On the weekend that Mother Teresa was canonized by Pope Francis, I was listening to report on the radio it while I was getting ready to come to Church. As part of the report, an individual, who was critical of Mother Teresa being named a saint, was interviewed. In his comments he criticized Mother Teresa for what he termed her overly dogmatic views regarding abortion and other church teachings. As I listened I was incredulous that this individual would criticize Mother Teresa’s canonization because she believed in and adhered to our church’s teachings. It seems to me that in addition to living a virtuous and holy life, another important part of being named a saint in the Catholic Church is believing in our Church’s teachings. Since canonization is a specifically Catholic act, it would make no sense at all for our Church to canonize someone who didn’t believe in our Church’s teaching.
I believe that the timing of Mother Teresa’s canonization was fortuitous and probably not accidental. I say this because for many years now, our Church has designated October as Respect Life Month. During this month particularly, we are called to remember and give witness to our belief that because God is the author and source of life, all life is sacred. Our task—our challenge—is to seek to promote and enhance life at every moment and in every circumstance. Certainly this was something Mother Teresa did through the witness of her life.
Now in seeking to give witness to our belief in the sanctity of life I believe there are certain things about which we need to absolutely clear and unyielding. Six things come to mind.
- We need to be clear that there are not different categories or gradations of life—some that are more deserving of our respect than others. We need to be as respectful of the unborn life in the womb, as we are of the life that is being supported by machines. All life is sacred. There are not different levels of respect that we accord to the different stages or manifestations of life.
- Our respect for life is not based on what we are, or what we have, or what we are able to accomplish. Rather, our respect for life is rooted in our belief that we are made in the image and likeness of our God. The sacred image we bear exists from the moment of our conception. It cannot diminish with age. Created in the image and likeness of our God, and infused with a soul that seeks to know and love God, all human life is sacred and is to be respected.
- Our respect for life does not allow us to be disrespectful toward those with whom we disagree or those who do not share our beliefs. Rather our respect for life calls us to treat with dignity even those who actively oppose our beliefs. We cannot claim to respect life if we disparage those who don’t share our beliefs. And most certainly we cannot claim to be pro-life if we use inappropriate or inflammatory language, or worse, engage in acts of violence. The Bishops of the United States stated this clearly in a document they issued several years ago entitled: “Living the Gospel of Life.” In that document they said: “Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each other and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others.”
- Our respect for life calls us to seek dialogue and communication with those with whom we disagree. I am convinced that we are far more apt to convince people of the rightness of our beliefs through our words and actions than we are to coerce them to accept those beliefs. Through communication that is open, honest, and respectful, I believe we can engage people in dialogue, and they will come to see the wisdom of our words and understand the rightness of our position.
- Our respect for life does not allow us to sit in judgment on those individuals who have had, or who have participated in an abortion, or people who have shown disregard for life in any way, particularly in end of life decisions. As people who are pro-life, one of the things we must always remember is that judgment is God’s work, not ours. Where we have made judgments about others, we need to offer our profound and deepest apologies.
- Finally our respect for life calls us to invite and welcome back to our communities those who feel estranged from our Church or from God because they have made choices that were not respectful of life. Our task—our challenge—as Christians is not to make judgments about the worthiness of others to be at Church, but to do our best to make sure we are worthy to be there. To those who feel estranged from our Church or from God because they have made choices that were not respectful of life, we need to say clearly that we want and need them to come home—without exception or distinction, without reserve or hesitation, we need to invite them to come home. God’s love and grace await them.
Human life is indeed a precious gift from a loving God. Our task as followers of Jesus is to show our reverence and respect for life in all we do. To the extent we fail to do this, we fail to give witness to our respect for life. To the extent we do it well—like St. Teresa of Kolkata—we truly live up to our call as people created in the image and likeness of God.