Life Insight

A Publication of the NCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
Vol. 11, No. 7 November-December 2000

In this issue...

A Tribute to the Most Reverend James T. McHugh

On December 10, the Catholic Church and the pro-life movement in America lost a leading light in Bishop James T. McHugh of Rockville Centre. With no trace of hyperbole, Cardinal Bernard Law said of Bishop McHugh's contribution: "I am certain that no other bishop in the United States will emerge more important than he in having forged the Church's efforts in support of life and the family." The loss is, quite simply, incalculable.

In this season of joy, perhaps it seems discordant to dwell on the untimeliness of—and the suffering which attended—his death from cancer. But there are several excellent reasons why such reflection is appropriate.

First, a great mystery of Christmas lies in the extremely humble circumstances of God's coming into this world. Meditating on this aspect of the Christmas story is an annual source of fresh insights into God's love and how He wants us to live our lives. To see how we ourselves can live out this message, we need look no further than the example of Bishop McHugh. He was indifferent to, and unimpressed by, wealth and power. He was modest and unassuming, never seeking credit for personal accomplishments—but content to work tirelessly behind the scenes, building successful programs and coalitions. Second, when we find ourselves weary from the enormity of the challenges facing us, it is heartening to recognize how blessed we are to be part of an enterprise that calls us to be our best selves, working alongside people who give their all. Bishop McHugh exemplified all the best that the pro-life movement embodies:

  • an unwavering trust in God;
  • a clear and prophetic understanding of what is at stake in the abortion culture;
  • a willingness always to speak the truth;
  • utter selflessness;
  • innumerable sacrifices;
  • the humility to carry out this work, not for personal recognition, but from love for God;
  • gratitude and charity in victory; and
  • in defeat, renewed creativity and resolve rather than discouragement.
Third, in dying, Bishop McHugh showed the true meaning of death with dignity. Though his physical energy waned, his intellect and spirit remained indomitable to the end, and he wrote columns until a week before his death. One of his last public acts was to insist that no public officials or candidates who support "abortion rights" be permitted to appear at Catholic parishes in the diocese. The order resulted in the cancellation of nineteen candidate forums, including one involving Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Bishop McHugh's final act was to concelebrate Mass on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, two days before he died.

Because he never sought recognition for his achievements, many people are unaware of his pivotal role in laying the foundation of the pro-life movement and in designing the framework for the Church's response to the advancing culture of death. A precis follows.

Reverend James T. McHugh was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark in 1957. In 1965, he joined the staff of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (later NCCB/USCC) and two years later was named the director of the Family Life Bureau and then --simultaneously--director of the Office for Pro-Life Activities when it was created in 1972 to focus on issues involving direct threats to human life. He was the chief architect of the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, adopted by the bishops in 1975 and reaffirmed in 1985. The plan activates the resources of the church in programs of pastoral care, education, prayer and public policy to end abortion and build up a culture of life. This comprehensive approach is still today the blueprint for Catholic pro-life efforts nationwide.

Bishop McHugh left the Conference in 1978 to pursue advanced studies in Rome, where he earned a doctorate in sacred theology; he also studied sociology at both Fordham and The Catholic University of America.

In 1981, the then Msgr. McHugh, under Cardinal Terence Cooke's direction, established the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning. He worked to strengthen NFP programs throughout the country during the 1980s and continued to direct the Diocesan Development Program/Natural Family Planning until his death.

He was named an auxiliary bishop for Newark in 1987 and Bishop of Camden in 1989. In February 1999 he was installed as coadjutor bishop of Rockville Centre, becoming the head of the diocese on Bishop McGann's retirement in January 2000. Since 1983 he served as an advisor on population issues for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, and he served as a delegate or observer at most of the major UN conferences between 1974 and 1994.

In his 13 years as a bishop, he was a key member of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, offering wise counsel, sound strategy, and always the latest research findings, from the NFP literature to population issues to end-of-life care and everything in between. How he managed to read scholarly journals while fulfilling all the duties of a bishop is explained by his discipline and 16 or 17-hour work days.

In keeping with his self-effacing modesty, Bishop McHugh asked Cardinal Law to deliver a homily–and not a eulogy–at his funeral Mass. Cardinal Law found it as difficult, as I have, not to hold up and celebrate Bishop McHugh's extraordinary life of service to the Church.

Here are Cardinal Law's words:

In 1997, before the onslaught of cancer, Bishop McHugh reflected on the meaning of Advent in his weekly column for the Catholic Star Herald. He wrote: "As we approach Christmas, the end days of Mary's pregnancy and her preparation for Jesus' birth become the dominant theme. Mary invites us to a better understanding of God's providential plan, the generosity of His love and our own part in the drama of redemption. Mary shares with us her greatest secret--her intimacy with God."

