The immeasurable value of life

mars voor het levenSaturday we marked the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (which refers to the conception of Mary, not of Jesus, as many mistakenly think) and in The Hague the annual March for Life (picture at left) braved the freezing cold to make a stand for the right of life of all people. And life is the common denominator between these too. Mary was prepared since before her birth to carry, nurture and protect the perfect life in her womb, and today we are called to extend the same protection to the life of all people, born or yet unborn, healthy or ill, rich or poor.

Being a Catholic, I can’t be anything but pro-life. This is admittedly a moniker laden with political and other connotations, but for me it simply means that I choose life over death. Life is the original and ultimate gift we have been granted by God. And as with all His gifts, He doesn’t simply give and then walk away. No, He is with us forever, there when we reach out to Him when life gets difficult or even seemingly impossible.

But being pro-life is not the exclusive territory of Catholics, or even of Christians. All it requires are open eyes and a compassionate heart. Eyes that are open to the reality of both the difficulties and the beauty of life. A heart that is compassionate towards the person suffering, for whatever reason, and willing to help overcome that suffering.

I live in a society where abortion and euthanasia are generally considered to be human rights. As a result, they are seen as medical procedures aimed at curing a patient from the illness of pregnancy or pain.  The very nature of life, as a gift from God and a responsibility for all of us, is thereby completely forgotten. Not even wilfully so, but out of ease or ignorance. Especially among younger people – teenagers, children even – this stance on abortion has lead to an increase in abortions, teenage pregnancies and a liberal attitude to sexuality that was unheard of even ten years ago. Children aged 12 or 13 are engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse, which from their standpoint is understandable if the unwanted consequences are so easily dealt with. Add to that the fact that abortion and euthanasia are both presented as having little to no psychological consequences on the person in question or their families, and these procedures indeed become simple cures for a disease.

But these are lies. Pure and simple.

Life is not a disease. Life is a gift, and a gift that brings with it responsibilities. Life is not subject to opinion, not a subjective value attached to an object. We can’t therefore decide who is worthy of life, or decide on when it starts or ends. Our active contribution to and participation in the life that we have been granted is delineated by these absolutes: it begins and ends at times that are beyond our qualification and competence.

Does that mean an immovable attitude on our part? Although there are boundaries we cannot cross, we can be compassionate and moved within those boundaries. We not only can, we should.

The concerns of people who do not share our standpoints are nonetheless legitimate. Questions about a child conceived in rape, or a lingering illness which will certainly end in death are ones we should confront. While we can’t say that the life of an unborn child of a patient should be terminated, we must work towards easing any suffering, be it physical or psychological. Unwanted pregnancies are a reality. They are not always easy, and they can be painful. Illness by itself is never enjoyable, and nor is pain without a chance of a cure.

Life, as a gift, transcends all this, however. The pain it sometimes brings us is never all it brings. In ways that we can’t conceive, an unborn child may prove a blessing for those around him. The natural death of a person can be a positive formative experience for others. We are not islands, and we are called to live in relation to others. That is not any different when illness, pain and being unwanted is concerned.

Life is immeasurably valuable. This is something we must never forget, because the risks are too great when we do.

I am pro-life. I can’t be anything else.

Photo credit: “A nation born out of prayer”, Mars voor het Leven/Facebook

Today’s dogma – looking back at the declaration of the Assumption of Mary

Almost 62 years ago, on the first of November 1950, Pope Pius XII published Munificentissimus Deus, the Apostolic Constitution by which he declared what we celebrate today to be a dogma. It became a binding teaching, something that we are required to hold as Catholics. It goes so far that if we don’t agree with it, we can’t properly call ourselves Catholics. It’s like claiming that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God and still calling oneself Catholic. One of the identifying markers of one’s ‘Catholicity’ is missing, so whatever the person in question is, he is not Catholic [MD 45, 47].

This may all sound negative, focussing on what we must and what the consequences are if we don’t, but in essence a dogma is a positive. A reading of Munificentissimus Deus shows that the dogma we mark today, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, grew organically from the heartfelt desires of many faithful and from the earlier dogmatic teaching of her Immaculate Conception, as defined by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854 [MD 6-9]. This dogma is then not something imposed from above, but a confirmation of what many had long held to be true. It is also a confirmation that the Assumption of Mary has always been “contained in the deposit of Christian faith entrusted to the Church” [MD 8].

