Respect Life Sunday – October 1, 2023
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Shortly before he is to suffer his Passion, Jesus proclaims to his disciples in Saint John’s gospel, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”  It is love for one another that Jesus says will be the identifying characteristic of his disciples.

Building upon these words of Jesus, our Church’s entire social doctrine is guided by the fundamental principle that every human life has innate dignity and incomparable value.  Pope Francis, in his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, reminds us, “Every human being is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives.”  As disciples of Christ, we are called to make a sacrificial gift of ourselves for the sake of our neighbor, for “to love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable that speaks powerfully of our responsibility as authentic disciples of his gospel.  The image that he uses is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first spoken two thousand years ago. 

A man has two sons.  He has a good bit of work to do in the family owned business and he looks to his sons for help.  A common thing.  …   When asked by his father to work in the vineyard, son number one responds as any father would hope, “I’m on my way, Dad.  Whatever you need, you’ve come to the right man.”  And he never goes.  He never lifts a finger to help.  …  Son number two surprisingly responds, “That’s not going to work with my schedule today.  Sorry, Dad.”  But with a soft spot in his heart for his father and the needs of his family, he changes his mind and does what his father asked. 

Notice that neither of the two sons respond perfectly to their father.  The first son comes across as a righteous soul, willing to do whatever he can to help his father.  But he ultimately lacks integrity.  His actions don’t reflect his words.  …  It’s the second son, however, who seems to get it.  While he initially refused to help his father, his actions resonate with the values that lie in the depth of his heart. 

Jesus initially addresses this parable to the religious leaders of his day – the righteous chief priests and elders – who followed the letter of the law and were quick to point out the shortcomings of others – but who never really seemed to have the capacity or desire to give life to what they professed.  In other words, they said “yes” to God every day in their prayers and rituals – but like the first son in today’s parable, they said “no” to the opportunities given to them to live their faith.

Jesus’ parable offers a sobering challenge to people of all ages – and ultimately to me and to you.  And its message is a familiar one:  actions speak more clearly than mere words or intentions – even and particularly when it comes to our relationship with God.  If we profess authentic faith in Jesus, what we believe will be reflected in how we live our lives and how we respond in love and mercy to our broken world. 

The theme for our reflections on this Respect Life Sunday is Radical Solidarity.  Years ago, Saint John Paul II affirmed that solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people. … On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good … to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”  In short, solidarity is the means by which we put our love for others into action, making the good of others our own – like we saw in the example of the second son in today’s gospel, who ultimately served the needs and well-being of his father.

At this critical moment in our world and particularly in our land, we have been entrusted with new challenges but also new opportunities to build a civilization of authentic love, rooted in a fundamental respect for the dignity of every human life.         

While the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year has given us hope, it has not diminished the work that still needs to be done to ensure that every human life is valued and loved.  As a result of the Supreme Court decision, some areas of our country now protect the child in the womb.  Other areas, sadly, are doing all they can to increase access to abortion.  And right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, tragically, efforts to protect human life are being compromised more than we might realize.  Plans are being made to terminate a contract with Real Alternatives, a statewide contract maintained by federal and state funding, that has been in existence for over 27 years and has provided a critical lifeline to nearly 350,000 women who have suddenly found themselves in need when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy. 

Nearly half of Real Alternatives’ Service Providers consist of Catholic Charities and Catholic Social Services sites throughout our state.  These important human services sites provide critical pregnancy and parenting support services from the moment mothers find out they are pregnant through 12 months after the birth of their baby.  The termination of this vital contract, should it occur here in the Diocese of Scranton alone, will almost certainly challenge the very existence of relief programs for pregnant women in Scranton and Carbondale, Saint Joseph’s Pantry and, most notably, Shepherd’s Maternity House in Stroudsburg, that provides a safe home for women facing unexpected and challenging pregnancies and that receives over 80% of its yearly funding from Real Alternatives.

Simply put, brothers and sisters, if we desire to live our lives as Christians with authenticity, we have no choice.  We cannot merely speak of our respect for human life or self-righteously criticize those whose beliefs may be different from our own.  We must enliven our words with action.  We must both choose and serve life – life in the womb, life that is found on the margins of our world and even life that struggles to respect and reverence others. 

The challenge to defend human life cannot be side stepped in an effort to create a false peace or sense of harmony.  We must be fearless in our defense of the unborn – but also mothers in need, the elderly, the sick, the poor, the disabled, the prisoner, the immigrant and all whose lives are in jeopardy. 

Nor must we ever shrink from confronting life issues in our prayer, in what and how we teach as a Church and in the pastoral care that we offer.  But we must also never shrink from confronting life issues when we vote, in the initiatives and public policies that we are able to influence, in our volunteer efforts and in the daily activities and choices of our lives that can even unwittingly exploit the most defenseless among us.

Brothers and sisters, the radical solidarity that so reflects the teaching of Jesus in today’s gospel and that lies at the heart of our celebration this day refers to something much more than just a few sporadic acts of generosity, the theme for an annual Mass or the empty words of the self-righteous.  A culture of radical solidarity, as Pope Francis has proclaimed, “gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives. … and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”

May each of us who seek to live as authentic disciples work together to build a culture of life through radical, sacrificial, Christ-like love and service of every human life made in the image and likeness of our Creator.