For many years I have prayed outside abortion clinics, trying to be a presence of love, faith and support to the women and men who find themselves in a desperate situation of crisis pregnancy and think abortion is the only way out. In all kinds of weather, in every season and every hour, witnesses to the sacred gift of life stand as sentinels of the Dawn on High at these clinical places of death. I was drawn to the pro-life movement as a young priest as a result of counseling so many people whose lives had been severely wounded by abortion. Some pro-lifers may be too strident or single-issue oriented. Some may be judgmental or condemnatory. The vast majority, however, are good folks who simply want to help stop the killing of innocent life in the womb.

Through more than four decades of legal abortion in the United States, how many millions of human lives have been silently erased, how many mothers and fathers bear the wounds of a hasty decision to end the life they had co-created, how many impassioned words have been written and spoken to articulate the fundamental moral darkness of destroying fragile, beautiful human beings at the very dawn of their mysterious and wonderful existence, fresh with all the potential of who they have been called to be? And yet the killing goes on.

Critics of the Church’s stance on abortion will often say that we care more about life in the womb than those already born, that we passionately want to save a child from abortion yet turn our backs on the mother who ends up choosing life. Yet the Catholic Church offers more compassionate services through health care, education and needed assistance to the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the elderly, the immigrant and the unwed mother than any other institution I know. Care and love for the human person must embrace all facets of our social fabric and include everyone in order to be authentic, but it must begin, as indeed the miraculous wonder of each one of us began, with welcome and respect for life in its most fragile and initial stage. If it does not, then the rest of our struggle to build a world of justice, peace and mercy for all will forever be radically deficient.

Several years ago, I prayed outside an abortion clinic in Milwaukee on a gray, melancholy morning, filled with icy wind and a threat of snow. One by one, young women emerged from the building, looking dazed and shocked, each carrying a brown paper bag with medication. Like wounded survivors returning from the front of an invisible and terrible war, they stepped into waiting cars of boyfriends, roommates or parents, whisked away from the place where their child’s life had just ended and their own psychological and emotional torment had just begun. I felt a profound sorrow in that moment that I had never experienced before, grieving for the victims of a needless and preventable tragedy.

Then suddenly the owner of the abortion clinic emerged, hurrying through the cold and past us to reach the security of her Volvo. As she went by, I heard myself quietly saying, more to me than her, “Stop killing people here.” Turning on me with all the rage of her pro-choice righteousness, she hurled obscenities and insults but never denied that she was indeed complicit in the taking of human life. If someone had accused me of ending the life of another person, I would indignantly deny, explain, obfuscate or defend myself against such a charge, but such was not the case with this woman. She screamed and swore, but never answered the fundamental charge that she was an active accomplice in the taking of innocent human life. This startling realization taught me an important truth about the whole abortion struggle.

For years we have thought, that with the help of science, everyone could be convinced that a human fetus, even in the earliest stages of development, rapidly exhibits all of the characteristics, components and complexity of a developing human being, that the whole “it’s just a blob of tissue” canard was false. We hoped that if we could just show the beauty, form and wonder of unborn life, everyone would naturally see that this amazing being is human and abortion would cease. But, of course, this has not happened.

What I came to realize on that cold and sad February morning was that the real challenge is not convincing the abortionists that life in the womb is human — they know that — but rather helping them to see that every life has an inherent dignity which calls for respect, welcome, tenderness and love. The Church’s fundamental stance on so many moral issues flows from the glorious truth that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, but even an atheist can acknowledge the moral absolute “Thou shall not kill,” because such respect for the life of the other is inscribed in our heart and conscience. How will we ever see the homeless, the immigrant, the elderly, those with disabilities, the poor as blessings and not burdens if we cannot welcome precious, innocent life in the fragility of the womb?

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to help folks like the abortion-clinic owner, the frightened pregnant teenager, the Planned Parenthood worker, the pro-choice congressman and ourselves to recognize the gift and beauty of our own humanity. The culture of death seeks to diminish, dehumanize and destroy us. Jesus Christ has come to save, love and forgive us. When we let in that redeeming light of the Lord, the shadows of death vanish and our hearts long for a love that only the Lord can give. Building a civilization of life and love is the fundamental task of the Christian disciple; we can only embrace such a daunting and luminous enterprise if we know our own worth, dignity and beauty in the eyes of the One who kisses us from the cross and laid down His life so that we could be His forever.

Bishop Donald J. Hying is the Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin.