The following remarks were delivered October 18, 2013 at the “Life, Dignity, and Disability: A Faith That Welcomes” conference, Omaha, Nebraska.
Some of you know the story of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community. Vanier was born in Canada in 1928. His father was Canada’s governor general. Vanier was a sailor in his youth, at the close of World War II. He was a philosopher, a theologian, and a poet.
When Vanier was thirty-six, a priest invited him to visit an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. The place absolutely broke his heart. Vanier called it a “warehouse of human misery.” It was a wretched place, dirty and corrupt. It looked more like a prison than a home. Vanier said it was a place where “men and women had been put aside, looked down upon . . . laughed at or scorned.”
Those of us who have prayed outside of abortion clinics know what Vanier was feeling. We’ve been to those places that seem to traffic in depravity. We know what it is watch misery on display.
And we know what it is to be moved and transformed by compassion.
When Jean Vanier left that institution, he knew his life would never be the same. A newfound compassion had awakened deep within him.
In 1964, he invited two disabled men to live with him in his home. They formed a community. Really they became a family—they prayed together, ate together, laughed together, and argued together. They came to see each other as brothers. And they came to see Christ as their brother too.
Vanier named the place for Noah’s Ark, because it was to be a place of refuge, of new beginning and of peace. Soon more people came to share in their life—people with disabilities, and even those without them. Today L’Arche has homes—communities of all abilities—in over forty countries throughout the world.
Vanier says that L’Arche communities are places where “men and women with disabilities can develop with a spirit of freedom.” They’re also places of real fraternity. Christian brotherhood is not limited by ability. Christian brotherhood is limited only by prejudice and sin.
Vanier’s goal is to eradicate that prejudice. Every day, L’Arche communities pray “to be liberated—to see people with disabilities as God sees them.”
Now let’s consider that prayer for a moment. Consider what would happen if we prayed, each day, “to see people with disabilities as God sees them.”
Through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, God has given us the ability to see all people through his eyes. And, I would submit to you that this new way of seeing is the beginning of the Christian vocation to prophecy. A prophet sees the world as God does—sees the world in truth—and then proclaims Christ’s Kingdom. For fifty years, Jean Vanier has seen the world in truth; and in the witness of L’Arche communities, has demonstrated the goodness of the Lord’s enduring love in a profoundly prophetic way.
A prophetic witness to life, and to God’s love, has never been more important than it is today.
I don’t have to catalog the ways in which human dignity is threatened by our culture of death. We all know the grave threat that abortion and euthanasia pose. We also know that our government is undermining the right of Christians to protect human life.
By some estimates, nearly 90 percent of people conceived with Down syndrome are aborted. Kids with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to suffer sexual abuse. And disabled adults are more likely to live in poverty, to receive substandard medical care, and to be homeless. Our treatment of the disabled points directly to the culture of death. And, Blessed John Paul II reminded us, “our society will be judged on how well we treat the weakest among us.”
It’s easy to see the culture of death in its large and terrifying consequences. But it is much harder to admit that the culture of death is rooted in our daily choices: in the choice to objectify, to stereotype, and to marginalize the smallest and the most vulnerable among us. The culture of death begins when we see other people as objects. The culture of death begins when we fail to look at another with the eyes of God. The culture of death begins with the blindness that comes from sin.
The culture of life begins with love. To be prophets of life is to demonstrate God’s uniquely personal love for every human life.
If we can understand God’s love for the least among us—for the poor, the vulnerable, the unborn, or the disabled—we can understand his love for all of us. If we can witness to the dignity of disabled lives, we’re likely to witness deeply to all human dignity.
Our dignity is rooted not in what we can do, but in how much God loves us.
This evening, I’d like to reflect with you on the prophetic mission of Christians in the world today. And I’d like to offer three considerations on what prophecy is, and on what it is to be a prophet of the Gospel of Life.
I should first of all disavow the notion that prophecy is usually a mystical experience. I’m not calling you to become oracles, sitting high on a mountaintop predicting the future. God sometimes works that way. But more often, the grace of prophecy is an ordinary and common fruit of growing in deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, and then of witnessing to that relationship.
