Respect Life Mass – October 13, 2019
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Each year, the Church dedicates the month of October as a time of prayer, reflection and action on behalf of the gift and dignity of human life, from conception until natural death.  This time particularly calls us to pray and work for legal protections for the unborn and vulnerable members of our society. Yet, sadly, each October reminds us that life is not always cherished as the singular, unique blessing from God that it is.

The headlines of this past year have reflected a discouraging trend.  While some states have significantly restricted access to abortions, many others have voted to permit abortions later in pregnancy, doubling down on efforts to legalize abortion up until birth. Even in our own state, efforts to restrict abortion have largely been pushed down by partisanship and infighting. Looking beyond the headlines, we can see a movement away from supporting a culture of life. We can see a growing disregard for the dignity of the human person at all stages of life.   And we can also see a nationwide trend toward violence and hatred.

The theme of this year’s Respect Life Month is “Christ Our Hope: In Every Stage of Life.” As Catholics, we are called to both prayer and action in protection of human rights and dignity. When we watch the evening news or check social media, we are often bombarded by stories of violence against human life. Abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are obvious threats – but the increased violence in our society and a lack of care for the poor and vulnerable also challenge the dignity of life.

This ongoing disregard is not owned by one particular party, social group, or point of view.  Sadly, this disregard originates from our failure to recognize each person as being infinitely valuable in the eyes of God — and from our failure to see one another as we truly are. When we fail to unite in our mission to promote the dignity of all life, we begin to lose our understanding of ourselves as one human family.

Today’s gospel story of the ten lepers who were cured by Jesus provides us with an apt context for our reflections upon the cherished gift of life.  …  Ten lepers were cured by Jesus.  Nine went off to celebrate a new beginning in their lives.  One returned to offer thanks to God for the gift that he had been given.  …  The one grateful leper who had been healed was a Samaritan.  On the surface of his life, he was a despised outcast, hated by righteous religious leaders who had believed that they had cornered the market on God as his chosen ones.

The story focuses our attention on two significant features that speak to the heart of today’s liturgy on this Respect Life Sunday.

The first feature is obvious.  Jesus’ healing power goes well beyond the norms of his society and culture to touch the peripheries of his world.  In healing the Samaritan leper, Jesus boldly reveals God’s expansive love and respect for every life.  His love and mercy is not contained by religious laws or traditions or social norms but touches every soul because of the simple fact that every soul – every life – is made in the image and likeness of God and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

The second feature of today’s gospel that speaks to our celebration today is less obvious.  In many respects, however, it is far more challenging and significant to those of who seek to live as disciples of the Lord.

In the verses immediately prior to the story of the healing of the ten lepers, Jesus warns his disciples of the narrow path that they must follow:  a path of service, forgiveness and selfless love.  In essence, while often at odds with the religious leaders of their day, Jesus’ own disciples must take care to avoid the same self-justifying posture of the Pharisees that Jesus criticizes.  That’s a trap that can easily ensnare them as they see the world around them acting in ways that do not reflect the heart of what they believe and profess as followers of Jesus.

In other words, the disciples – and all of us – must see ourselves just as the Samaritan leper viewed himself:  in need of God’s mercy, forgiveness and healing.  As such, our posture must first be that of understanding ourselves as gifted with life from God and respectful of it in all shapes and forms before we point to those who seem to disregard its value like the nine lepers who walked away from Jesus without uttering a word of thanks.

In short, because of the gift of life that we have been given by God, when we encounter those who are different from us, or those who hold different values, or even those who hurt us or those we love, it is not enough to forgive and then to express indifference. The love of God challenges us to respect those individuals, even if they are invisible to the rest of society, and to embrace them as if they were the presence of Christ himself.  Why?  Because each of these souls is equal and infinitely great in the eyes of God – whether they be unborn, an immigrant, an unrepentant sinner, or those who are passing through the end of their lives on earth.

Through all of the pain of the past year, Christ has shown himself to be our only true hope. As such, our faith in Jesus leads us to confront life issues with a unique combination of courage, humility and honesty. In the face of changing cultural norms, we must allow Jesus’ example to permeate who we are and all that we do on behalf of human life.

Essentially, respect for life starts with us – with me and you.  It starts not by pointing fingers at those whose ways seem contrary to gospel beliefs.  Respect for life starts when we, like the Samaritan leper, first appreciate the great gift that we’ve been given and then reverence that same gift in one another.

This calling, entrusted to each of us, is echoed in the simple yet profound words of Pope Francis: “The right to life means allowing people to live…allowing them to grow, to eat, to be educated, to be healed, and to be permitted to die with dignity.”

Guided by the example of Jesus, may our lives reflect the gospel teaching that human life is equal and infinitely valuable among all people and in all of its stages.  In so doing, we will best reflect Jesus’ command that we, as his faithful disciples, become a light of hope for all peoples.