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April 25, 2014

Be Not Afraid

April 25, 2014 | By | 3 Comments

Here’s the speech I gave earlier today at the Building a Global Culture of Life: The Legacy of St. John Paul the Great at the UN conference in Rome.

In the airport on the way to this conference, a group of students were wearing t-shirts proclaiming “Be Not Afraid.”  If we are to talk of being inspired by Pope John Paul II, there can be no better tribute than that of young people carrying forward his inaugural admonition on their backs.  Be Not Afraid.  It is a simple anthem.  A powerful one that has particular resonance for our conversation today about Pope John Paul II’s legacy in defending life.

The Pope’s first words to the faithful were these:

Be Not Afraid! Open up, no; swing wide the gates to Christ. Open up to his saving power the confines of the State, open up economic and political systems, the vast empires of culture, civilization and development… Be not afraid!”

One of Pope John Paul II’s great legacies was his focus on the nature of the State and its potential to confine – even destroy – human freedom, human dignity and, at its worst, human life.

And so his inaugural words to us here, coming from Isaiah, are intrinsically words of comfort appropriate to a weary movement looking for courage to persist and endure in the face of entrenched opposition:  Fear not, for I am with you, I will strengthen you with my strong right hand.

But in this context, in which the Pontiff goes on to indict the State, the words challenge us as well.  Be Not Afraid! Do not fear to challenge the state when it works to destroy life.

This simultaneous comfort and challenge provides particular inspiration for the prolife movement as we are confronted with established and powerful regimes that are committed to advancing the right to abortion and other anti-life practices like euthanasia.

Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the importance of the State is an antidote to those who would like to see the fight for life constrained within the boundaries of “culture.”

Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the importance of the State is an antidote to those who would like to see the fight for life constrained within the boundaries of “culture.”  It is a gentle rebuke to those who view a politically-oriented confrontation as somehow intrinsically tainted and less holy.

From the very start of Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II sets aside this narrow view that diminishes the scope of the defense of life.  In fact, he writes that “every human community and the political community itself are founded” on the “recognition of the sacred value of human life.”

And he puts a particularly fine point on the essential tutelary effect of the law in shaping the political community and informing the governing values of a civilization.

“Although laws are not the only means of protecting human life,” he said, “nevertheless, they do play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behavior.” 

I find this straightforward defense of work in the law inspiring because Americans United for Life was founded two years before Roe v. Wade was decided, out of concern for the increasing hostility to life that was even then becoming entrenched in American law.  As the legal architects of the prolife movement, Pope John Paul II’s recognition of the key role of the law has been a true source of inspiration and encouragement.

His explication of the foundational importance of human dignity provides the antidote to the pernicious idea that abortion is a purely personal and private act.  In fact, he argues that a “collective conscience” – one that is ennobled by an understanding and a recognition of the imperatives of natural law —  this conscience is the protector of the dignity of the human person. Without this societal mooring, peace becomes “illusory” and democracy itself becomes “an empty word.”

It is here that Pope John Paul II is speaking directly and prophetically to a culture whose conscience has been deadened by millions of lives lost by abortion.  The skeptic asks:  why should we care?  The weary warrior asks:  why should we persist?  Pope John Paul II answers both simultaneously when he reminds of us the words of Paul VI who said, “Every crime against life is an attack on peace.”

Without the defense of the least of these, we have a defense of none.  And in a beautiful and stirring passage, he calls the influence of the moral law on civil law “part of the patrimony of the great juridical traditions of humanity.”

Pope John Paul II was not just bold and consistent in speaking out in defense of life, he was also penetrating and rigorous – confronting the shallow twin platitudes of choice and privacy with a powerful explication of why the law must engage and oppose abortion.

“To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law,” he said, “ means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance:  that of an absolute power over others and against others.  This is the death of true freedom.”

He goes on later to draw the logical conclusion, arguing that a state that sanctions the destruction of innocent human life has crossed over into tyranny.  A tyranny that no “democratic” majority can legitimize.

Let us pause and linger a little on Pope John Paul II’s connection between the aggrandizement of sheer power and the death of authentic freedom.  This is a piercing indictment of the feminist mythology surrounding their advancement of the right to abortion.

We now live in a world where abortion is posited as essential to feminine freedom.  In fact, the absolute power over others that Pope John Paul II cites as the perverse outcome of abortion is, in fact, embraced by feminist ideology as “bodily integrity.”  Our Bodies, Our Selves. . . to hearken back to a classic from the feminist canon.

But this formulation of “rights” by necessity stringently avoids the duality inherent in pregnancy.  An ideology that prides itself on respect for The Other averts its eyes.

In Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II looks directly where they will not, and sees the power they miss.

“A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness.  Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person:  a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.  This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women.  And it is the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change.”

Abortion destroys not just the new life, it destroys something that Pope John Paul II called “the feminine genius.”  He called on women to promote “a new feminism” which he described as “unique and decisive.”

For many women, Abortion comes at the end of a desert of fear.  It shimmers for them as a false oasis in a parched land of desperation.

In laying out this vision and making this call, he brings us back to “Be Not Afraid.”  He acknowledges that motherhood, while sacred is also scary.  Pope John Paul II reminds us that the angel Gabriel began his greeting to Mary with these words:  “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

For many women, Abortion comes at the end of a desert of fear.  It shimmers for them as a false oasis in a parched land of desperation.

Be Not Afraid.

Be Not Afraid.  These three simple words signify the triumph of hope over death.

Pope John Paul II reminded us that “life is always at the center of a great struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness.”  Being at the pivot point of such a titanic struggle, we might be forgiven a certain trepidation.  But Pope John Paul II’s simple admonition rings sure and true, and inspires us still today to remain strong and courageous in defense of life.

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  1. Very powerful speech! The closing thought, “For many women, . . . ” is so very true, powerful, and illuminating of the Great Deceiver’s technique. Satan takes our fears and exploits them to the maximum, laughing as we plunge headlong into sin. The more that get hurt the better, in his mind.

  2. Andrea Beauchane

    Thank you for the transcript of your speech. St. John Paul II used a real headliner for his inaugural words and the universal use of these words to inspire the church in any confrontation with power employed to effect immorality is energizing for me as a lay person. The photo of Austin Ruse looking at you as you speak was also inspiring. He and his group are dedicated to the work of defense of human life at all stages.

  3. Lay brother Steven Gerard Sidlovsky, O.F.S.

    Today we need to ‘Be Not Afraid’ with helping society codify, realize, promulgate and implement new citizen overlays that are now being called LIFE PEACE ZONES. These new citizen overlays will protect fatherhood, motherhood and childhood 365 days a year in cities, neighborhoods and business districts throughout the U.S.A. Life Peace Zones are now being realized in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, California, Nevada and Arizona. Life Peace Zone efforts are an expression of the saintly Apostolic Blessing that Pope St. John Paul II bestowed on me on November 1st, 1987. Do call me at 619-806-2124 if you would like to become more involved with Life peace Zones in your own area. Do email me for more info on Life Peace Zones at: Peace and All Good! Lay brother Steven Gerard, O.F.S.

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