He continued: "Each year as I follow the Church's path through Advent, I come to a deeper appreciation of my own need, and the need of the world, for a more quiet and spiritual preparation for Christmas."

As we reflect on today's readings in the light of the Church's faith and in the context of Bishop McHugh's death, may this time be for us "a more quiet and spiritual preparation for Christmas."

Last week Bishop McHugh called me with the news that his death was imminent. He also asked me to preach at his funeral. In that characteristic candor which revealed him to be a man of unfailing integrity, he told me that I was a substitute. He had asked Cardinal O'Connor to be homilist.

They had forged a deep friendship through their commitment to the pro-life cause. Ironically, it would be terminal cancer that would strengthen their bond of friendship as each ministered to the other.

My deep regret is that his time as Bishop of Rockville Centre was so short. In God's Providential love, his time among you was not without its clear purpose, however. The bond forged between a bishop and the Church he serves perdures, and as we pray for him now, we are confident that his intercession will bring God's blessings to this local church.

Bishop McHugh did not ask me to preach a eulogy, he specifically requested a homily. Let me simply note that his has been a singular contribution to the Church in the defense of life, in support of the family, and in the promotion of natural family planning.

When sufficient perspective allows an objective appraisal of these past thirty years or so, I am certain that no other bishop in the United States will emerge more important than he in having forged the Church's efforts in support of life and the family. His contributions as a priest serving the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, as a bishop, and as a collaborator with the Holy See's efforts before the United Nations have helped to chart the contemporary Church's efforts in the support of a culture of life.

One of his lay collaborators during the past two decades, Richard Doerflinger, has put it so well: "I came to see him as a mentor—a model of professionalism, deep love of the Church, absolute dedication to the pro-life message, and a readiness to bring that message to the highest level of reasoned debate. His lack of pretension was equally absolute. ... On first impression, people could be intimidated by his strong intellect and no-nonsense style; those who knew him better saw integrity, humility and a wonderful sense of humor."

This was your bishop and the friend of so many of us. Thank you for the consolation you provided him, and keep him in your prayers.

Friends and colleagues sustained his spirits during his long illness. Archbishop Egan and Archbishop Montalvo, your presence and your prayers were great gifts to Jim. His doctors and nurses could not have been more attentive. Father Thomas Harold and Monsignor Robert Brennan, you were like brothers to him. I know I echo the gratitude of Bishop McHugh's family and this diocese of Rockville Centre in thanking all those who have accompanied Bishop McHugh in his long Advent.

The Book of Lamentations captures the anguish and sense of loss which death brings. Jim was a young sixty-nine. He brought his characteristic order and discipline to diet and exercise. How wrong it all seemed as the impact of the cancer made itself known.

Indeed we might well have said: "Remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast within me."

When I visited the Bishop last Friday, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, however, those were not his thoughts. Rather, he spoke of his illness as a time of great grace. In the uncommon quiet of his last Advent on earth, living in the shadow of death, he was able to recognize his illness as a grace.

For our conversation last Friday, the Bishop's column of 1997 provides an interpretive key. Hear his words again: "Mary invites us to a better understanding of God's providential plan, the generosity of His love, and our own part in the drama of redemption."

As Jim experienced dying as his own part in the drama of redemption, a deeper meaning was given to the words of the Psalmist from which he chose his episcopal motto:
"How shall I make a return for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call on the name of the Lord;
My vows to the Lord I will pay, in the presence of all his people" (Psalm 116; vv.12-11).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church so beautifully expresses the meaning of Christian death. We read: "What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already 'died with Christ' sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this 'dying with Christ' and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act."

As we talked last Friday, Jim focused on the Eucharist. Quite simply he stated how, more and more, he experienced Eucharist as the heart of his life. I had the sense that he was peeling everything else away and focusing, with Mary, on intimacy with God as the greatest of all gifts.

The Gospel for today reveals to us in all its power the mystery of the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Church's life. Here, on this altar, there is made present the redemptive sacrifice of Christ upon the cross under the appearance of bread and wine. Here, in our Holy Communion, we are made more fully one with the Risen Lord.

Paul's words to the Corinthians are a salutary reminder to us: "Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes."

Last Friday, a little before noon, Jim, Monsignor Robert Brennan, Monsignor McInerney and I concelebrated Mass. We were joined by his nephew, Peter, and Gail Quinn. The Bishop was vested, and actively took his part as concelebrant. After Communion, he knelt, and remained kneeling for some time after Mass. As we came upstairs, he told me he was tired, and needed to rest. Before leaving the house, I visited him briefly in his bedroom. I asked for his blessing. He then asked for mine. We bade one another goodbye - and I left. Later that afternoon, he took a dramatic turn for the worse. He did not rally—and died at 3:15 in the afternoon of Sunday, December 10th.

