Last week, Pope Francis sent a message to the Americas: “accept human life at every stage, from the mother’s womb to old age.” This was far from the first time he has talked about the inviolability of every human life. In one of the many moments that don’t make breaking news, Time magazine’s Person of the Year went out for a spin one Sunday last May. It was one of his early challenge-Vatican-security moves. And it made a joyful event all the more so. He joined Rome’s Mother’s Day March for Life, both a celebration and a demonstration, making a point to the city, the country, and the world: that what is headquartered at St. Peter’s isn’t just a church but a mission, which, as the pope likes to say, needs to send the faithful out to the peripheries to be beacons of God’s love and mercy for each and every man, woman, and child.
I can’t overstate the enthusiasm the Mother’s Day marchers felt for the surprise guest. And his enthusiasm for the sight of them, so many of them young, born at a time in which they know they were a “choice.” These young people are walking witnesses of thanksgiving to a mother’s self-sacrificing love.
About a month later, Pope Francis presided over a Mass celebrating — and reintroducing, reemphasizing, and reflecting on — Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message,” Pope John Paul II wrote. “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.”
The Gospel of Life was a significant document. In the United States, it helped bring evangelicals and Catholics together to support life legislatively even within the regime of legal abortion the Supreme Court imposed on us 41 years ago this January. Again, these efforts do not always make headlines, but, still, so many have undertaken them with love, rhetorically and materially. The Gospel of Life was a welcoming ecumenical challenge, a conscience prod, and an education. And so it continues.
Last June, the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization hosted a weekend of events reflecting on The Gospel of Life, as part of the Year of Faith that Pope Benedict had instituted. Pilgrims, students, professors — apostles — showed up for the weekend of prayer and education to pay tribute to The Gospel of Life’s continuing challenge to the world: Even as technology makes it easier both to physically enhance and to dispose of life, the individual person must always be seen and served and cherished. Every person is made and loved by God. If there is no other gift you can give this season, this just happens to be the greatest one you could give: to show that you see the Divine in another person, by being a conduit of His mercy and love.
Two of the highest-ranking Americans in the Vatican spoke at the educational sessions. Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis, weaved together the work of John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, and of his successor, Pope Francis, into the current moment. Benedict, Burke said, “reminded us that ‘by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that Lord Jesus has left us,’ and that, therefore, the Year of Faith ‘is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world.’”
Additionally, in September, to Catholic doctors, Pope Francis would say:
Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world’s rejection. And every elderly person — I spoke of children: Let us move to the elderly, another point! And every elderly person, even if he is ill or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the “culture of waste” suggests! They cannot be thrown away!
There is a lot being said about this Pope Francis — inciting both glee and fear, depending on which selective quote is being considered and which ideological disposition is at work. You may remember when the first long interview with the pope was published, much of the media fixated on comments he made about how the Church often looks to the world — as if all we have to say to the world is “no,” and as if what we most care about is what one might call the pelvic issues.
Time’s feature on Pope Francis actually further makes his point for him. At one point in the Person of the Year cover story, Time focuses on the word “no” on some of these issues. The message of the Gospel, however, is not about “no” but about “yes.” Our model is a teenaged girl from Nazareth who said yes to what, if seen without a supernatural lens — that is, faith — made very little sense. Mary overcame any fear that the world might not understand (or that she might be losing her mind). It’s that “yes” that Pope Francis is pointing to. It’s that “yes” that every woman who is pregnant under difficult circumstances but who says “Yes, I am a mother,” is a heroic model of.
#ObsessAboutTheYes might be a Twitter hashtag or a bumper-sticker summation of Pope Francis’s summons to all religious believers — though especially to the flock he guides in a very specific way. It is the action item of the Christmas season. As Cardinal Burke put it during his talk: “Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh, is entrusted to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God, and engage her in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel of life in all the world and to every creature.”
The current pope talks about eradicating indifference, and the image of the Mary of Michelangelo’s Pietà comes to mind when he talks about weeping for the persecuted, the suffering. This isn’t a rhetorical I-feel-your-pain flourish; this is as Cardinal Burke explained it in June: “The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, at the very core of Her being expresses the unconditional, immeasurable, and unceasing love of God the Father for every man. The pierced Heart of Jesus and the blood which flowed therefrom is a sign of the ‘rivers of living water’ which never cease to flow from the glorious Heart of Jesus into the hearts of all believers, and from their hearts to the hearts of all men.”
Now, that’s somewhat mystical, as the man said, but it is also nothing less than the supernatural reality the Church is and exists to bring people to. You can’t understand the Person of the Year without knowing this. Whether Pope Francis is raising concerns about our economic lives, biotechnology, sex trafficking, or whatever else, this is not just the back-story, it’s the man’s oxygen. And he’s likely to get more people breathing it in. The treasure of a mother and child who lived 2,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean is the reason for and the source of all love and joy. Thus the proclamation of the Gospel. For the pope, this isn’t about politics or ideology or popularity contests: It’s everything, and all are invited to taste and see. He has described the Church as a “field hospital” for wounded souls, and as Catholic churches hold extra Confession hours and Masses around this time of year, he invites us in, giving voice to a child in a manger who came for just that reason.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is an expanded version of one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.