Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Living the Gospel of Life in a Culture of Death
Mark 3: 1-6
[Jesus] entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched him closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, "Come up here before us." Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?" But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.
Respect for Human Life and Human Dignity
The man with the withered hand could have been content to remain that way for the rest of his life, but he heard the word of Christ and risked persecution by stepping forward.
Being a person of life, promoting a culture of life and civility in our culture of death, is undeniably counter-cultural. We too must stretch forth our withered hands in prayer and compassion to our neighbors.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a "Gospel of life." It invites all persons to a new life lived abundantly in respect for human dignity. We proclaim that human life is a precious gift from God; and that society, must protect and nurture human life at every stage of its existence.
A culture of life begins with our refusal to destroy someone through gossip, ridicule, discrimination, deceit, disrespect, or any type of violence; and being pro-life requires a personal decision to respect the dignity of others, seeking to affirm and safeguard the gift of human sexuality and the gift of procreation; and to uphold the dignity of marriage.
But being pro-life means standing in solidarity with all of human life, not simply opposing abortion. As Christians, Jesus challenges us with these words: “Whatsover you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.”
We are called to be neighbors to everyone, and to "show special favor to those who are poorest, most alone, and most in need of mercy. In helping the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the homeless, the sick, the unwanted, or the imprisoned, we serve Christ Jesus.
The Christian disciple therefore not only avoids evil, he or she does not even think or wish another person any harm – even the most wretched or vicious, for "The measure of forgiveness that you measure out to others will be measured out to you." Christ's words of mercy are clear: "Blessed are the merciful, they will be shown mercy," and the prophet Ezekiel spoke God’s word: "God does not desire the death of the sinner."
There are those who criticize the Church for her pro-life stance just as there were those who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners and forgiving sin. Jesus lived the pro-life gospel by insisting that no person should be abandoned or regarded as hopeless.
We are all lost sheep from time to time; our hands are at times clenched tight, withered shut, keeping God’s mercy only for ourselves. Yet there are no lost sheep in God’s Kingdom! There are no expendable children – born or unborn! There are no worthless human beings! There are no useless persons! There is no one beyond the reach of God’s mercy! For every drop of blood that Christ Jesus shed was shed for you and me and every other sinner.
We are all called to be prophets that stand on the side of life and witness to the burning love of God in an often cold, cruel world, through our forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. In one of the Catholic prayers associated with the rosary, we pray, “...lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most in need of mercy.”
If we love God and long for God, then we will truly come to love the things that God loves, and love the people God loves. And if we long for union with Christ, then we must have the mind and the heart of Christ! And to practice what he taught! How impossible this seems - yet it is possible with God’s grace, and so we pray for his Grace – even now in the eleventh hour.
The Church holds a belief in the unique worth and dignity of each person from the moment of conception, made in the image and likeness of God - even those who have taken life must be treated with dignity – yes, even those who may show no sign of remorse or contrition. As St. Paul wrote, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). Christ’s blood was shed even for the sins of murderers.
“Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others”! (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22).
Christ taught us that we must love our enemies, not that it would be a good idea, but that we must love them. The gospel message is this: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” (Lk. 19.10) Is it not our task to carry on the work of the Lord? Christ did not give us an exception to the rule ‘love thy neighbor.’ Otherwise, the Good Shepherd would have remained with the loyal ninety-nine sheep and let the lost sheep plummet over the edge of the cliff to its death.
Therefore, let us cast away our fear of loving the unlovable and step forward like the man in the gospel. Let us abandon ourselves to mercy and seek to love as God loves by stretching forth our withered hands.
Those who seek vengeance against the perpetrator of the crime only reduce themselves to the very thing they seek to destroy and merely perpetuate the culture of killing.
Capital Punishment can neither restore the victims’ lives nor uplift the survivors or lessen their grief and pain. Only mercy, love, and forgiveness can do that.
We must stand with victims of crime –including the children of those who are incarcerated, but State-sanctioned killing affects us all because it diminishes the value of all human life.
Capital Punishment solves nothing nor will it bring peace to the victim's family or others suffering from his heinous crimes.
