A few weeks ago, I was about to enter St. Theresa’s Church in Trumbull, Connecticut, for the installation of my successor as Bishop of Bridgeport, when I received an urgent email from my Communications Director here in Baltimore. He said that the Pope had given an interview to America magazine, that it was a ‘must-read’, and that I might be asked by the media for comment.
Well, as you know, the Church frowns on emailing and texting during Mass, so there was nothing for me to do but offer a little prayer to the Holy Spirit and then to tend to the matter at hand, namely, praying that God would bless abundantly the Diocese of Bridgeport and its new Bishop. Emails, even one with the Pope’s interview attached, would have to wait.
By the time I reached the train station in Stamford for the trip home, I realized how urgently I needed to read the Pope’s interview, to study it and reflect upon it. I say this because at the train station I met a medical doctor whom I had known during my years as Bishop of Bridgeport. He had already read about the interview and concluded that Pope was backing away from the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and the defense of marriage. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he said as my heart sank.
II. What Pope Francis Wants Us to Know
Reading the interview on the train and responding to media requests, I began to see what Pope Francis, in his now-famous interview, is saying to the world. In a creative and engaging way, he is telling us to put first things first. He is telling me as a bishop and you as faithful Catholic committed to the cause of protecting and defending unborn and vulnerable human life to put first things first. But what comes first in our lives? What is the overarching priority that helps us put our spiritual lives, our personal lives, our vocations, and the struggle to defend life at all its stages – in focus? What gives us vision, meaning, and inward strength?
What outranks everything is falling in love with God. We have gathered to celebrate Holy Mass on Respect Life Sunday so as to place ourselves under the influence of the Holy Spirit who enables us to encounter Christ, not as a remote figure of history, but as the Eternal Son of the Father who took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Incarnate Son whose love sheds light on our human dignity in the Father’s eyes, our Redeemer, who lives, who reigns, who is present in our hearts. The more we are overtaken by God’s love, the more we become the Lord’s disciples, the more equipped we are to proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel of Life. And when those who are not convinced of the sanctity of human life experience in faith that love, the love of God, which is above every other love, when in faith they begin to understand the truth of God’s love for every person, then their minds and hearts may be opened to see the value of human life at every stage.
III. Light from Scripture
Today’s Scripture readings shed light on our need for ongoing conversion so that we might have the inner vision and strength we need in the struggle to open the minds and hearts of our contemporaries to God’s love and truth, and thus to the inviolable dignity of life.
The reading from the Prophet Habakkuk is set in a time of violence and destruction, a time when human life was cheap, when abuse and oppression were everywhere. The prophet wondered aloud how God could stand by and watch, a sentiment we may feel in the face of so much disrespect for human life in our day. Speaking to Catholic gynecologists, Pope Francis addressed the violence of our culture. He referred to the “culture of waste” that calls for the elimination of human lives deemed not to be useful or valuable: the unborn, the sick & disabled, the frail elderly. Earlier this year we marked the 40th anniversary of the tragic U.S. Supreme Court rulings Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Since then over 55 million unborn children’s lives have been taken, leaving millions of mothers, fathers, and family members wounded and grieving over their loss. Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in three states, allowing doctors to end patient’s lives rather than provide much-needed comfort in times of pain and distress.
To the prophet Habakkuk and to us in our anguish, the Lord says: “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint….” What is this vision? It is not a mirage in the desert. Not an illusion. It the vision of faith in a personal God who knows us and loves us, who promises to be with us to deliver us from a culture of death and violence. It is the vision of faith that prompts us to seek that love poured out for us in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is a vision of faith grounded in truth, a vision that enlightens human reason, softens our hearts, opens our minds, and prompts us to want to live differently.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says that if we have faith “the size of a mustard seed”, we can work wonders! What are the wonders that we can work? We can uproot a culture of death, a culture of unbelief, a culture of violence, if, with humility and faith, we place ourselves entirely in the Lord’s hands, realizing that the Lord is by our side in our service to the Gospel of Life, and understanding that that ‘apart from him we can do nothing’. When we are and are perceived to be servants of the culture of life, servants of the unborn, servants of those wounded by procurement of an abortion, servants of those struggling with illness, disabilities, or the frailty of advancing years, then it is that others who may approve of abortion or physician assisted suicide may be induced to change not only their minds but their way of life. No one is beyond the mercy of God! God’s forgiveness is abundant, readily available, and transforming!
In the second letter to Timothy, Paul tells us that we have not received “a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control…” In other words, once we have opened our hearts in faith to the truth of God’s love, once we have sought his love and asked to be transformed, then we equipped with all the spiritual gifts to bear witness to the Gospel of Life. And please God, through our witness, the minds and hearts of others will be changed, such that they will not see the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life as harsh or judgmental or as some sort of obsession – but rather as a response of love and gratitude to the God who gave us life and the God who loves us more than we can ask or imagine. This, I think, is what Pope Francis wants us to understand and to embrace.
IV. Signs of Hope
As we seek to share the truth about human life with those around us, let us see the signs of hope all around us – the many young people involved in the pro-life movement all around our country, as well as the courageous and loving individuals whom we will honor today at the conclusion of this Mass, and the unfailing presence of the Lord who remains with us always as we seek to make him known, as we seek to reveal his love, and invite others to share in the mercy we ourselves have experienced.
Finally, we entrust these efforts to Mary, the Mother of God and to her husband, Saint Joseph. They are models of virtue and holiness who gave everything to welcome Jesus into their lives despite the many hardships. With their assistance, may each of us have the courage to open our hearts to life! And may God bless us and keep us always in his love!