As always, the feast day of Saint John Paul II tomorrow will be a time to remember his life and continue his legacy. This year, I will celebrate a special Mass with the men studying to be priests at our Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington. Over at the nearby Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a new statue of this great pope who inspired generations and is a model for priests will be unveiled.
One especially moving section of the Shrine’s permanent exhibit is the display on Pope John Paul’s October 1979 apostolic journey to our nation’s capital, including the historic Mass he celebrated on the National Mall. The homily he gave at that liturgy, with its message in defense of human life, marriage and the family is still timely and poignant nearly four decades later.
Noting that his visit coincided with the national observance of Respect Life Month, the Holy Father said in a strong voice: “I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life – from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages – is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Nothing surpasses the greatness or dignity of a human person. Human life is not just an idea or an abstraction; human life is the concrete reality of a being that lives, that acts, that grows and develops; human life is the concrete reality of a being that is capable of love, and of service to humanity.”
About six years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down the Roe v. Wade case creating a “right” to abortion on demand. However, as he did at his Mass of Inauguration when he challenged nations to “open wide the doors for Christ,” Pope John Paul was not afraid to speak out and stand firm in the truth. “Courage is needed to resist pressures and false slogans, to proclaim the supreme dignity of all life, and to demand that society itself give it its protection,” he stressed in the National Mall homily. Then he quoted Thomas Jefferson in saying, “‘The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the just and only legitimate object of good government.’”
Nevertheless, in recent years, we have seen across the country a push to expand abortion by advocating taxpayer funding of abortion, requiring medical students to be trained in abortion, and by opposing basic health and sanitation standards for abortion clinics. Meanwhile, physician-assisted suicide has been promoted in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and elsewhere, threatening the most vulnerable in our communities.
As our society confronts these grave challenges, there is need to make John Paul’s words here our own personal vow. “We will stand up every time that human life is threatened,” he said. “When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no one ever has the authority to destroy unborn life. When a child is described as a burden or is looked upon only as a means to satisfy an emotional need, we will stand up and insist that every child is a unique and unrepeatable gift of God, with the right to a loving and united family. When the institution of marriage is abandoned to human selfishness or reduced to a temporary, conditional arrangement that can easily be terminated, we will stand up and affirm the indissolubility of the marriage bond.”
These are words we need to hear again and again. The struggle to defend and protect life since the time Pope John Paul spoke them has not been easy and people might be tempted to lose heart. Recalling his words, as well as his steadfast determination as the Successor of Peter, should inspire and strengthen our consciences and resolve. “When freedom is used to dominate the weak,” he said, “we will stand up and reaffirm the demands of justice and social love. When the sick, the aged or the dying are abandoned in loneliness, we will stand up and proclaim that they are worthy of love, care and respect.”
Here in the archdiocese, we have stood up for life in initiatives like the Youth Rally and Mass for Life, and the March for Life, we have said “yes” to life and “no” to the efforts to take human life through assisted suicide, we have offered sanctuaries for life to help others to choose life and to help women and men to begin to heal from the wounds of abortion. Yet we can always do more.
On this feast day, we remember why so many people at his funeral shouted, “Santo Subito! (Sainthood Now).” It was because, in an age of cultural strife, when it seems that society has been built on sand and is being washed away, they saw in John Paul the “rock” upon which Christ has built his Church. Two years ago, Pope Francis formally declared this holy and courageous man to be a saint. We who were blessed to have Saint John Paul II visit us have now the opportunity to take his words to heart and help make them a reality in a world which needs that witness now more than ever.