“A society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; and among the most vulnerable are surely the unborn and the dying.”
Address to the New Ambassador of New Zealand to the Holy See May 25, 2000
Today is a great day for those who respect, protect, love and serve life, for it is the feast day of Saint John Paul II, the great apostle and defender of life and the family.
A prolific writer, this great saint has left an impressive legacy of tomes that teach, exhort and yes, admonish. Covering a wide variety of topics at the heart of his message is the dignity of the human person, devotion to the Blessed Mother who in turn leads us to her Son and our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Some of his great works which assist those who work in the pro-life and pro-family movement include Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Familiaris Cosortio (The Christian Family in the Modern World), Veritatis Splendor (Splendour of Truth), Salvifici doloris (Redemptive Suffering), Love and Responsibility and the Theology of the Body.
With great clarity, Saint John Paul II warned the faithful, and the world, of the coming battles for life, faith and family.
Just two years before he became Pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla spoke to the American Bishops. There he announced:
We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, between the Gospel and the anti-Gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously.
We see this confrontation gaining momentum at every turn with new and more bizarre twists of reality and truth springing forth at an alarming speed, both within and outside the Church.
The threats against human life
Saint John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical letter, Evangelium Vitae – The Gospel of Life – thoroughly examined the threats against human life. Some of these threats included:
- artificial reproductive technologies,
- prenatal diagnosis when used to ‘search and destroy’ rather than to offer appropriate treatment,
- population control, and,
Lamenting the fact that these threats are no longer seen as “crimes” but rather “rights” made “available through the free services of health-care personnel,” the pontiff noted that the “attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defence.”
He went on to say “even more serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family – the family which by its nature is called to be the ‘sanctuary of life.’”
The deep roots of the crisis between the culture of life and the culture of death, Saint John Paul II maintains, is found in the domination of secularism.
When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life; in turn, the systematic violation of the moral law, especially in the serious matter of respect for human life and its dignity, produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God’s living and saving presence.
Acknowledging that the “grave threats” can lead to a sense of being “overwhelmed by sheer powerlessness”, the Saint declared that “at such times the people of God… [are] called to profess with humility and courage its faith in Jesus Christ.” This is because the “Gospel of life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus.”
Later in this encyclical letter, he explains how we can work together, serving life with “various programmes and structures which support and promote life.” Some of these programmes include:
- centres for teaching natural methods of regulating fertility,
- marriage and family counselling agencies,
- centres and homes of assistance for unmarried mothers and couples in difficulty,
- appropriate care for the elderly and terminally ill,
- palliative care,
Pointing out the grave responsibility of health care workers, civil leaders, chaplains, volunteers, and indeed everyone, he stated “no single person or group has a monopoly on the defence and promotion of life. These are everyone’s task and responsibility.”
Finally, he called the world to prayer and fasting as a humble leaning on God who alone can “break down the walls of lies and deceit.”
Theology of the Body
His most noted work is what has come to be known as the Theology of the Body. A series of 129 reflections given at his Wednesday audiences over a period of five years, Saint John Paul II analyses human sexuality and the nature of marriage, celibacy and virginity.
Within these reflections, he notes that “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”
A variety of programmes have been developed and books written in order to make these teachings as accessible as possible to young people and to those who may not otherwise read the original material.
John Paul II showed us with his life the value of suffering. In a world beginning to embrace the ethos that suffering is a burden and of no value – that one should have the option to choose when to die – he showed by his very life, the true meaning of suffering. Who can forget the dignity and grace shown by Saint John Paul II as he battled Parkinson’s disease and grew old before the world’s gaze?
In the apostolic letter, Salvifici doloris – redemptive suffering – Saint John Paul II discusses how suffering is not just a call to compassion, but to love.
We could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions.
This message of an unselfish gift of love is so needed today in a culture that has embraced the sad belief that true freedom consists in having the “right” to complete autonomy.
Defending life and protecting the family is the mission of all people
Saint John Paul II always called us to be better Christians, to be more human, to love sacrificially and serve one another, always seeing the inherent dignity in each person.
He constantly exhorted young and old alike to boldly proclaim the Gospel, drawing ever more people to Christ in order that they may have life, and have it to the full.
No clearer was this than in his homily at the closing Mass at World Youth Day in 1993. There, he clearly defined the attacks on life and the family, the battle between life and death. He charged the young people of the world with the mission to proclaim the Gospel of Life and to make Christ known even “to the ends of the earth.”
So serious is this task that he declared “woe to you if you do not succeed in defending life.”
Characteristically, the magnitude of the challenge was tempered by those all important and comforting words “Be not afraid!” For, Saint John Paul II knew that the battle has been decided. “Christ – the Head – has already conquered sin and death,” he reminded us.
Saint John Paul II showed us what it means to build a culture of life and a civilisation of love. Humility, trust in God, willingness to serve, a love of the truth and fidelity to the Gospel, along with a desire to proclaim that Gospel unashamedly.
Each of us must find a courageous determination to protect and serve human life from conception to natural death and to promote the natural family, which is the ‘sanctuary of life.’
“Only in this direction,” Saint John Paul II says in Evangelium Vitae, “will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!”
Yes, the threats against life, faith and family are grave. But there is hope. There is always hope. Let us not be afraid to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Life which is good news for all.