The Second Vatican Council teaches that prophecy is the “power of the Gospel shining forth in daily social and family life” and the “announcement of Christ by a living testimony.” It’s that kind of prophecy for the Gospel of Life I’d like to consider this evening.
Pointing to the Person
One of Scripture’s most powerful scenes of prophecy takes place in the narrative of King David. David had fallen into sin—he’d engaged in a sexual affair, and had killed to cover it up. But like all of us, David struggled to take responsibility. And so Nathan, a prophet of the Lord, came to David. He told the story of a wealthy man who had stolen a lamb from his poor neighbor, and who was revealed in the taking. David reacted angrily, calling for the thief’s head. In a powerful moment, Nathan looked at David and told him:
“David, You are that man!”
David was humbled. He saw himself in his sinfulness, and repented.
Nathaniel had revealed to David what God saw: a man who needed the mercy of God. A prophet reveals who we are in the sight of God. A prophet reveals our humanity. A prophet reveals the truth.
Our adversaries go to great lengths to deny humanity. In the culture of death, the unborn child is held at a distance—he is never a “baby,” instead he is a “clump of cells,” or a “parasite.” The elderly or brain-damaged person is a “vegetable.” On death row, the prisoner is not a person, but a “monster.”
Prophets overcome this kind of language.
Prophets point directly to humanity. Prophets see our sinfulness, our virtue, our limitations, and our potential. Prophets see reality. Prophets see truth.
If we want parents to choose life for their children, we’ll point to the humanity of the unborn. We’ll call expectant parents “mom” or “dad.” We’ll wonder about the unborn child’s features and personality. Give him or her a name. We’ll wonder about what he looks like. We proclaim the person, unique and unrepeatable, because we know that no one who accepts an unborn child’s humanity can end its life.
The reason why ultrasound technology has been such an effective pro-life tool is because it demonstrates, in multi-dimensional images, the humanity of the unborn.
We need to find new and creative ways to demonstrate the dignity of all humanity. The elderly, the indigent, the unborn, and the condemned depend upon it.
To prophetically point to humanity, we can’t sugarcoat reality. Or sinfulness. We need to see people as they are.
A friend of mine has two disabled children. They have Down syndrome. They suffer from intellectual and developmental delays. Mostly, though, they are just like other children—they play like other kids, sing like other kids, and, yes, they fight like other kids.
A few weeks ago my friend was in the grocery store with the kids. They were in the cart, cranky, and bickering, and pulling hair.
A woman approached my friend, and asked if the kids had Down syndrome. When she discovered they did, the woman started talking about what angels they were—she literally meant angels. She told my friend that children with Down syndrome are pure love; that they can do nothing in this world but love.
When my friend turned around, she discovered her children had graduated from pulling hair to biting each other’s fingers.
Apparently, the children had missed the memo about being angels!
This woman had very good intentions, but she had missed the real humanity of those children. And we can do the same thing. To be pro-life, we can’t be sentimental or romantic about the real challenges of life. We can’t romanticize an unexpected pregnancy, or a disabled child, or the suffering of the elderly. If we understand the complexity of humanity, we understand the real heroism—and the real grace—that the Gospel of Life requires.
We’re all sinners. We’re all called to holiness. But our dignity doesn’t depend on achieving it. God wills salvation for us, and we try to follow after him. When we acknowledge our common sinfulness and our common call to holiness, it becomes easier to see one another, not as objects, but as brothers and sisters in need of support, and encouragement, and solidarity with one another. When we are in solidarity with the vulnerable, the culture of life becomes familiar, and essential.
In short, to become prophetic is to point to the person. This comes through solidarity—through real knowledge of other people’s struggles. If we want to defend the unborn, we should try to really understand why people consider abortion in the first place. If we want to end euthanasia, we should know what dignified suffering actually looks like. Pope Francis demonstrates this for us. He spends time with those are tempted by the culture of death. He knows people who are suffering. Recently, in Assisi visiting the home of his namesake, he spent a good portion of his time there with the physically and intellectually disabled, taking the time to carefully greet each and everyone of them—and kissing them on their foreheads. The video clips were quite moving. Pope Francis is able to hear suffering, and understands it. The more our work is rooted in our real relationships, the more easily we can proclaim the Gospel of Life.
