April 30, 2024 // Bishop

The Call to Be ‘Guardians and Servants of Human Life’

The following is the text of Bishop Rhoades’ homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, given on Saturday, April 27, at the annual Evangelium Vitae Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

“God’s commandment is this: We should believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” These words from the second reading are a concise summary of the whole First Letter of St. John that we have been hearing on these Sundays of the Easter season. Basically, the message is “believe and love!” Faith and love together are the heart of the Christian life: They are inseparable.

First, faith. We are to believe in the name of Jesus. To believe in Jesus’ name is to believe that He is the Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh for our salvation. St. John is insisting on this in the context of the situation of the community to whom he was writing, where some Gnostics were rejecting the reality of the Incarnation. At the very beginning of his letter, John confesses that Jesus is the Word of life that he and others have heard, seen, and touched. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II, in writing about the “countless grave threats to life present in the modern world,” said that “at such times, the People of God, and this includes every believer, is called to profess with humility and courage its faith in Jesus Christ, ‘the Word of life.’”

Following St. John, Pope John Paul II insisted on the centrality of faith in Jesus. He wrote that “the Gospel of life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus. … Jesus is the Son who from all eternity receives life from the Father, and who has come among (us) to make (us) sharers in this gift.” Jesus Himself said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” “In Jesus, the Word of life, God’s eternal life is thus proclaimed and given,” John Paul wrote. “Thanks to this proclamation and gift, our physical and spiritual life, also in its earthly phase, acquires its full value and meaning, for God’s eternal life is in fact the end to which our living in this world is directed and called.” Life is thus always a good. This is what we celebrate in a special way at this Evangelium Vitae Mass. We gather in faith at this Eucharist, believing in Jesus as the Word of life, believing in His name, that He is indeed the Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh for our salvation, as St. John teaches. And what better way to celebrate this belief than participating in the banquet where we receive His life-giving flesh and blood.

In his letter, St. John insists not only on the centrality of faith but on its inseparable connection to love for one another. The call to love one another is a central theme of the First Letter of St. John. Time and again, John calls us to love one another as God who is love has loved us. Displaying genuine love for another is an essential mark of the Christian. St. John exhorts us: “Children, let us love not (just) in word or speech but in deed and truth.” Those who are truly the children of God display love in concrete ways. Tonight, we honor a person in the medical profession who has done so in a beautiful way. Dr. Elvira Parravicini’s care for mothers, their pre-born and newborn children, and their families is an inspiration to us all. She exemplifies St. John Paul’s call to health care professionals to be “guardians and servants of human life.” We are called to have and to show reverence and love for every human life, entrusted to us by God, the Lord of life. Thank you, Dr. Parravicini, for your witness to the Gospel of life through your professional service motivated by your faith and your love for God and your love for the little ones!

The reading today from St. John’s first letter ends with this sentence: “Those who keep God’s commandments remain in Him, and He in them, and the way we know that He remains in us is from the Spirit that He gave us.” The idea of remaining or abiding in God is a recurring theme in St. John’s letters and in his Gospel. We remain or abide in God through faith and love through the Holy Spirit, who graciously imparts divine power and life to us. The Gospel today of the vine and the branches speaks of this remaining or abiding in Jesus. In fact, we find the word “remain” or “abide” 10 times in today’s Gospel. Jesus is the vine, and His disciples are the branches. Jesus teaches that we, the branches, must remain on the vine in order to bear fruit. Our Lord says to us: “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you remain in me. … Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

Brothers and sisters, we were grafted onto the vine when we were baptized. We were united to Jesus. It’s vitally important that we remain united to Him and His love. When we do, we let the sap of the vine, the grace of the Holy Spirit, the love of God, enter into us and animate our life. There are so many things that can tear us from the vine, separate us from the Lord. There’s selfishness and greed, anger and hate, lust and power, all kinds of temptations in a culture of death that can draw us away from the Lord and His life in a way that we become withering or dead branches. And remember: St. John wrote that “those who keep God’s commandments remain in Him.” God’s commandments include “Thou shalt not kill.”

How do we remain in Jesus as He teaches us so insistently? We need perseverance in faith, through daily prayer, through listening to His Word, and through participation in the sacraments, especially the holy Eucharist. If we find ourselves as branches becoming less firmly attached to the vine because of our sins, we need the remedy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to reconnect us more strongly to the Lord. We also need the humility to admit that, as branches, we need some pruning if we are to bear good fruit. For example, if we become too big for ourselves, too filled with pride, we need to be cut back, to be brought back to the simplicity and poverty of the Lord Himself. It’s only by dying to self (that’s the pruning process) that fruitfulness will endure and renew itself. As a result of the pruning process, the fruits grow, the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the first and greatest of which is love, followed by joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruits of communion with Jesus and living the gifts of the Holy Spirit we have all received in baptism and confirmation. The life of Christ becomes our own. This is what happened to the saints. Pope Francis says that “this is the secret of the saints: abiding in Christ, joined to Him like branches to the vine, in order to bear much fruit.” The Holy Father teaches that by remaining united to Jesus, “we receive a new way of being, the life of Christ becomes our own: We are able to think like Him, to act like Him, to see the world and the things in it with the eyes of Jesus. And so we are able to love our brothers and sisters, beginning with the poor and those who suffer the most, as He has done, and to love them with His heart, and so bear fruits of goodness, of charity, and of peace in the world” (Regina Coeli, May 3, 2015). I think of the love Dr. Parravicini has for the little babies who may only have minutes, hours, or just days or weeks to live after their birth, and the fruits of her love and medical expertise. Through the Neonatal Comfort Care Program she founded and its care-giving team, parents and families are able to see and hold their babies and show their love for them, moments or days that they will treasure for the rest of their lives.

Finally, I am deeply grateful that the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture here at Notre Dame does so much to proclaim and serve the Gospel of life. I cannot thank Dr. Carter Snead enough for his great leadership these past 12 years, and I am very happy that he will be succeeded by another wonderful director, Dr. Jenny Martin. I am grateful to all of the staff and benefactors of this center and to the Sorin Fellows who are such an important part of this university.

The strongest and most beautiful branch united to the vine is the one in whose honor this university is named, Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The sap from the vine, from her Son, ran through every fiber of her being. She was indeed full of grace. Let us entrust ourselves and this university to her so that we remain in her Son as living branches in the Church, firmly united to Christ the vine, the Head of the Church.

The branch which was Mary did not need to be pruned since she was without sin, but she holds our hand in the pruning process. May she help us to be open to the pruning that we need so that we may bear good fruit in our service of life and our service of the Church! And may the holy Eucharist nourish our souls with the love of Christ that we are called to spread in the world! 

* * *

The best news. Delivered to your inbox.

Subscribe to our mailing list today.