Respect Life Sunday takes place this year during the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the encyclical of Saint John Paul II on life, Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life. He gave us this great gift on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25, 1995. Indeed, through Mary’s yes to God’s will, the Son of God became incarnate in her womb at the moment of His conception. John Paul wrote this monumental encyclical as he himself was experiencing the limitations of life through different forms of illness and suffering. Yet he knew the gift and dignity of his own life in those trials which did not impede him from living life in an extraordinary and exemplary fashion. Saint John Paul II spoke of the dignity of life, not only through his words, but more powerfully by how he lived and influenced the world in the face of his physical limitations right up to the moment of his death.
The Pope’s encyclical begins with the words, “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as ‘good news’ to the people of every age and culture.” Our society today, faced with so many threats to life and misunderstandings of the meaning of life, needs so desperately to hear and appreciate these words. Saint John Paul II speaks of the disrespect that can be given to life from the moment of conception until natural death. Our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, continually speaks of the need for respect for life at every stage as he emphasizes the need to go to those on the periphery in our world. Following in the footsteps of Saint John Paul II, Pope Francis ardently proclaims the natural rights of every human person from the moment of conception until natural death. He has affirmed the teaching of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in his reformulation of the wording of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in regard to the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. It now makes clear that the death penalty is not admissible in our society which can protect itself through other means than the death penalty.
Respect Life Sunday also falls during a very significant political time for our country. As Catholics, we fully appreciate that respect for life is not only about opposing abortion. However, in line with the Gospel of Life and the constant teaching of Pope Francis, the matter of abortion is a threshold issue which must always be primary in our commitment to the protection of life. The legalization of abortion has put us on a slippery slope which erodes respect for life at every stage. Life comes into existence at the moment of conception and once it is ceded that the life of an innocent child can be taken, it logically flows that the life of any person, vulnerable or not, can also be taken. That is why physician assisted suicide and the denial of natural care to the elderly, the infirm and physically or mentally challenged persons are so closely related to the issue of abortion. Recent horrendous state legislation has been enacted which permits abortions up until the moment of birth and even allows a newly born child to die without assistance. These are abhorrent signs of the pressing need to overcome any legislation regarding abortion as primary.
In his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exultate, Pope Francis clearly stated that, “Our defense of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate for at stake is the dignity of the human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.” On one occasion the Pope expressed, “Last century, the whole world was scandalized by what the Nazis did to purify the race. Today, we do the same thing but with white gloves!” If the dignity of the life of an unborn child is not recognized, neither will be that of the poor, the destitute, the abandoned, the underprivileged, the immigrant in need, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victim of human trafficking, the victim of racism, and the victim of every form of rejection. Indeed, abortion is a threshold issue which undermines respect for all life. As the United States Bishops have stated so clearly in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “The common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right, and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”
We continue, in the words of Saint John Paul II, to create a “culture of life” as opposed to a “culture of death” in which we are currently engaged. This includes respect for life at every stage from the moment of conception until natural death. We do this also in the context of turning our attention to the family. Marriage is the primary vocation to which God calls most men and women and it invokes a lifelong commitment of love which is based on sacrifice. This is not an easy concept for a society, which Pope Francis has characterized as a “throwaway culture”, to understand today. We must reaffirm our appreciation for marriage as an exclusive lifelong relationship between a man and woman. Family life goes hand-in-hand with a respect for life.
As we celebrate Respect Life Sunday this year, we renew our commitment to protecting the sanctity of life of every person and at every stage. We renew our commitment to the Gospel of Life and seek to do all we can by prayer, attention and political action, especially at this critical election time, to protect the life of an unborn child so that the same protection will be offered to all from the moment of conception until natural death.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
October 2, 2020