We pray for all family and survivors who are victims of unspeakable crimes and have experienced great anguish and pain.
St. Paul wrote: “Where sin abounds, God’s grace more and more abounds.” We have faith that no matter how horrible the sin or the tragedy of sin, God’s grace is even greater. God creates each of us as his children. God never abandons us. Human beings may believe the worst about other human beings, but God is LOVE. Humans may hate; but God is love. This is our hope and hope does not disappoint. Our sins cannot overshadow God’s love; nothing can separate us from the love of God!
There are two stories I want to share with you.
The year is 1375. A particular Italian Dominican Sister was asked to visit Nicolo di Toldo, an angry prisoner, who refused to see a priest and would not reconcile himself to Christ. He was going to be executed for committing a capital crime while under the influence of alcohol. The woman listened to him in his pain and fear, gently assuring him of Jesus' great love for him. When her attempts to commute his sentence to imprisonment failed, Niccolo asked her to accompany him to his execution.
She wrote: "I waited for him at the place of execution, and I kept praying…Before he arrived, I lay down and stretched out my head on the block, and begged the Blessed Virgin Mary for the grace I wanted, namely, that I might give him light and peace of heart at the moment of death…Then he arrived, like a meek lamb, and when he saw me he asked me to make the sign of the cross over him…
She caressed his head as it lay on the block and bent down to him, reminding him of the blood of the Lamb. His lips kept murmuring only "Jesus," and he was still murmuring when she received his head into her hands, the executioner fulfilling his function.
She wrote: “My soul rested in peace and quiet, in such a way that I couldn’t bear to wash away his blood that had splashed upon me.”
Through her, Christ was present to Niccolo, assuring him, “You are not alone. I am with you.” This woman knew that we love God by loving our neighbor.
The woman was Saint Catherine of Siena – a doctor of the Church. Catherine of Siena was like the merchant in search of a pearl of great price. She sought the pearl of Niccolo di Toldo among the slimy oysters of her day and was left with his blood smeared upon her religious habit.
Another young woman was moved by God’s Grace. The year was 1888. She was fourteen years old at the time. She heard of an unrepentant murderer name Henri Pranzini. He had murdered three people and was to be put to death by guillotine in France. She determined to try to save him through her prayer.
She wrote: "I heard talk of a great criminal condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die unrepentant. I felt in the depths of my heart the desire to pray for all sinners. I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I'd believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus.”
She prayed and sacrificed for Pranzini, desiring his complete conversion to Jesus, even though he was judged guilty and condemned to death.
“The day after his execution I found the newspaper,” she wrote. “I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! Pranzini had not gone to confession, but he had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the opening, when suddenly he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times!
“My prayer was answered." Though she would never be a mother physically, she called him her first child, and dedicated herself even more to praying for souls. Today she is one of the most popular saints and some people may be surprised to know that this young woman was St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, and that her first spiritual child was a murderer.
No one is beyond the mercy of God.
For who are we to dictate to God who should be saved or damned?
Therese stumbled upon the news story of Henri Pranzini. How often when we stumble across a story of a criminal in the news is our first thought to pray for his conversion or his salvation?
These stories teach us respect for life. These saints challenge us and call us to ask ourselves the question: Do we love others the way God loves us? God’s mercy is boundless, and no sinner, no matter how great his offenses, should have reason to despair of mercy!
Just as Jesus called the man to stretch forth his withered hand, we too are called to stretch forth our hands in prayer and compassion to all. Who knows whom we may snatch up from the depths of despair?
So tonight we may be chastised for praying for a condemned murderer. Tomorrow we may be ridiculed for ministering to those with AIDS. Next week we may be ignored because we passed up a cocktail party to work the soup kitchen . Next month we may be snubbed because of our stance against abortion. But we are in the good company of Christ and the Saints.
“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you all because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” Mt 5
It is time to abolish the use of the death penalty.
It is time to cast away our fear of loving the unlovable and abandon ourselves to God’s mercy and love as God loves.
Let us pursue justice without vengeance or violence and build a culture of life, indeed a civilization of love, where we will be so committed to the dignity of human life that as a people, we will no longer sanction the killing of any human person for any reason, be they unborn, newborn, deformed, handicapped, elderly, terminally ill, or imprisoned – even those on death row.