The words of his Psalm come to mind: "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones." His last conscious act on earth was the celebration of the Eucharist. What greater grace could God have given him, or given us. The Book of Lamentations, with which we began, serves us well as we conclude: "Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him; It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord."

Bernard Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston
December 15, 2000

Touched by the Truth

It's remarkable how a fantasy-based, sometimes sappy TV show featuring angels disguised as ordinary folks can pack more profound truth into one hour than a month of nightly news programs! That's precisely what writer/producer Martha Williamson accom-plished in a recent episode of Touched by an Angel called "The Empty Chair." Bucking the Hollywood establishment and its "pro-choice" ethic, Ms. Williamson displayed unmatched courage and insight into the aftermath of abortion.

As newlyweds in Boston, Betsy and Bud Baxter wanted nothing more than to work together on a television show. An offer from an Omaha station to co-host "Breakfast with the Baxters" seemed their first big step on the road to fame and happiness. Fifteen years later, when new station owners abruptly cancel their show, the Baxters are devastated by the loss of their jobs, of their dream, of all that had given their life meaning, and, apparently, of all that had been holding them together.

They bitterly vent their disappointment and grief at each other until the arrival of stranded travelers (the angels Monica and Andrew) give Betsy and Bud the chance to tell their stories separately to a compassionate listener. It's not long before the underlying problem surfaces–the unspoken issue that stood between them since accepting the Omaha job: that the only child they'd ever conceived was "lost" shortly before moving there.

When Betsy learned of this pregnancy, she spontaneously bought a little baby jumper. Bud reacted negatively to the news. He thought only of how a child could disrupt their career plans on the eve of their first big break. When Bud left for several days to attend a friend's wedding, Betsy dutifully took care of the problem with an abortion. She told Bud only that she had "lost" the child.

Betsy tried to conceal her grief, submerging it in work. The sorrow and pain did not go away, but
silently, stealthily robbed her of joy, of sleep, of the ability to feel close to her husband, of the ability simply to relax and open herself to life.

Bud is torn between wanting to know if their child was aborted and wanting to avoid the question, to protect Betsy and himself from painfully confronting what they had done. Bud struggles to forget, and bristles at the first hint of a discussion of their loss. His reaction is common; surveys have shown that up to 80% of marriages/relationships end in the months following an abortion. With dawning understanding, however, Bud tells Andrew: "Ironic, isn't it? You make all these plans for the future and then one day it's the wrong future and you don't have what you sacrificed for."

Betsy has always understood the full weight of the sacrifice she made for the sake of their marriage and their career: "You know, Monica, they can talk all they want about politics and choices and rights. I did. And then you're in that room and you're putting your clothes back on and you know that when you walk out that door, you're leaving a piece of your soul behind that you'll never get back."

Overly dramatic? Time and again, women who've experienced abortion describe a similar wrenching loss of part of themselves, their spirit or their soul. (Numerous examples can be found at, a website supporting the Project Rachel post-abortion ministry.)

Post-abortion anguish can be seen on many websites. On, for example, predominantly "pro-choice" women try to support each other in their grief. This site even contains a section called Media Warnings–programs and movies to avoid because some situation or remark in them could break through post-abortion coping mechanisms to trigger emotional and psychological crises. Warning entries seem to include everything relating to babies, happy families and, of course, abortion.

Betsy has wrongly concluded that a lifetime of sorrow is simply "the price you pay" for aborting a child. Monica gently corrects her: "It's the consequence of a choice, but it's not a punishment from God. That's not how He works." Monica reminds Betsy and Bud of the truth that so often eludes those involved in an abortion: God cherishes them and does not reject them for having rejected His gift of a child. He asks only that they open their hearts to Him, so He can heal them and make them whole again. God wants them to find consolation and joy in His love and in their mutual love for Him and one another.

How was Martha Williamson able to give flesh and life to this essential truth, and all the hurt and sorrow, the anger and lashing out, the loneliness and terror of the abortion aftermath? The episode was inspired by her own experience following an abortion. Through post-abortion counseling, she has found forgiveness and peace—and she offers this story so women contemplating abortion will seek a life-affirming solution for themselves and their children.

She deserves our support and encouragement. Write Touched by an Angel, c/o CBS/MTM Studios, 4024 Radford Ave., Studio City, CA 91604 or e-mail her at The telephone comment line is 323/ 575-2200.

Life Insight*
is a publication of the NCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
3211 Fourth Street, N.E.Washington, DC 20017-1194
Phone (202) 541-3070; Facsimile (202) 541-3054
Made possible through the generosity of
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*The materials contained within are intended for use by the Catholic dioceses and organizations, and permission is not required for reproduction or use by them. All other uses must be authorized. For reprints, questions, or comments contact Susan E. Wills, at the above address.