While in the United States, Pope Francis often spoke about the family. More than once he referred to today’s reading from the book of Genesis which teaches us that marriage and family are at the heart of God’s plan. The Pope speaks with great love and understanding of mothers and fathers who share a mutual love, who give of themselves to each other, who are open to the gift of new life, who bring children into the world, and who teach them that life is worth living.
Pope Francis recognizes how challenging the vocation of marriage and family is. It is obviously one of his highest priorities. Earlier today he celebrated the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, a second synod which he dedicated to the pastoral needs of the family. He wants to encourage strong families, assist families that are struggling to stay together, and help families that have become separated. Surely also in the Holy Father’s heart are refugee families and those that face great challenges such as poverty and illness.
Often the Pope speaks of families in endearing terms. Listening to his talks in Philadelphia last week, I had the sense that the Pope Francis understands what makes families tick. He knows that family members get on one another’s nerves. He knows there are fights and arguments; that tempers can flare. He even said there are moments when dishes, when plates, are flying! I want to assure you: that never happens in my house! And if the Pope recognizes that friction and tension that is part of family life, he also knows what causes it to flourish: little acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, a meal at the end of the day. Family life is built to last by thousands of small acts of kindness and love.
In the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, the sacred author teaches that Jesus, God’s Eternal Son, was not ashamed to be called our brother. And how did it come about that God’s Son would be one of us, our brother? It’s because God willed his Son to enter human history as the member of a family. In becoming one of us, in sharing our humanity, Jesus showed us the great dignity with which God has endowed every person. In entering the world through a family, Jesus showed us the beauty and importance of the vocation of marriage.
Every Life is Worth Living
Let’s focus for a minute on this idea of human dignity. It is not only a grand idea but also a very important principle, in fact, the foundational principle of the Church’s moral and social teaching. We’re made in God’s image and likeness; each human life has value in God’s eyes at every stage of our existence; therefore, each human life at every stage of existence should have value in our eyes: It should be a personal conviction; it should be part of the Church’s proclamation; and it should be the cornerstone of a society that is just and merciful. That is why the Holy Father said in his address to the Congress that human life is to be defended and protected in all stages of its existence.
But sometimes, I think, this very important principle of human dignity sounds a little abstract, a little bit out of reach in our daily lives. It is a concept we might expect to find in a document or in a speech but how do we get ahold of this idea in our daily lives? I think it’s in the family that we most effectively discover what human dignity is. After all, human dignity means God loves us for our own sake. He doesn’t love us because we can give us something he doesn’t already have. He loves us because he made us to be loveable.
Loving marriages and homes are like that. At work or at school we might be respected for what do. At home, we are loved because of who we are. And that includes those who are not loved and respected in what Pope Francis calls our throwaway culture… the unborn child, the young person with special needs, a chronically ill family member, a family member who is terminally ill. In the love of the family circle, we can see more easily that every life is worth living, including the lives of those who are sick and suffering.
Let me share with you a little of my own experience. My older brother, Frankie, has special needs. Growing up, I came to realize what a strain that put on Mom and Dad. Sometimes he was really hard to handle and back in the 50’s and 60’s there weren’t many resources to help parents like mine to deal with such situations, but they gave it their all. They found ways to communicate to Frankie how much they loved him and to affirm his importance in their lives. They did this by thousands of acts of love, some of them pretty heroic. And they helped me and my other brother to share in their love for Frankie. To this day, Frankie, who is living in a group home, visits my parents every week. Mom and Dad, now in their mid-90’s, light up with joy when they see him.
That’s what I mean about human dignity. When you see it lived and affirmed, the way my parents affirm Frankie’s dignity, well, then, the concept isn’t so abstract after all. It’s beautiful. It’s true. It’s a source of joy. Mom and Dad have told me that if they had they could do it all over again, they’d welcome Frankie into their home. “He’s done more for us than we did for him,” Dad said more than once.
Sometimes the Church’s teachings on the humanity of the unborn child, on the indissolubility of marriage and the importance of the family, on respect for the frail elderly and the dying— are portrayed as harsh and unfeeling. But if we see it through the lens of family love, if we see it through the lens of a thousand acts of kindness and love, then we can more readily see how that these teachings are not harsh but merciful. It’s the Church’s way of saying that every life is worth living.
October is Respect Life Month, a time to reflect prayerfully on the Church’s teaching regarding the sanctity of life. And the theme of this year’s respect life program is in fact, “Every life is worth living”. I’d invite you to take a fresh look at what it means to say that God loves each one of us for our own sake and that God has endowed each one of us with dignity because he has called us all to friendship with himself. This is part of the Gospel of Life and we are called to bear witness to it by strengthening family life and by serving and advocating on behalf of the vulnerable. This is how, together, we can, in God’s grace build a true civilization of love. May God bless us and keep us always in His love.