On Sunday, 19 October 2003, on St Peter’s Square, on the 25th anniversary of his pontificate, St John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta. These two great figures of the Church were deeply committed to defending the life of unborn children.
Between the culture of death and the culture of life
The thought of abortions performed around the world filled the hearts of St Mother Teresa and St John Paul II with a great deal of pain. They did not hesitate to raise their voices and use strong words to speak to people’s consciences. In her Nobel lecture, Mother Teresa said:
“I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing — direct murder by the mother herself […]. Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child — what is left for me to kill you and you kill me — there is nothing between.”
“Life is a gift from God. A gift only God can give” (St Mother Teresa)
St John Paul II, who was suspected of being downright obsessed with defending the right to life of conceived children, not only objected to such charges but also called with ever greater force for the weakest to be defended. He believed that where human life is at stake, there is no room for compromise. In an encyclical, he wrote:
“We are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’. We find ourselves not only ‘faced with’ but necessarily ‘in the midst of’ this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” (Evangelium vitae 28).
A bundle in the street
John Paul II explained that “choosing to be unconditionally pro-life” was also choosing the side of the woman, because in the case of abortion it is she who pays the highest price for destroying motherhood and taking the life conceived in her. It is also she who will have to live with a guilty conscience. The pope observed that the decision to terminate pregnancy was often induced by a man, if not by direct pressure on the woman to have an abortion then by refusing to take responsibility for his act. Hence, it is so very important that a single mother not be left to her own devices but be shown solidarity and assisted to prevent tragedy. Referring to the experience of counselling centres and shelters for single mothers, the Holy Father argued that a woman who is heartened and freed from the existential anxiety in the environment around her is even capable of heroism (cf. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 31).
“Life is the most beautiful gift from God. He created us for great things, to love and be loved” (St Mother Teresa)
As if in confirmation of these words, a heartbreaking story of a poor woman and her child was told by St Mother Teresa:
“Once I picked up a bundle in the street. It looked like a discarded bundle of clothing, but there was a baby inside. I looked inside: hands, legs — all crippled. That it is why it was abandoned. How will the mother who has done this be able to face God? But I’ll tell you one thing: that mother — a poor woman — abandoned her child but did not kill it. This is what we must learn from our poor — love for a child”.
St Mother Teresa used to say: “If you hear that some woman does not want a child and has resolved to terminate her pregnancy, try to convince her to give me the child. I will love it, seeing in it the sign of God’s love.”
St Mother Teresa wrote:
“Life is the most beautiful gift from God. He created us for great things, to love and be loved. God gives us time on earth so that we come to know his love, experience his love in the depth of our being. So that we love him, so that we love our brothers and sisters. Life is a gift from God. A gift only God can give. And God in his humility gave man and woman ability to work with him in the transmission of life. Whatever his intention was, we must not interfere with this beautiful gift from God nor destroy it” (Letter, 26 October 1996).
It follows from the truth that life is a gift from God that only God may decide about life and death. “Man’s life”, St John Paul II explained, “comes from God; it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breath of life. God therefore is the sole Lord of this life: man cannot do with it as he wills” (EV 39). Human life is to be guarded by the commandment “Thou shall not kill!”, which takes on a special meaning in the face of the death of innocent and helpless creatures.
All hands on deck
It was a wish of St Mother Teresa and St John Paul II that all people — both believers and non-believers — commit themselves to defending life. “In this mobilisation for a new culture of life, no one must feel excluded: everyone has an important role to play”, appealed the pope (EV 98). The Holy Father drew circles of responsibility for life, beginning with the mother of a child, through the father, family members, doctors and medical personnel and legislators, to every man. For always, even when you are not close to a drama taking place or you do not know any woman who is struggling with the temptation to have an abortion, you may offer a prayer in her intention.
St John Paul II also encouraged people to combine prayer with fasting.
“Jesus himself has shown us — the pope wrote — by his own example that prayer and fasting are the first and most effective weapons against the forces of evil (cf. Matt. 4:1–11). As he taught his disciples, some demons cannot be driven out except in this way (cf. Mark 9:29). Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls which conceal from the sight of so many of our brothers and sisters the evil of practices and laws which are hostile to life. May this same power turn their hearts to resolutions and goals inspired by the civilisation of life and love” (EV 100).
Prayer and fasting have the power to defend life by helping to fulfil the wish of St Mother Teresa: “Let us ensure that this year every child — either born or unborn — is expected and desired.”