This year, the Solemnity of the Annunciation also marked the 25th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life.” The date of its publication was not accidental. It was chosen because it is the date of the Incarnation, when the Blessed Mother’s “Yes” began the drama of Christ’s saving work among men.
Evangelium Vitae is beautiful and worth reflecting upon in its 25th anniversary year. Addressing “all people of goodwill,” John Paul II expressed confidence that every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can come to recognize the natural law written upon his heart, and may thus affirm the sacred value of human life from its beginning to its end. He reminds us that life on earth, while only temporary, is nevertheless “a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters.”
Evangelium Vitae is famous for defining the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” These cultures battle for supremacy in the modern world, not only in politics but in the heart of every human person. John Paul II, challenging us to build a culture of life, also invites us to become what God desires for us and has made possible by His Incarnation, death, and Resurrection—which began with Mary’s fiat, her “Yes” to God. He invites us to know and live the truth—to be made free.
Freedom, for human beings, means more than freedom from restraint, or to do as one chooses. We are endowed with the gift of reason. Our motives can transcend appetites, fears, and self-interest. The person who cannot transcend these lower motives cannot be truly free, because he is always able to be manipulated by his own passions, fear of others, or insecurities about his own future. It is only the truth which allows us to live as we ought, to fulfill the purpose for which we are made despite fears and temptations, and therefore to become truly free.
John Paul II calls us to be free, and to assist those who struggle to overcome their own doubts and fears about whether they too can live freely.
Society, likewise, cannot establish personal rights, including a right to life, on a firm rational basis unless it understands and affirms objective truth. Without it, the foundation for these rights is purely arbitrary. John Paul II teaches us that a society built upon such a foundation will be at the mercy of the unrestrained will of individuals or the oppressive totalitarianism of public authority. The weak, in either regime, will lose their rights as the strong assert their own interests. John Paul II saw and experienced both of these realities in his own life. He understood them in all their terrible power, but he was not afraid.
Christians bear a special responsibility to affirm the law written on the heart and to help others recognize it. This is especially urgent in a time when the culture of death, advocating for and inventing justifications for the evils of abortion, assisted suicide, and immoral scientific research, is so far advanced. This special responsibility belongs both to the clergy and to the laity, the latter of whom are responsible for restoring all things in Christ that are proper to the secular sphere, including medicine, law, politics, and education. John Paul II states that the purpose of the Gospel is to “transform humanity from within and make it new,” so that the culture may express the full truth about the human person, his destiny, and therefore the basis for the special dignity of human life.
This begins in the Church. Christian men and women must be prepared to sacrifice—socially, professionally, and otherwise—for living the truth and speaking it with charity and confidence.
St. Irenaeus famously said that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” In that spirit, let us take up the challenge of John Paul II and place our intelligence, our talents, our enthusiasm, our compassion and our fortitude at the service of life. Truth exists. The Incarnation happened. Be not afraid!