During the past year or so I had heard about Bishop Austin Vaughan, the Auxiliary Bishop of New York, and his dramatic stand in defence of the unborn babies of America.
He had taken part in rescues, been arrested, then tried and imprisoned.
I had admired him from a distance but I didn’t expect to meet him, hear him speak, celebrate Mass with him and chat with him over breakfast.
But then these privileges came my way and all within less than two days.
I received notice that Bishop Vaughan would be speaking at the Chelsea Delta Inn, Toronto, on November 7 and I was asked to introduce him.
As the notice was rather short there were perhaps one hundred or so pro-life people in the auditorium.
Having suffered as a speaker from long introductions, I made mine very short, and surrendered the podium to the Bishop. Bishop Vaughan is not a dynamic speaker of the Fulton Sheen type. Neither is he a striking figure. In a group of twenty priests he would not be the obvious bishop. When speaking, he does not engage in histrionics or dramatics. He tells his story in simple language and holds his audience spellbound by the sheer sincerity of his approach and the modesty of his demeanour.
And it is a story well worth hearing.
Austin Vaughan is about 63 years of age. Having studied in Rome, he was ordained a priest and was immediately appointed a professor at the famous Dunwoody Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York. He taught theology there for 20 years, the last six of which he was the Rector.
He was then appointed Auxiliary Bishop of New York under Cardinal John O’Connor. He was made Vicar of Orange County. This means that under the jurisdiction of the Cardinal, he administers the day-to-day business of that section of the Archdiocese of New York.
For Bishop Vaughan, the academic, this was a dramatic change of life. In an article in the Archdiocesan newspaper, the Cardinal described Bishop Vaughan as “One of the most brilliant theologians in the United States and as holy a bishop as I know.”
The Bishop told us that he is not, by nature, an activist. He took no part in the Vietnam War protests or in the Civil Rights rallies led by Martin Luther King. He did not feel called to such activities. He sat in his study and prepared his lectures for the following day.
He asked the question, “How, then, did I get involved in rescues which invited arrest and possible imprisonment?”
He says it was the laity who forced him into positive action.
First of all, he was asked such questions as this: ‘If the Church, according to Vatican II, considers abortion an abominable crime, why are the pulpits so silent when a million-and-a-half innocent babies are murdered each year in the country’? He says, simply, ‘I had no answer’. But even then -although he was examining his conscience – he did not become an activist. What catapulted him into the front line was a political issue.
In the 1988 primary elections for U.S. President there were 14 hopefuls. Bishop Vaughan heard all 14 of them telling the American people why he should be elected President. But not one of them mentioned the issue of abortion. It was completely ignored.
When the Bishop realized that more than one-and-a-half million Americans were being murdered by abortion each year – 27 million since 1973 – and this shocking holocaust was not considered of political significance, he felt that his beloved country was spiritually and morally bankrupt. And so he decided to go into action.
He began to take an active part in rescues. He has participated in 15 rescues, been arrested seven times and jailed four times for short periods.
Before going on his first rescue he neither consulted nor informed Cardinal O’Connor. His reason was that he did not wish to involve the Archdiocese. When asked about it later the Cardinal publicly supported the Bishop and said he admired his courage.
In his talk the Bishop asked and answered a vital question, “Why is human life so precious?” He explained that every human soul, made in the image and likeness of God, involves a direct act of God’s creative power. Since He created our first parents, God has never directly created any creature except human souls. All the creative power of Almighty God is involved in the bringing into being of every human soul.
That is why there are no two human beings who are identical. Each one is unique.
The Bishop also brought out the point that, according to Christian teaching, everything in this world will one day cease to be – the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the rivers, the animals. Every material being will go out of existence.
But every human being will live for eternity!
In other words, any one human soul, be it that of a king, a pope, a prime minister or an unborn baby, is of more value in God’s sight than the entire material world. Every human being, created directly by God, has a special purpose, known only to Him.
The abortionist, donning the mantle of God, frustrates the divine plan.
I thought I knew every argument against abortion. But the thoughts of this heroic Bishop, a humble man with a powerful message, caused me to see abortion in a new and deeper light. Abortion is not merely murder, it is the most arrogant form of blasphemy.
Bishop Vaughan went on to explain that while he had no problem with the moral aspect of taking part in a rescue because it is in defiance of an unjust law, he had what one might call a practical problem.
Was it good policy for a priest and a bishop to be arrested and thrown into prison?
Was it the right and proper thing to do?
He found his answer in the bishop’s ring which he had worn for ten years. This ring had been left to him by his predecessor. Pope Paul VI had given the ring to each bishop who had taken part in the Second Vatican Council. There are the faces of three men on the ring and the Bishop had perhaps got used to them.
Now he saw them in a new light and with striking significance.
The faces are those of three men who had broken the laws of the state, been arrested, tried, condemned to death and executed. The faces were of Peter, Paul and Christ.
Bishop Vaughan made a decision: “What’s good enough for Christ is good enough for me.” And he went forth to rescue the unborn and accept the consequences, irrespective of what those consequences might be.
The Bishop is not by nature a law breaker. He is a disciplined intellectual; a man accustomed to make laws for others and to abide by them himself.
But there comes a time when even the most law-abiding citizen must take a stand against an unjust law, especially one which involves the murder of innocent children.
As I left the hall that evening, I not only felt inspired, but also guilty. Compared with this man, what have I done in defence of the defenceless?
The words of another great man rang in my ears: “I die, the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” So spoke Sir Thomas More as he laid his head on the block and bared his neck for the axe.