By Fred Everett
Respect Life Month this October affords us an opportunity to reflect upon the pro-life movement in our country along with the Church’s mission in proclaiming, celebrating and serving the Gospel of Life — especially in light of recent comments by Pope Francis. In an interview recently published in Jesuit journals around the world, the supreme pontiff used the image of a field hospital to convey what is primary in the Church’s New Evangelization:
“The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds; heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”
Understanding what is really ailing our culture must be the first step in effectively beginning to heal it. Certainly the pro-life movement has had many successes in saving hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of lives. Despite our successes in providing direct services through excellent agencies such as the Women’s Care Center; despite the passage of numerous state laws and regulations limiting the evil effects of abortion; and despite the reduction in the numbers of abortion clinics across the nation; there are still over a million unborn children killed each year in our country. In addition, more states are either considering or legalizing assisted suicide for patients — many of whom are often suffering from depression.
It has become apparent that passing laws that protect the life of every human being from conception until death will not be possible unless we change the direction of our culture — a culture that continues to yield to a growing and increasingly militant secularism. Only once the culture begins to turn back to God will the political process become less polarized and more open to a civil dialogue marked by truth and love. Only a new evangelization of our nation will be able to change the hearts of our younger citizens so as to embrace a culture of life.
So, what now? What is it that Pope Francis would have us do? If we have properly diagnosed the illness, we should be able to discern what will best treat it. If we look nationally at young adults who are in their early to mid-20s, a small minority of about 15 percent is strong in its faith and is trying to make a positive difference in our culture. On the other hand, about 40 percent of their peers can be described as religiously indifferent, disconnected or hostile. Most of the remaining 45 percent say that they still believe in God, but many really do not know Him. They might think of Him as a cosmic force, a distant Creator, a helper in times of crisis or some form of karma. While this growing secularism is, of course, tragic, it also offers the Catholic Church an opportunity to reach out anew with the New Evangelization that Blessed John Paul inaugurated and that Pope Francis is now leading.
This New Evangelization must be perceived as something new and inviting to all who have been wounded by our culture. It must be perceived as offering mercy and solidarity and not condemnation. To be authentic and attractive to others, the heart of this New Evangelization must be rooted in an intimate friendship with Jesus Christ, encountered daily in prayer and study. Getting to know Christ through the Scriptures, through the writings of the saints, through the sacraments of Eucharist and Penance, and through the daily recitation of the rosary are all important means of encountering Christ — but none of them can substitute for a daily period set aside for a heart to heart conversation with the Lord.
Let me illustrate this important point with an example. If you have ever seen a newly smitten young couple, you know that they have little problem in finding the time to communicate with each other. Especially with today’s technology, even if they cannot be together in the same physical location, they will text, call, Skype and visit each other’s Facebook page ad infinitum, and, even ad nauseam. If they are apart and they decide, for example, to Skype at a certain hour each day, if they are truly smitten, this will not be seen as some oppressive obligation. On the contrary, they will look forward to it. Such opportunities for communication are the lifeblood of any such relationship for it to grow in ardor. The same is true with setting aside time each day for conversation with the Lord.
Only a love that is passionate will attract others to the truth. The main work of the New Evangelization is to manifest the loving face of God to each person we encounter and to encourage people in their own relationship with God. This can only happen, though, if we have an intimate relationship with Him ourselves. To have this, we need to know Him and to love Him passionately. As St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and other doctors of the Church have written, this comes through an ever deepening prayer life.
It is the conviction of the Church — a conviction upon which the pro-life movement rests — that God loves each human being — from the unborn child to the sick and elderly — with a passion that far exceeds that of lovers, spouses or parents. However, for a friendship to form, that love must be reciprocated — even if it begins only as a small, tender shoot. What is this beginning according to the doctors of the Church? A friendship with God begins with an acknowledgement of His Lordship and the firm resolution not to offend Him in any serious matter. For Christians, this begins with a firm resolution to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to follow His commandments as taught by the Church.
Once a person has resolved to put God first, that person is much more open to learning about the Gospel of Life and much more willing to proclaim, celebrate and serve it in his or her own life. This is the “context” that Pope Francis believes will be the most fruitful. This does not mean that a person cannot be convinced of the truth of the Gospel of Life on its own terms without such a deep conversion of heart, but, in my experience, such people will tend to be more intellectually minded than most. This does not mean that the Church should stop making its case from reason in the public square, but that the Church must be careful in not letting this effort eclipse evangelizing others in the faith.
Once a person is on this trajectory of spiritual growth and renewal, he or she goes beyond simply resolving not to offend God in serious matters. The next step is a firm resolution not to offend God in any matter regardless of the cost followed by the final step of resolving to please Him in every matter despite any preferences to the contrary. At this stage, a person can begin to sincerely say along with the saints that they would rather die a thousand deaths, than do anything to displease God. This is the type of ardor, the type of passionate love of God that can begin to break through and destroy the secularism that is slowly choking our culture.
What the pro-life movement most needs today are modern saints who radiate the truth and love of God. Nothing else will do. With Pope Francis, let us all rededicate ourselves to this great mission of our times.
Frederick W. Everett, JD, is the co-director of the Family Life Office of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
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