May God, through our witness to the dignity of human life, change us and through us change the world so that the gift of human life will be cherished as the greatest of gifts.
[Two other stories excluded from the actual homily due to time constraints follow:
Father Stephen Theodore Badin – a priest who escaped the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror (which employed the guillotine without restraint) was the first priest ordained in the United States by Archbishop Carroll. Badin served in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan for most of his life and told this story that took place in the years 1830-1840.
“A young farmer killed another man in a fight over a barmaid at a Bardstown, Kentucky tavern. At his trial, he was found guilty and condemned to death. I spent the night in jail with him before he was put to death. He wasn’t pious by any means, and he wasn’t Catholic, so I couldn’t hear his confession, but when the hangman came for him in the morning, he began to express remorse over his mortal sin as I accompanied him to the gallows.
“When the hangman placed the rope around his neck, he asked God to forgive him. Those were his last words. I went down and stood at the foot of the platform, holding his mother and praying with her as the trap door was sprung, killing her son.
“The whole affair illustrates the uselessness of killing a murderer. The Lord Jesus said, did he not, ‘Forgive as I have forgiven you. If you do not forgive others their offenses committed against you, I will not forgive you your offenses against me’? No man, by killing another, can restore the deceased to life, nor bring about any happiness in this world or the next; only an injustice and an assault upon the law of charity is done by adding sorrow to sorrow and tears upon tears.”
Another tale that occurred in southern Michigan north of South Bend involved Father Badin and his catechist Angelique Campeau, a half Canadian and half Algonquin woman . In June of 1832, Topenebe, a twenty-five-year-old Potawatomi chief under the influence of alcohol, killed a young brave Nananko at Chief Pokagon’s village.
A council was held where Topenebe surrendered himself. The family of the murdered man produced their knives and tomahawks and, according to tribal custom, Topenebe fell prostrate in their presence and waited for death.
Chief Pokagon delivered a speech hoping to spare the tribe of another death, but those ready to avenge Nananko heard nothing. As they were about to execute justice, the female interpreter,
Angelique Campeau, stepped forward and said in their native tongue, “Kill me instead and be satisfied.”
All were shocked. None of the Indians expected such an offer, especially an offer from a woman.
Father Badin rose in response to his companion’s offer. He stepped forward and spoke in the Potawatomi tongue.
“To all the chiefs, indeed all my children of the Potawatomi Nation, my brethren in Christ, I am your father, the old French priest, one of the last blackrobes. You know how we French blackrobes have always been the friends of the Indians. Listen to me. I wish for all of you to be happy. What I say I say in truth. Love one another, and forgive, if you wish God to forgive you, who has often been offended by your drinking whiskey and in many other ways.
“If you do not forgive others their offenses against you, God will not forgive your offenses against Him. My children, Jesus, the Son of God, became man and was put to death by wicked men. When they were crucifying him he was praying to God for them. He did not wish for revenge and their deaths. He said, ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ If we do as Jesus has done, we will be happy with him and with God, the Father of all men—red and white.
“My children, I speak to you as a father speaks to his beloved children. What I tell you is truth. God has sent me to instruct you; he has commanded me to teach you what His son Jesus Christ taught. Be assured that my heart cherishes you all equally, the least no less than the great. God shows no partiality. I have already spoken too long, but I must say one word more. Open your ears. Open your hearts. No man, by killing Chief Topenebe, can restore Nananko to life nor give happiness to his soul in the other world; only great harm would be done by adding sorrow to sorrow and tears to tears.
“My Potawatomi children, I, as your father, am confident that all wise men among you—indeed all men—will agree that what I have said to you is right and true.”
According to reports, Father Badin sighed and looked around at the assemblage before taking his seat again. His eyes were still on Angelique Campeau, standing in the center of the circle next to Topenebe. Topenebe had remained prostrate before the mother, brothers, and friends of the victim, Nananko.
Finally the mother of Nananko stood and called for the elders of the tribe. In their conference, the Indians conceded that it would be best to spare Topenebe’s life and refuse Angelique’s offer.]