In 1979 the relatively new and young Pope John Paul II was on an apostolic journey to the United States. The pope was to celebrate Sunday Mass and deliver a sermon to American Catholics in their own nation’s capitol. On this historic visit the holy father gathered his flock for an outdoor mass on the National Mall with the imposing capitol dome in the background. The pope delivers a homily marked by a steadfast commitment to christian virtues like courage and hope in the face of cynicism and false narratives which undermine the dignity of the human person and the good of society. His sermon speaks boldly and with confidence in the good news of the Word of God and the hope that the Christians have to offer society in a life joyfully lived for Christ.
Feel free to prayerfully read the Scriptures (Mark 10:1-6), before reflecting on the Sermon below.
Preached Sunday, October 7, 1979 in Washington, D.C.
Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ,
In his dialogue with his listeners, Jesus was faced one day with an attempt by some Pharisees to get him to endorse their current views regarding the nature of marriage. Jesus answered by reaffirming the teaching of Scripture : “At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become one. They are no longer two but one in flesh. Therefore let no man separate what God has joined” (Mk 10 :6-9).
The Gospel according to Mark immediately adds the description of a scene with which we are all familiar. This scene shows Jesus becoming indignant when he noticed how his own disciples tried to prevent the people from bringing their children closer to him. And so he said: “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them. It is to just such as these that the kingdom of God belongs … Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them” (Mk 10 :14-16). In proposing these readings, today’s liturgy invites all of us to reflect on the nature of marriage, on the family, and on the value of life—three themes that are so closely interconnected.
I shall all the more gladly lead you in reflecting on the word of God as proposed by the Church today, because all over the world the Bishops are discussing marriage and family life as they are lived in all dioceses and nations. The Bishops are doing this in preparation for the next World Synod of Bishops, which has as its theme: “The Role of the Christian Family in the Contemporary World”. Your own Bishops have designated next year as a year of study, planning and pastoral renewal with regard to the family. For a variety of reasons there is a renewed interest throughout the word in marriage, in family life, and in the value of all human life.
This very Sunday marks the beginning of the annual Respect Life Program, through which the Church in the United States intends to reiterate its conviction regarding the inviolability of human life in all stages. Let us then, all together, renew our esteem for the value of human life, remembering also that, through Christ, all human life has been redeemed.
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.
Let me repeat what I told the people during my recent pilgrimage to my homeland: “If a person’s right to life is violated at the moment in which he is first conceived in his mother’s womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole of the moral order, which serves to ensure the inviolable goods of man. Among those goods, life occupies the first place. The Church defends the right to life, not only in regard to the majesty of the Creator, who is the First Giver of this life, but also in respect of the essential good of the human person” (8 June 1979).
Human life is precious because it is the gift of a God whose love is infinite; and when God gives life, it is for ever. Life is also precious because it is the expression and the fruit of love. This is why life should spring up within the setting of marriage, and why marriage and the parents’ love for one another should be marked by generosity in self-giving. The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish. The fear of making permanent commitments can change the mutual love of husband and wife into two loves of self—two loves existing side by side, until they end in separation.
In the sacrament of marriage, a man and a woman—who at Baptism became members of Christ and hence have the duty of manifesting Christ’s attitudes in their lives—are assured of the help they need to develop their love in a faithful and indissoluble union, and to respond with generosity to the gift of parenthood. As the Second Vatican Council declared: Through this sacrament, Christ himself becomes present in the life of the married couple and accompanies them, so that they may love each other and their children, just as Christ loved his Church by giving himself up for her (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 48 ; cf. Eph 5 :25).
In order that Christian marriage may favor the total good and development of the married couple, it must be inspired by the Gospel, and thus be open to new life—new life to be given and accepted generously. The couple is also called to create a family atmosphere in which children can be happy, and lead full and worthy human and Christian lives.
To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others and share their burdens (cf. Gal 6:2; Phil 2 :2). Each one must show concern, not only for his or her own life, but also for the lives of the other members of the family: their needs, their hopes, their ideals. Decisions about the number of children and the sacrifices to be made for them must not be taken only with a view to adding to comfort and preserving a peaceful existence. Reflecting upon this matter before God, with the graces drawn from the Sacrament, and guided by the teaching of the Church, parents will remind themselves that it is certainly less serious to deny their children certain comforts or material advantages than to deprive them of the presence of brothers and sisters, who could help them to grow in humanity and to realize the beauty of life at all its ages and in all its variety.
If parents fully realized the demands and the opportunities that this great sacrament brings, they could not fail to join in Mary’s hymn to the author of life—to God—who has made them his chosen fellow-workers.
All human beings ought to value every person for his or her uniqueness as a creature of God, called to be a brother or sister of Christ by reason of the Incarnation and the universal Redemption. For us, the sacredness of human life is based on these premises. And it is on these same premises that there is based our celebration of life—all human life. This explains our efforts to defend human life against every influence or action that threatens or weakens it, as well as our endeavors to make every life more human in all its aspects.
And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened. 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. When the value of the family is threatened because of social and economic pressures, we will stand up and reaffirm that the family is “necessary not only for the private good of every person, but also for the common good of every society, nation and state” (General Audience, January 3, 1979) .When freedom is used to dominate the weak, to squander natural resources and energy, and to deny basic necessities to people, 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.
I make my own the words which Paul VI spoke last year to the American Bishops: “We are convinced, moreover, that all efforts made to safeguard human rights actually benefit life itself. Everything aimed at banishing discrimination—in law or in fact—which is based on race, origin, color, culture, sex or religion (cf. Octogesiina Аdveniens, 16) is a service to life. When the rights of minorities are fostered, when the mentally or physically handicapped are assisted, when those on the margin of society are given a voice—in all these instances the dignity of life, and the sacredness of human life are furthered… In particular, every contribution made to better the moral climate of society, to oppose permissiveness and hedonism, and all assistance to the family, which is the source of new life, effectively uphold the values of life” (May 26, 1978) .
Much remains to be done to support those whose lives are wounded and to restore hope to those who are afraid of life. 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. A distinguished American, Thomas Jefferson, once stated: “The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the just and only legitimate object of good government” (March 31, 1809). I wish therefore to praise all the members of the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches, all men and women of the Judeo-Christian heritage, as well as all people of good will who unite in common dedication for the defense of life in its fullness and for the promotion of all human rights.
Our celebration of life forms part of the celebration of the Eucharist. Our Lord and Savior, through his death and Resurrection, has become for us “the bread of life” and the pledge of eternal life. In him we find the courage, perseverance and inventiveness which we need in order to promote and defend life within our families and throughout the world.
Dear brothers and sisters: we are confident that Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of Life, will give us her help so that our way of living will always reflect our admiration and gratitude for God’s gift of love that is life. We know that she will help us to use every day that is given to us as an opportunity to defend the life of the unborn and to render more human the lives of all our fellow human beings, wherever they may be.
And through the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary, whose feast we celebrate today, may we come one day to the fullness of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.