A unique gathering taking place in Rome today and tomorrow, June 15 and 16 and sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, is expected to draw tens of thousands of parishes, communities, youth groups, voluntary associations for the sick and disabled and ordinary families. It will offer the opportunity for the faithful from around the world to gather with Pope Francis in a communal witness to the sacred value of all life and further study and discussion on the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life) promulgated by Blessed John Paul II in March 1995. The Gospel of Life is the defense of all life. This major event gives witness to the consistent life ethic of the Catholic Church.
There is no question that the issue of abortion is certainly important and central to our struggle to uphold the dignity and sacredness of all human life. We must be people who defend and speak for those who are suffering, for those whose lives are being marginalized by a culture of death. We must be advocates for the disabled or ill who are not deemed by society to be ‘productive.’ We must care for the elderly in nursing homes, or those who are being treated in any way with violence and indignity.
On Saturday afternoon, June 15, there will be a pilgrimage down Via della Conciliazione to Pio XII Square, which will conclude with the recitation of the Creed in various languages and a vigil of prayer. On Sunday morning at 10:30, Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis will celebrate mass that will be will be broadcast globally through Vatican Radio and Vatican TV’s online player in 6 languages.
Human life has a sacred and religious value, but in no way is that value a concern only of believers. Today we are living in the midst of a culture that denies solidarity and takes the form of a veritable “culture of death”. This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents that encourage an idea of society exclusively concerned with efficiency. It is a war of the powerful against the weak. There is no room in the world for anyone who, like the unborn or the dying, is a weak element in the social structure or anyone who appears completely at the mercy of others and radically dependent on them and can only communicate through the silent language of profound sharing of affection.
Abortion is the most serious wound inflicted not only on individuals and their families who should provide the sanctuary for life, but inflicted as well on society and its culture, by the very people who ought to be society’s promoters and defenders. It is important to recall Benedict XVI’s words and pro-life vision at the opening ceremony of World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, on July 17, 2008:
“And so we are led to reflect on what place the poor and the elderly, immigrants and the voiceless, have in our societies. How can it be that domestic violence torments so many mothers and children? How can it be that the most wondrous and sacred human space – the womb – has become a place of unutterable violence?”
The Church offers a teaching on the inviolability, the sacredness and dignity of the human person. Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the dignity of the human person such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself, whatever insults human dignity such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, disgraceful working conditions where people are treated as instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons – all of these things and more poison human society.
In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, ‘Caritas in Veritate’, (Charity in Truth), he addressed the dignity and respect for human life “which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples.” Benedict wrote, “In economically developed countries, legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other states as if it were a form of cultural progress.”
“Openness to life is at the centre of true development,” said Benedict. “When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity toward the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”
Pope Benedict summed up the current global economic crisis in a remarkable way with these words: “Human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs.”
The Roman Catholic Church offers a teaching on the inviolability, the sacredness and the dignity of the human person: a 20/20 vision for which we must strive each day if we claim to be “pro-life.” Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. We must strive to see the whole picture, not with tunnel vision.
Being pro-life is one of the deepest expressions of our baptism: we stand up as sons and daughters of the light, clothed in humility and charity, filled with conviction, speaking the truth to power with firmness, conviction and determination, and never losing joy and hope. Being Pro-Life is not an activity for a political party or a particular side of the spectrum. It is an obligation for everyone: left, right and centre! If we are Pro-life, we must engage the culture around us, and not curse it. We must see others as Jesus does, and we must love them to life, even those who are opposed to us.
Two role models of contemporary Pro-life prophetic women
Let us consider two outstanding, Catholic role models who can help us in our efforts to be prophetic, to be Catholic witnesses, and to be authentically pro-life. First, a young Italian pediatrician and mother of a family, Gianna Beretta Molla, who died in 1962 at the age of 39, leaving behind her husband and four young children.
In September, 1961, toward the end of the second month of pregnancy with her fourth child, Dr. Molla had to make a heroic decision. Physicians diagnosed a serious fibroma in the uterus that required surgery. The surgeon suggested that she undergo an abortion in order to save her own life. A few days before the child was due, she was ready to give her life in order to save that of her child: “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: Choose the child – I insist on it. Save the baby.” She gave herself entirely, generating new life.
Dr. Molla was not the typical candidate for one of the Vatican’s most impressive ceremonies and most significant honors. Gianna loved culture, fashion and beauty. She played piano, was a painter, enjoyed tennis, mountain climbing and skiing. She attended the symphony, theatre and Milan’s La Scala Opera. Gianna also had a passion for nice clothes and enjoyed traveling. She loved children, the elderly and the poor.