To Proclaim the Kingdom
If you have done pro-life work for very long, you’ve heard people ask, if you’re opposed to abortion, why you haven’t adopted children. Or why don’t you care for the poor. Or why, like Jean Vanier, you haven’t moved in with the disabled.
It’s not an unreasonable question. If we firmly believe in the dignity of the human person, we must constantly ask ourselves how our lives reflect that dignity. We must, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, examine “our generosity in the gift of ourselves to the world.”
Most Catholics have considered these questions. We have good reasons for the choices we’ve made. And the fact is that the Catholic Church does more to support the unborn, the elderly, the indigent, the disabled, and the undocumented than any other institution in the world. Ours is the largest network of schools, of hospitals, of shelters, or social service agencies in the country. The Church is at the front lines of living the consequences of her convictions.
But people ask these questions because they’re looking for justice. Most people know what the Church teaches about abortion. But people want to know what the Church does about abortion, because they want to know if the Christian gospel actually makes a difference.
The world is looking for signs of the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is, in short, the dynamic and holy love of the Blessed Trinity, which we will experience in the beatific vision. We will experience the Kingdom when we spend eternity in the company of God.
But we can come to know the Kingdom of God here on earth. We can experience it—in glimpses and moments, and through the mediated grace of the sacramental life. In 1990, John Paul II said that the Kingdom, “is a person, with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God.” We can experience the Kingdom in the sacrament of the Eucharist. But John Paul II said that we can make the Kingdom evident to the world when “people slowly learn to love, forgive and serve one another.” When we mirror the love of the Blessed Trinity, we point to the Kingdom of God.
In every period of salvation history, Sacred Scripture records examples of prophets who proclaim that God is building a Kingdom for his people. To live our prophetic mission in the world is to proclaim God’s Kingdom. And, particularly in our age, the mission is to witness to the Kingdom of God by our actions and dispositions.
Pope Paul VI said the “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers. If he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
To live our prophetic mission is to witness to the loving goodness of our God. The Kingdom of God is a just and righteous place, because it is ordered by God’s own love. And the Kingdom is a merciful place, because it is animated by God’s mercy. When we work for justice and mercy on earth, we point to the Kingdom.
Our public lives should be a witness to the justice and mercy of God.
Legal protection for abortion is our national shame. In fact, John Paul II said that: “legalization of the termination of pregnancy is none other than the authorization given to an adult . . . to take the lives of children yet unborn and thus incapable of defending themselves. It is difficult to imagine a more unjust situation. We are dealing with a fundamental imperative of every good conscience—the defense of the right to life of an innocent and defenseless human being.”
To witness to God’s mercy and justice, we need to work for laws that end the scourge of abortion. We also need to work for laws that preserve marriage, which end the death penalty, and which fairly and responsibly provide healthcare to women, and children, to immigrants, to the indigent, and to the disabled.
Now I admit, not all issues have the same political importance or priority. But all of our political decisions should be rooted in our prophetic mission to the world.
The Call to Conversion
Prophets point to our humanity. They witness to the Kingdom. But above all, prophets call the world to conversion. If we want to live our prophetic mission, we will be serious about inviting others into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about Sherry Wedell’s excellent new book, Forming Intentional Disciples. It is a good and important book, and I’d encourage you to read it. Forming Intentional Disciples estimates that only 3 percent of Catholics—even devout, faithful, and engaged Catholics—have ever been really invited into a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.
To be prophets is to make that invitation. Our faith is transmitted, and has survived for two thousand years, because of the personal witness of one Christian to another. This means that our witness is tremendously important to the Lord.
And if we are not serious about evangelization, we cannot expect to see an end to the culture of death.
Lumen Fidei, the Holy Father’s first encyclical, says that to evangelize is to spread the light of Christ into the world. Without light, in darkness “everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere.” The culture of death thrives in the darkness. But when “light shines in the darkness, darkness can not overcome it.”
May we shed light in the world, and with it, the Gospel of Life. May we see the world as the Lord sees it. May we point to human dignity, to the Kingdom, and to the Lord.
Pope Francis says that “those who have opened their hearts to God’s love, who have heard his voice and received his light cannot keep this gift to themselves.” May we bring the gift of Jesus Christ everywhere. May we always be bearers of the Light.
James D. Conley, STL, is the Catholic bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska.