into their own hands without the consent of the victim," Prendergast warned.
"The face of the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa – the Black Madonna – bears slash marks," he said.
"They are the residue of an historic act of vandalism, but they stand for Mary's not being distant to all who struggle in the cause of life, to all who are pained by the prevalence of abortion, euthanasia and the culture of death."
The icon remained at the basilica as hundreds lined up to venerate it, pray before the image, touch it, or touch prayer cards or family icons to the image of Our Lady and the Christ child.
West explained that in the East, Christians see the icon as "a window into heaven that makes visible the invisible world, the spiritual presence of the person who is portrayed, in this case the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child.
"When I was in Philadelphia with the icon at the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, a young boy of nine or 10 looking at the icon for a long time, turned to his father and said, 'That picture is staring at me!'
"We hear with our physical ears, and we come to faith, so also when we see a beautiful icon, our hearts and minds are raised to spiritual contemplation," West said.
"Everything about an icon is symbolic," he said. Even the shape – either rectangular or square – represents "the world and its limits" but also "the place we encounter the divine."
"Mary wears blue symbolic of her humanity; Christ wears red, symbolic of his divinity. But insides Mary's garment, she wears red because the one she carried in her womb is divine," he said.
"The gold is representative of eternity or heaven, so the gold is shining through her clothing. They have overcome sin and death. The icon always represents a resurrected or transfigured figure."
After all-night veneration at St. Patrick's, the icon was taken in procession to Parliament Hill for the praying of the rosary and the final day of prayers of the novena to St. Joseph. Then it was brought outside the Morgentaler abortion facility for an hour March 19 before being taken in procession back to St. Patrick's.
The icon will be in Toronto March 24 and in Vancouver this summer, West said. More visits in the United States and central Canada are being organized.