Karol Wojtyla, better known as John Paul II, doesn’t need sainthood to be unforgettable. I have only one reservation about his canonization: I fear it will somehow fence him off from the larger world, leaving people who aren’t Catholic to think that he’s just a curious artifact of a particular religion. He was Catholic, to be sure, with abiding respect for the fullness of truth. He spoke to all of us, though.
I was in college in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. Upon hearing the news, I went to the nearest bookstore and grabbed a newspaper. I was still trying to figure out if the church I grew up in had a place for me as an adult, but even in my self-absorption I knew this new pope was big news. This post includes a photo of that newspaper, yellowed and folded but still dramatic. The size of the headline speaks for itself. The news was about how young this man was (58), how affable he was, how much he liked to ski. (Political cartoonists had fun with that one.) I had no idea what was ahead.
Pro-life, joyfully. No compromise. He introduced me to concepts like the culture of life and the theology of the body. He had brains as well as heart, and he showed me that our Creator expects us to use them both. He brought the pro-life message everywhere he went (and he went everywhere, it seemed).
I’ll leave the biographical sketches to others. I’m not going to read about him on this canonization weekend. I’d rather recollect what he wrote himself, especially what to me is his masterwork, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Here are just a few threads from that rich tapestry, from a section of particular interest to those of us concerned with how our laws treat the right to life.
To the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Men and Women religious, lay Faithful and all People of Good Will, on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life
Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to “show care” for all life and for the life of everyone. Indeed, at an even deeper level, we need to go to the very roots of life and love.
…If charity is to be realistic and effective, it demands that the Gospel of life be implemented also by means of certain forms of social activity and commitment in the political field, as a way of defending and promoting the value of life in our ever more complex and pluralistic societies. Individuals, families, groups and associations, albeit for different reasons and in different ways, all have a responsibility for shaping society and developing cultural, economic, political and legislative projects which, with respect for all and in keeping with democratic principles, will contribute to the building of a society in which the dignity of each person is recognized and protected and the lives of all are defended and enhanced.
This task is the particular responsibility of civil leaders. Called to serve the people and the common good, they have a duty to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures. In a democratic system, where laws and decisions are made on the basis of the consensus of many, the sense of personal responsibility in the consciences of individuals invested with authority may be weakened. But no one can ever renounce this responsibility, especially when he or she has a legislative or decision-making mandate, which calls that person to answer to God, to his or her own conscience and to the whole of society for choices which may be contrary to the common good. Although laws are not the only means of protecting human life, nevertheless they do play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behaviour. I repeat once more that a law which violates an innocent person’s natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law. For this reason I urgently appeal once more to all political leaders not to pass laws which, by disregarding the dignity of the person, undermine the very fabric of society.
…”Walk as children of light … and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:8, 10-11). In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”, there is need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.
What is urgently called for is a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life. All together, we must build a new culture of life: new, because it will be able to confront and solve today’s unprecedented problems affecting human life; new, because it will be adopted with deeper and more dynamic conviction by all Christians; new, because it will be capable of bringing about a serious and courageous cultural dialogue among all parties.