Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster hailed the “years of generous service” and “unfailing witness” to the dignity of human life of pro-life leader Phyllis Bowman at a Mass at Westminster Cathedral this week.
Archbishop Nichols gave the homily at a Mass for the repose of her soul on Tuesday. Among those attending were MPs and peers including Lord Alton, Ann Widdecombe, Jim Dobbin, David Amess, as well as Lord Nicholas Windsor, the Queen’s cousin, and many other pro-life campaigners. Her husband, Jerry Canty, also attended the Mass.
The archbishop said: “Phyllis Bowman was without doubt a true champion and, in the mould and spirit of St Thomas, an energetic and resolute ‘apostle’ of the precious gift of human life.”
He also urged the pro-life movement to “pause for thought” to consider how best their efforts could be organised.
Archbishop Nichols said: “The death of Phyllis and, just a few days ago, the death of her colleague Ken Hargreaves, a former MP and the chairman of Right to Life, does not mark the end of their witness to the love for life but an entry into a new phase. It is perhaps an opportunity for the pro-life movement in this country to pause for thought at this time; pause to consider how best that love for life should be organised as individuals, as organisations and in partnership with one another.”
When we hear the name of St Thomas the Apostle, our thoughts usually lead to us to remember him as the ‘Doubting Thomas’ from the passage that we have just heard in the Gospel.
However, the Gospels also reveal Thomas’ more positive forthright nature and his readiness to challenge those around him.
At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the apostles that he is going to prepare a place for them in heaven, so that when he comes again he will take them with him to be with him. Jesus then says to them, “You know the way to where I am going”.
It is Thomas who then challenges him by saying “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way?” (John 14: 5) Jesus begins his response with the words “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14: 6)
Those feisty and challenging qualities of Thomas were used by Jesus to unfold his teaching to his Apostles and to reveal himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life for all men and women. Like Thomas, as followers of the one who rose from the dead and bestowed new life on the world, we are called to be followers of the Lord of life, not of death.
As I speak of the feisty and challenging qualities of someone who followed the Lord of Life, I am sure that you like me will smile and remember with warm affection the life of Phyllis Bowman. Since her death, many tributes have already been made to her in the press and online. We will also hear some more reflections on her life from her close friends and colleagues at the end of this Mass.
Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to pay my own tribute to the many years of generous service and the unfailing witness which Phyllis gave to the promotion of the dignity of human life and her unequivocal commitment to the legal protection of human life from the moment of conception until natural death. Her service, witness and commitment was rooted in her for love for God and sustained by the help and support she received from her husband Jerry.
Our faith in the Lord of Life challenges us to promote, in every legitimate way we can: “each human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death; the rights of the family and of marriage as an institution and, in this area, the child’s right to be conceived, brought into the world and brought up by their parents” [i]. That is what Phyllis did throughout her life. Indeed her work was to form one of the foundation stones upon which some of the pro-life organisations represented at this Mass today were built.
The Catholic Church is absolutely committed to promoting the dignity and value of human life. That commitment is motivated by love, a love which has its source in God’s love for his creation. All of God’s creation is a precious gift and should be cherished. None more so than men and women, who we believe are created in the image and likeness of God. This precious mortal human life begins at the moment of our conception and ends at our death; its dignity and value is raised above all creation because it is destined for immortal life and a loving union with God. Indeed, it was this love and respect for human life which was one of the reasons which led Phyllis to become a member of the Catholic Church.
In his very first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI said, “As a community, the Church must practise love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community.” [ii]For good organisation there also needs to be a shared vision and a unity of purpose.
The love for human life and the commitment to the defence of life’s dignity and value is one which is shared by many people of all faiths and none, and not Catholics alone. That love too needs to be organised well by all those who share this profound moral conviction. It needs to be organised in its practical expression to promote and defend life’s dignity and value. It needs to be organised to provide practical care and support. It needs to be organised in order to be a powerful advocate, to give a voice to the voiceless in the political and social spheres. It needs to be organised to communicate a message which challenges the injustice and the violence done to the unborn but also promotes the beauty and sanctity of life in order to change minds and hearts. It needs to be organised to defend those who are most worthy of our protection: the unborn, the elderly, those who are disabled, ill, or dying. Moreover, a shared vision and unity of purpose must be embraced to enable it to be organised effectively.
The Catholic Church and all who are committed to the promotion of the dignity and value of human life face ever new challenges. For example, only today we see yet another proposal in favour of legalising assisted suicide. This demonstrates the need therefore for all who are pro-life to work together as closely as they can in facing those challenges.
The death of Phyllis and, just a few days ago, the death of her colleague Ken Hargreaves, a former MP and the Chairman of Right to Life, does not mark the end of their witness to the love for life but an entry into a new phase. It is perhaps an opportunity for the pro-life movement in this country to pause for thought at this time; pause to consider how best that love for life should be organised as individuals, as organisations and in partnership with one another.
Phyllis Bowman was without doubt a true champion and, in the mould and spirit of St Thomas, an energetic and resolute ‘apostle’ of the precious gift of human life. May Almighty God grant her soul, peace and rest, and may the prayers of Mary the Mother of God, bring consolation to her husband and family. We pray too, that the Lord will give us here today the courage and determination to work together and organise our love in the interests of promoting the dignity and sanctity of human life as an ordered service to our society.