22nd Jan 2014

Living the Gospel of Life With Pope Francis

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Did you know that Pope Francis went to the Roman March for Life this spring? He surprised participants by swinging by.

Like his remarks to medical professionals and his Mass in celebration of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) this summer, it’s one of those Pope Francis encounters that are not the stuff of major mainstream headlines.

What does make headlines — as you have probably noticed — are those occasions when, during the course of a long interview, he warns against obsessing about certain issues. That’s breaking news, though, only if we are listening to Pope Francis’ words as though they are divorced from Gospel truth. Christ came so that we might live holy, rightly-ordered lives of faith in response to his gift of redemptive grace. As Cardinal Dolan points out in an interview with me on National Review Online, obsession about anything doesn’t fit into that universal call to holiness.

It came like a sigh of relief to some just last week when Pope Francis did catch the international media’s attention by saying that abortion is “horrific,” as the headlines put it, in his annual papal address to the Vatican diplomatic corps. Many in the media wrote this up as though it was intended as an olive branch to conservatives, or even the result of having been corrected by conservatives. The more accurate explanation is: This is his life, bringing us to the fullness of life! — which, yes, absolutely includes protecting the most innocent and vulnerable lives and never leaving a brother or sister alone, because there is no “alone” in Christ.

Pope Francis has been seeking to bring to others the fullness of life long before he was elected pope. In 2010, then Cardinal Bergoglio said:

I consider that [the battle against abortion] to be part of the battle in favor of life from the moment of conception until a dignified, natural death. This includes care of the mother during pregnancy, the existence of laws to protect the mother postpartum, and the need to ensure that children receive enough food, as well as providing health care throughout the whole length of life, taking good care of our grandparents, and not resorting to euthanasia. Nor should we perpetrate a kind of killing through insufficient food or a nonexistent or deficient education, which are ways of depriving a person of a full life. If there is a conception for us to respect, there is a life for us to take care of.

The Church, as a body, must notice, reach out to, and love one another. That’s not a political platform. That’s the Trinitarian reality to which we are called.

As Lumen Fidei, the first encyclical issued under Pope Francis, puts it:

In God’s gift of faith, a supernatural infused virtue, we realize that a great love has been offered us, a good word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope. Thus wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope and charity are the driving force of the Christian life as it advances towards full communion with God.

Understanding this — entering into the complete picture of the Incarnation, life, Passion, death, and Resurrection of Christ and what this means for our lives — is key to understanding the Gospel of Life as Pope Francis is trying to demonstrate it. He is pleading with us to encounter Christ so that we might be transformed. The call to live the Gospel insists that we work for love, healing, and redemption in our lives and in the lives around us — and, at the very least, that we weep for those we cannot reach.

I confess to having a little obsession myself with the “weeping” that Pope Francis keeps talking about. It’s unmistakably related to his constant talk of mercy. Again in his speech to the diplomatic corps, Pope Francis went back to his experience on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of African refugees have arrived by boat as they flee poverty and war in their homelands — and where hundreds have died or drowned in the effort. Recalling his trip there last July, he said: “There is a general indifference in the face of these tragedies, which is a dramatic sign of the loss of that ‘sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters,’ on which every civil society is based.”

On that Sicilian island, he had said:

“Where is your brother?” His blood cries out to me, says the Lord. This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us. These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God! Once again I thank you, the people of Lampedusa, for your solidarity. I recently listened to one of these brothers of ours. Before arriving here, he and the others were at the mercy of traffickers, people who exploit the poverty of others, people who live off the misery of others. How much these people have suffered! Some of them never made it here.

“Where is your brother?” Who is responsible for this blood?

I’ve quoted that before in articles, and I suspect I will again. Hearing this is essential to understanding Pope Francis and his pastoral message to the world about the dignity of human life and our moral responsibilities to one another in response to the eternal generosity of God. This is the message the world needs to hear today. Even the pope is a sinner, but he has been chosen for a great pastoral task: To cut through the darkness and confusion to the clarity of faith that deepens only through the discerning examined life of encounter with Christ.

That first night after being elected pope, the former cardinal of Buenos Aires asked us to “pray for me.” Every day he says: Pray with me. Let us embrace Christ and be his legs and his arms, his loving glance, his kind word. See Christ in your brother! Sacrifice, embrace suffering in his name, with his heart. That’s what he is doing when he kneels before an image of Our Lady or embraces those whom our culture today is content with throwing away.

Over the course of 2012 and 2013, I had a number of occasions to be in Rome. One was as we marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the beginning of the Year of Faith. That occasion happened to coincide with the one vice presidential debate of the election year. Two Catholics debated, and one made a moral mess of abortion and of a Catholic’s duties in public life. The moment was a bit of a culmination of things: Bad witness, bad catechesis, a rising tide of secularism to which too many of us have surrendered, both practically — in the bad habits of our lives and routines of indifference to others’ suffering — and ideologically.

The Church is a mother, Pope Francis has said again and again. If the Church is a mother, then we must celebrate life and encounter God’s mercy for what we’ve allowed to happen here in the United States. We must do so in a particularly grave way for these past 41 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

So we are called to build the Kingdom where we are, to live as Christ did, to say “yes” as Mary did to the Father’s will for us. We are called to let people know, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that they are loved children of God, just as we are drawn deeper into knowing daily.

As you may recall, when Pope Francis issued Evangelii Gaudium (“The Gospel of Joy”), most of the coverage missed both the Gospel and joy, instead fixating on a phrase at best, a paragraph at most, thus taking Christ out of context at the peril of souls.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis explicitly wrote:

It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

All too often we look away. We don’t notice the abortion clinic, which often fades into cold office buildings and becomes a mere part of the backdrop of our lives, even as it ends them and wracks bodies and souls of the living. We’re a culture that needs to embrace motherhood and fatherhood, to celebrate it, and to model it. The Church as mother, with a Holy Father seeing with the eyes of the Sacred Heart of Christ, is opening doors to seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in maternity homes and the family homes. To a culture of walking wounded who don’t always know the lived experience of family life, Pope Francis is opening a door and issuing invitations.

There are no quick fixes or easy answers in the life of the Christian. But there is mercy. And that mercy and the hope it lives in requires a “yes” to a Cross in which there is true freedom and eternal redemption. There is mercy, but we can also expect work, and expect to feel deep pain, for ourselves and for one another. That drama, the paradox of the life of faith, is on display Wednesday in Washington, D.C., as we both mourn 41 years of legal abortion and celebrate the great gift of life.

One does not need to be Catholic or a religious believer, of course, to defend the dignity of human life. As Pope Francis has put it in his September address to doctors: “In all its phases and at every age, human life is always sacred and always of quality. And not as a matter of faith, but of reason and science.” We know this. And we believers should be leading a renewal, as Pope Francis is. We can do better in God’s love, sharing his love, sacrificing and praying for one another, supporting life in practical and deeply spiritual ways. The Body of Christ insists on nothing less.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)