In an age when permanent commitment is widely discouraged, when human life is cheap and disposable and family life is under siege, when abortion is all too available, when sacrifice and virtue are absent in so many lives; when many in the medical profession have little concern for the dignity and sacredness of every human life; when suffering is seen as a nuisance without any redemptive meaning; when goodness, joy, simplicity and beauty are suspect; St. Gianna Beretta Molla shows this world, gripped by a culture of death, an alternative gospel way of compelling beauty.
Her action at the end of her life, in saving young Gianna Emanuela, her daughter, was heroic in that she prepared for her final action every day of her life. Her final decision for life was the natural flowering and culmination of an extraordinary life of virtue and holiness, selflessness and quiet joy. St. Gianna Molla continues to remind the church and the world of the necessity of a consistent ethic of life, from the earliest to the final moments of human life.
Gianna Beretta Molla is certainly not the first laywoman and mother to be canonized, but her contemporary witness is badly needed by so many people around the world today. Her life was truly prophetic. In the simple words of one of St. Gianna’s closest friends, Piera Fontana, “50 years ago, before Gianna, how was it possible that only nuns, priests and friars were raised to the altar? Why were we never raised to the altar? Gianna was raised to the altar. She represents all mothers. A mother has finally arrived.”
Dorothy Day: model of conversion, courage and commitment
The second example I would like to hold up to you is a very special woman in the Christian tradition, one closer to home for each of us: Dorothy Day. During their annual General Assembly in Baltimore last year, the Bishops of the United States engaged in a canonical consultation regarding the cause for canonisation of Dorothy Day, a pacifist and convert to Catholicism from New York City. This unprecedented canonical consultation was a procedural step in the process toward canonisation.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and leader of the Archdiocese of New York, was seeking the consultation of the full body of bishops. Dorothy Day already carries the title ‘Servant of God,’ a designation awarded by the Vatican when it gave her cause a Nihil Obstat, that is, a formal declaration that the Vatican has no objection to the cause moving forward. The American bishops gave unanimous voice through their vote to proceed with the sainthood cause for Dorothy Day.
She is a remarkable, prophetic woman of our times who transmitted the good news by her life and actions, and at times by her words. Born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, Dorothy was neither baptized nor raised in the church. After dropping out of college in 1916, she pursued the radical causes of her day: women’s suffrage, free love, labour unions, and social revolution. But when a decade of protest and social action failed to produce changes in the values and institutions of society, Dorothy converted to the Catholic Church and the radicalism of Christian love. Her life was filled with friendships with famous artists and writers. At the same time she experienced failed love affairs, a marriage and a suicide attempt. The triggering event for Dorothy’s conversion was the birth of her daughter, Tamar in 1926. After an earlier abortion, Dorothy had desperately wanted to get pregnant. She viewed the birth of her daughter as a sign of forgiveness from God.
For 50 years, Dorothy lived with the poor, conducted conferences, and published a newspaper, all dependent entirely upon donations. She dedicated her life fighting for justice for the homeless in New York City and was co-founder the Catholic Worker Movement. Seventy-five houses of hospitality were established during her lifetime, where the hungry were fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered, the sick cared for, and the dead buried. She was put in jail, for the first time, at the age of 20 while marching in support of women’s suffrage. She was put in jail, for the last time, at the age of 75 while marching in support of the United Farm Workers. She was an avid peacemaker and a prolific author. Dorothy died on November 29, 1980, thirty-two years ago at Maryhouse in New York City, where she spent her final months among the poor. She was an average person who read her bible and tried to live and to love like Jesus. She challenges each of us to take seriously the message of the gospel.
In March 2000, the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York City, formally announced the opening of the Beatification Process for this great woman of faith, calling Dorothy a Servant of God. In his letter, he wrote: ‘It has long been my contention that Dorothy Day is a saint – not a ‘gingerbread’ saint or a ‘holy card’ saint, but a modern day devoted daughter of the Church, a daughter who shunned personal aggrandizement and wished that her work, and the work of those who labored at her side on behalf of the poor, might be the hallmark of her life rather than her own self.
The conversion of mind and heart that she exemplified speaks volumes to all women today on two fronts. First, it demonstrates the mercy of God, mercy in that a woman who sinned so gravely could find such unity with God upon conversion. Second, it demonstrates that one may turn from the ultimate act of violence against innocent life in the womb to a position of total holiness and pacifism. Her abortion should not preclude her cause, but intensifies it.
Dorothy Day’s life is a model for each one of us who seeks to understand, love, teach and defend the Catholic faith in our day. She procured an abortion before her conversion to the faith. She regretted it every day of her life. After her conversion from a life akin to that of the pre-converted Augustine of Hippo, she proved a stout defender of human life. This prophetic woman of our own time gives us courage to defend our Catholic faith, especially to uphold the dignity and sacredness of every single human life, from womb to tomb. She shows us how to cherish the gift of human life. She helps us never to forget that we are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.