[Editor’s Note: Sister Virginia Joy is a member of the Sisters of Life, which was founded by the late Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor. Joy is the Respect Life Director of the Archdiocese of New York. She spoke to Charles Camosy about the pro-life ministry in the archdiocese.]
Camosy: How did the Sisters of Life come to be an order? On what kinds of ministries does the order focus primarily?
Joy: Our founder, Cardinal John O’Connor, paid a visit to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1975, where thousands of people had been tortured and killed during the Second World War. As he placed his hands into the semicircular red brick ovens, he said he had a profound spiritual experience in which he felt the intermingled ashes of Christian and Jew, rabbi and priest. Pierced to the heart, he cried out: “My God! How can human beings do this to other human beings?” In that moment, he made a promise: To do everything in his power to protect human life.
To counter what he understood to be a “culture of death” pervading the fibers of society – at the root of which was a deep crisis of faith – a spiritual response was needed. This spirit of contempt for human life was a demon that could “only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (cf. Mk 9:29) An idea began to slowly percolate in the cardinal’s mind and heart. After years of prayer, he penned an unadorned headline in a local Catholic New York paper: “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” He proceeded to describe his vision for a religious community of women who would give themselves fully to the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life, beginning with the most vulnerable. On June 1, 1991 eight women gathered in New York to form this new community of the Sisters of Life.
As Sisters of Life, we are consecrated for the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life, especially those whose lives are vulnerable. We seek to share with every person the truth that they are good, chosen, and loved by God: a unique and unrepeatable masterpiece!
We know that it can be hard to believe and embrace this truth, so we seek to accompany people and lead them to the merciful love of Jesus. We do this in a variety of ways, including serving women who are facing a crisis pregnancy through emotional, practical and spiritual support. We also serve those who are suffering after the experience of abortion, walking with them towards hope and healing.
I’ll bet you have some amazing stories about some remarkable women. Can you share a positive one that sticks out?
We meet so many courageous women. Recently, one of our sisters spoke to an assembly of students about the gift of human life, coaching them in how they can support women who are pregnant and scared. She told them, “The best thing you can say to a woman who is pregnant is, ‘I believe in you. You can do this. You are not alone’.”
Two days later, one of those students (whom I’ll call Jason) was eating breakfast with his mom. She broke into tears and told him, “I’m pregnant, and I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.” He immediately ran to his room and grabbed the brochure the sisters had given him. He handed it to her and said confidently, “Mom, you’re the strongest woman I know. You can do this. I am here with you.” His words broke through the darkness and depression that his mom was experiencing, giving her the courage to reach out to our sisters, who walked with her during her pregnancy and beyond.
Jason’s new little sibling was just baptized, and his mom is a new person – full of joy and love!
I know you have some terrible stories as well. You told me the story recently of one of the women you served who had an abortion performed on her without her realizing what was happening. In short, she had an abortion without her informed consent. How can these so-called health providers treat women this way?
While many people subscribe to the idea that abortion helps women, that idea couldn’t be further from the truth. We see in those we serve who have suffered an abortion the devastating effects on women. The world promises that abortion will take away the problem, but instead it leaves the woman feeling shattered.
Abortion does not serve women. Planned Parenthood and other abortion facilities do not have the best interests of the women at heart. They are businesses. This is why the film ‘Unplanned’ is so powerful. It shows how many people, like Abby Johnson, may go into the abortion industry out of a genuine desire to help women, but that abortion is an impoverished response to the sufferings of women and does not address their real needs.
You are the head of the Respect Life Office for the Archdiocese of New York. It must be frustrating to be in this job given the attitude towards abortion in NYC, no?
Sadly, New York continues to become more and more extreme in its pro-abortion ideology. The passing of the Reproductive Health Act (RHA) last year was a wake-up call for many in the archdiocese. But it’s incredible to see how the grace of God is more powerful than any law or movement. Last year on January 22nd – the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and the day the RHA was signed into law – as Planned Parenthood workers piled onto buses headed to Albany to celebrate, a young woman we’ll call Fiona, approached Planned Parenthood where she was scheduled for an abortion.
The night before, in her fear and distress at this unexpected pregnancy, Fiona had lifted up a desperate prayer to Our Lady. “Mary, I know I don’t usually talk to you,” she had prayed, “But I really need your help.” Feeling that abortion was her only option, Fiona was steps away from the door of Planned Parenthood when she approached a sidewalk counselor who gave her one of our brochures.
The counselors spoke with Fiona, listened to her fears and offered her another way, giving her the phone number for the Sisters of Life. She called the sisters and, instead of having the abortion, Fiona spent the day meeting with the sisters and then accompanied them to the Prayer Vigil for Life at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that night. There Father Richard Veras spoke words in the homily that seemed to answer her prayer the night before. “Tonight,” he said, “we need to stay close to Mary.” Hearing these words, Fiona received new hope in her heart, and, with the help of Our Lady, she cancelled her abortion and chose life for her child. Her daughter was baptized just last month!
While this story highlights a moment of grace, we also recognize it can be very dark here in New York. It can be tempting to feel discouraged or hopeless about the cause of life. But the Gospel of John tells us, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Jesus has won the victory, and death will not have the final word.
As a Sister of Life and the head of the Respect Life office, you have insights into helping women who are at risk for abortion that almost no one else has. In your view, what is the best way to help such women that often gets overlooked by pro-lifers?
Prayer is the most important thing we can offer. It’s so important to have a prayerful presence outside of abortion clinics. Often, a woman who is approaching the abortion clinic is looking for some sign not to go through with it. You can be that sign. You see, in her heart, that woman desires to give life to her child, but many fears and pressures are moving her to feel that abortion is her only option.
As sisters, we’ve learned that when we walk with a woman facing an unexpected pregnancy, we first simply listen to her and allow her to voice her fears. There is much material and practical support available to a woman who is pregnant and in need. But first, she must receive a grace of openness, and that grace can only come from the prayers of others. I encourage everyone to take time peacefully praying outside of an abortion clinic. It is only prayer that will change things.
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