A blind man named Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus as he sees him walking down the road to Jericho with his disciples. He recognizes Jesus as the Son of David – he asks Jesus to have pity on him. He realizes that this is his opportunity to be healed, to gain his sight, to make a significant change in his life. Bartimaeus does not give up in trying to reach out to Jesus, no matter how futile it looks. For his faith and perseverance, Jesus responds to him: “Your faith has saved you.”
Our faith calls out to us today in this remarkable story of healing from the Gospel of Mark as we recognize the month of October not only as the month of Mary, but also as the month in we celebrate our respect for human life as an essential part of our Catholic faith. During some of our daily masses during the month of October, we have been praying the rosary, praying for our pro-life intensions, uniting our prayers for the respect for life with the prayers of Mary. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) that Pope John Paul II issued in 1995, he decried the culture of death that is so prevalent in our modern world. Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to see examples of this culture of death in what is going on in our society. One of the prisoners whom I minister to at the Yazoo County Regional Correctional Facility told me that he found it outrageous that a program in the New York public schools is allowing minors to get the morning after pill in order to prevent pregnancies, while the prisoners in this correctional facility have a hard time getting an aspirin or Tylenol from the nurse at the prison when they have a headache. The mayor of New York favors this policy, while at the same time he is trying to ban the sale of large containers of soft drinks in his city for the obesity that they promote. This culture of death is a product of the throw-away society that we have become - we want our lives to be convenient and easy, and in doing so, we often disrespect human life.
The late Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago used the image of a seamless garment of how we in the Catholic Church are to respect and protect all human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. In easy to understand terms, we are to respect all human life “from the womb to the tomb”. Opposing abortion is an important part of our Church’s pro-life stance, but it is only a part of our pro-life point-of-view. Issues such as the death penalty, embryonic stem cell research, access to health care, poverty, war, human trafficking, homelessness, workers’ rights, and medical ethics are all issues that our Church addresses under our pro-life stance. We cannot be timid or afraid to speak out on issues that violate our pro-life point-of-view. Our bishop has joined other Catholic and Protestant institutions throughout the country in suing the federal government for the Health and Human Service mandate that we see as violating our pro-life values and violating our freedom to live out our religious beliefs.
Recently, I saw someone post on the internet a photo of a fetus next to the photo of someone starving on the streets of India. The person posting these photos commented that he often sees those who oppose abortion in our country as having no concern or compassion for the many case of human suffering that are present in our world. I responded to this person that in certain instances that may be true, but that it does not portray everyone in the Church who practices a respect for life as a part of living out the Christian faith. And then I put the ball back into his court, saying that all of us need to ask ourselves how we are reaching out to the sick and the lonely in our community, how we are trying to reach out to the prisoner and to the hungry, how we are trying to positively influence the children and adults of our community. We can so easily judge others for what they are doing or not doing, but what are we doing in our lives to be pro-life – we can all look into our hearts and take an honest look at what we see. And we can see little things that people are doing around us to be pro-life. A few years ago, I visited my sisters out in California, and had dinner with my sister Heather and some of her friends who all work for a big law firm in Orange County. As I answered their questions about my life as a priest here in Mississippi, one of them mentioned that she would be interested in writing to one of the prisoners whom I serve as a priest. I gave her a list of several prisoners to choose from, and she chose one prisoner who works in the prison library, and she has been writing him every month for the past three years. This prisoner told me that she is the only one that he hears from on a consistent basis. When the prisoner talks about this lady writing him, you cannot imagine how touched he is. This simple act of writing the prisoner a month and being his friend is one example of how we can pro-life in our lives.
On October 11 of this year, we observed the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council, a council that told us to read the signs of our times and to influence the world around us with our faith. Unfortunately, in January, we are going to observe a very tragic and shameful anniversary – the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in our country. Our US Bishops have stated that in the 40 years since that Supreme Court decision, we have seen an erosion of the respect for life that we have had in our society, which has led to the view that death is a solution to a lot of the personal and societal problems that we have.
We heard Jesus tell Bartimaeus that he may go on his way, that his faith has saved him, and in that instant that Jesus said those words, Bartimaeus was healed. The theme for Respect Life month this year is: “Faith Opens Our Eyes to Human Life in All Its Grandeur and Beauty.” Pope Benedict reminds us in our Year of Faith that our faith is a journey and pilgrimage, that our faith is path marked by penance and renewal. As pilgrims, our faith is to have a transforming affect on our lives. We saw how the faith of Bartimaeus brought healing into his life. However, faith is not magic or superstition or some simple fix. I don’t think that Jesus is telling Bartimaeus that he believed himself into the healing he received. Rather, it was Jesus who healed him, and in his faith, Bartimaeus received that healing into his life. And with the Gospel of Life that Christ proclaims to us in his teachings and ministry, we receiving that Gospel of Life with our faith, and we allow the Gospel of Life to penetrate our hearts, to understand what it really means. As we receive our Church’s teaching on the respect for human life into our hearts, may we hear what it is calling us to do.