January 22, 1974, was the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who at the time was the administrator of the Diocese of Richmond, called for a day of penance to mark that date.
Each year on January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday), Catholics in the United States observe the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. Voluntary penances done on this day, such as fasting, abstinence from meat, prayer and charitable works, make reparation for the harm caused by abortion and seek to promote the dignity of human life.
Bishop Sullivan’s statement was published in the January 4, 1974 issue of The Catholic Virginian. The text is as follows:
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Our time has been ravaged by war, corruption in government, exploitation of the land, the systematic oppression of minorities among us, and the evil almost unique in our age, the horrible crime of abortion.
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States stripped the unborn child of the right to life guaranteed by our Constitution. Sadly, that decision accurately reflects the view of many of the people in our country. As a people of faith called by Jesus to give life, we have become accessories to that crime by our silence and our insensitivity.
Because of the guilt we share, I am proclaiming Sunday, January 20, 1974, a day of reparation for our offenses against the unborn. I call upon all of you to join me in reserving that Sunday as a day of prayer and fasting.
I ask you on that day to celebrate a special liturgy for the forgiveness of our sins and those of our nation against the unborn, and all those affected by our sinfulness. I ask you, as I myself will do, to fast in some meaningful way: eat only one meal; refrain from alcohol and tobacco; or do some other penance. I also ask each parish to place a basket in a prominent place in the church where people may contribute to local projects supporting human life. This money may be used according to the wishes of each parish.
God, our Father, has called us to repent of our sins and turn back to Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. In this Holy Year of renewal and reconciliation, let us make this day the beginning of our return to Him. Let each one of us seek new ways to defend the sanctity of life and improve the quality of life in our nation.
Sincerely in Christ,
+Walter F. Sullivan