The Venerable Pope Pius XII offers an extensive list of historical examples of this faith, even conviction, that the Blessed Virgin was assumed into heaven [MD 14-38], and then presents the official declaration of the dogma as such:

For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. [MD 44]

Once more, the positive nature of this dogma, and others as well, is outlined a bit earlier in the Apostolic Constitution:

We, who have placed our pontificate under the special patronage of the most holy Virgin, to whom we have had recourse so often in times of grave trouble, we who have consecrated the entire human race to her Immaculate Heart in public ceremonies, and who have time and time again experienced her powerful protection, are confident that this solemn proclamation and definition of the Assumption will contribute in no small way to the advantage of human society, since it redounds to the glory of the Most Blessed Trinity, to which the Blessed Mother of God is bound by such singular bonds. It is to be hoped that all the faithful will be stirred up to a stronger piety toward their heavenly Mother, and that the souls of all those who glory in the Christian name may be moved by the desire of sharing in the unity of Jesus Christ’s Mystical Body and of increasing their love for her who shows her motherly heart to all the members of this august body. And so we may hope that those who meditate upon the glorious example Mary offers us may be more and more convinced of the value of a human life entirely devoted to carrying out the heavenly Father’s will and to bringing good to others. Thus, while the illusory teachings of materialism and the corruption of morals that follows from these teachings threaten to extinguish the light of virtue and to ruin the lives of men by exciting discord among them, in this magnificent way all may see clearly to what a lofty goal our bodies and souls are destined. Finally it is our hope that belief in Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven will make our belief in our own resurrection stronger and render it more effective. [MD 42].

And in the meantime, a happy feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin to all!

Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1767-1769

Today the Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While the words are not unfamiliar, many people assume that they refer to the birth of Jesus, who was ‘without sin’. In reality, though, the sinless one in this case is His mother.

Father Dwight Longenecker explains the Catholic teaching about “Mary, full of grace” in his blog:

“Protestant says, “You Catholics hold to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it’s totally un-Biblical.” So we refer them the story of the annunciation where Mary is greeted with the term ‘full of grace’. (Luke 1.28) We conclude that if she was ‘full of grace’ then she had no sin for the Biblical definition of sin is to “fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) If she was “full of grace” then we only have to ask when this fullness started and we conclude logically that it must have started when her life started, and life starts at conception so she must have been conceived without sin.” [More at Standing On My Head]

Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed – Homily

Below is a translation of the homily that Fr. Rolf Wagenaar, cathedral administrator of the St. Joseph cathedral in Groningen, gave at the Mass before the procession to the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, last Saturday.

The original text is in Brother Hugo’s blog here.

The clouds that Fr. Wagenaar refers to in the homily were indeed hard to miss

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Our Lady of the garden enclosed. THat is the chapel, the small shrine of Mary in Warfhuizen to which, after this Holy Mass, we will go in procession.

Our Lady of the garden enclosed. In Latin: hortus conclusus, a favourite topic in the late Middle Ages, in painting and on tapestries. We see Mary – because it always refers to her – in a walled garden with many flowers and near here usually stands a unicorn. Source is the Old Testament Song of Songs, where we read: “She is a garden enclosed, my sister, my promised bride; a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain” (4: 12).

That garden enclosed has always been connected to the Immaculate Conception of Mary which, as you know, means that Mary has been free of sin since her conception in the womb of her mother Anna; a premature redemption because she would , after all, carry God Himself in her womb. Spotless she had to be, a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain. Similar is an invocation in a litany of Mary from Loreto, the so-called Lauretan litany, which has been taken complete from Scripture.

Hortus conclusus – garden enclosed
Fons signatus – sealed fountain

The unicorn which is often depicted near Mary in the garden enclosed is also taken from Scripture and is mentioned in various place in the Old Testament. It seeks refuge in the lap of the Virgin and has the power to purify poisoned wells with its horn. It is connected to Christ, of course – the purity is central. Tota pulchra – o most beautiful, that is how we may understand it.

The image also has something poetic and we may emphasise that in this time: the beauty of our faith, because God is the most beautiful and that has always inspired so many artists. But poetry is not only sweet, like in the diaries of my sisters when we were children. Today too, in this lovely, blooming month of May, we may go to Mary in her enclosed garden, probably through rain and at least under dark and threatening clouds.

A sad, crying Mary she is here, for what her Son had to go through – didn’t old Simeon already foretell it to her? -, also for the many sins and the suffering in the world that is not only great elsewhere, but also when it hits us ourselves here. Who better to go to that to you Mother, our heavenly Mother, who is, unlike any other, so near to the Lord, to God Himself.

The Father also did not take away the suffering of the Son. So we must carry or cross, but with the Lord who said Himself: “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest”, and with His Mother Mary on our side the burden will be lighter, we can handle it and we can look up to the brightly shining crown, image of the Resurrection, of victory. That is why the crying Mary is also a happy one because the joy is ultimate!

We may gather under Mary’s protection like this, now in this Mass, in a joyful walk towards her, image of the pilgrimage that is our life.

We seek refuge under your protection, Our Holy Mother of God.

Amen.