Prayers and penitential hearts must be at the foundation of efforts to restore a genuine respect for life in America, observed Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley of Boston.

"Our nation greatly needs our prayers and personal sacrifices," said the cardinal, who chairs the pro-life committee for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"The evil of abortion inflicts unimaginable pain, but Jesus offers us healing and renewal," he emphasized in a Jan. 16 statement. "He came not to condemn us, but to free us from the burden of the wrongs we have done so that all might be saved."

Jan. 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion throughout the nation.

In his anniversary statement, Cardinal O'Malley reflected on the ruling and its implications for America.

"Without grounding in the Constitution, law or human rights, these decisions have made it legal for the past forty years in the United States to end the life of an unborn child," he said. "Since then fifty-five million children never had the chance to be born."

He lamented that the court and much of society accept this "staggering" loss of children's lives as "a matter of personal choice."

Cardinal O'Malley encouraged Americans to "build a civilization worthy of human beings created in God's image."

Stressing the spiritual nature of this battle, he invited Catholics to participate in "Nine Days of Prayer, Penance and Pilgrimage" from Jan. 19 to 27.

This novena is part of a larger prayer strategy by the U.S. bishops to support life, marriage and religious liberty, he explained. Throughout the nine days, participants will pray for a renewed respect for life in the nation, as well as for the healing and conversion of all those who have been involved in the abortion industry.

Novena materials – which include daily intercessions, reflections and acts of reparation – are available via text message, social media and the website for the bishops' conference. This portable format makes the prayers accessible to the scores of pilgrims who will be traveling to the nation's capital on Jan. 25 for the annual March for Life.

The nine-day initiative further encourages young people to display pro-life Facebook pictures and to submit brief videos from pro-life events for a video contest.

Cardinal O'Malley also highlighted the importance of forgiveness, explaining that Christ's "Divine Mercy knows no limits" if we only ask for it. He encouraged those who know people suffering from an abortion to compassionately aid them in seeking help.

The cardinal voiced hope that "our defense of human life and religious freedom," as well as our witness to human dignity and compassionate service, will "spark a renewal of love and commitment to the true good of others."

"Only a love that seeks to serve those most in need, whatever the personal cost to ourselves, is strong enough to overcome a culture of death," he said.