Pro-life means many images to care about
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
"A picture's worth 1,000 words."
The adage is certainly true for this year's Respect Life image selected by the U.S. Catholic bishops' pro-life secretariat. It's based on the 19th century Dutch painter Carl Heinrich Bloch's Visitation.
What differs in this picture of the Virgin greeting her cousin from Bloch's is that a sun shadowed star is painted over each woman's mid-section. A not-too-subtle message for a pro-life poster. Certainly not as subtle as previous Respect Life month images: Jesus greeting a woman; a father cradling his baby, or the mosaic of images of people forming the wide-eyed face of a child.
Still, the image does convey joy in new life. It also expresses the joy we all feel when allowed to join in creation and, even more, in the work of salvation, as Mary, Elizabeth and their sons did.
However, the image seems to fail to convey all the words it should, as I've heard from several people around the diocese.
"There we go again, saying the pro-life is only about the unborn," as one person put it when the pro-life poster was first released in early September.
It's a valid point.
While Respect Life Month started in 1972 as a response to the pro-abortion movement, being pro-life means being aware of the entire spectrum of life, what some call "the seamless garment."
One of the first to be linked to that term was the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. In a 1984 address at St. Louis University on "A Consistent Ethic of Life" he said, "It is not necessary or possible for every person to engage in each issue, but it is both possible and necessary for the church as a whole to cultivate a conscious explicit connection among the several issues. And it is very necessary ... that individuals and groups who seek to witness to life at one point of the spectrum of life not be seen as insensitive to or even opposed to other moral claims on the overall spectrum of life."
Respect Life materials issued by the bishops each October faithfully address a spectrum of issues. For example, this year they emphasize care of aging loved ones, the dignity of the mentally ill, infertility treatments and, yes, abortion. Additionally, the bishops continue to speak out for ecology, against the death penalty, for those in "persistent vegetative states" and on other health issues.
This spectrum of life - a seamless garment - is not something the church began to address recently. In his 1995 document on the Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II quoted the Didache, a second century document, also called "The Teachings of the 12 Apostles":
"There are two ways, a way of life and a way of death ... The way of death is this: ... they show no compassion for the poor, they do not suffer with the suffering, they do not acknowledge their Creator, they kill their children and by abortion cause God's creatures to
perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering, they are advocates of the rich and unjust judges of the poor ..."
How, though, does one put that all into one picture?
Well, a second look at the painting of Carl Bloch - even with the added sun-stars - might just answer that better than we think. If you know the story.
Elizabeth was elderly - beyond child-bearing years, as the gospel tells us - and an outcast, since she was barren. Later, her son would be an outspoken prophet, with no home and wearing animal skins. We know John wasn't mentally ill, but he certainly would have seemed "odd" to people of his day. And Jesus himself would be said to be "out of his mind" by his own family (Mark 3:21).
Both Mary and Elizabeth lived in ancient Palestine, in an occupied country - not unlike modern-day Iraq.
Mary was a pregnant teenager, not yet married. She was soon to become a refuge in Egypt. She was poor. She would be a widow and her son would become a convicted death row inmate.
Outcasts of society: eccentric, poor, refugees, criminals, elderly.
All of them could come to mind when anyone who knows the Gospels looks at the Visitation painting. For anyone who knows the Gospel of Life, all those images should spring instantly to mind. If they do, then we should see them in life around us every day.
That is what John Paul II said in 1995: "It is Christ himself who reminds us of this when he asks to be loved and served in his brothers and sisters who are suffering in any way: the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned ... Whatever is done to each of them, is done to Christ himself."
In Respect Life Month - as it does all year - the church calls us to do our part to protect life - from the unborn, to the poor, sick, unwanted, to prisoners and victims of war, to elderly and dying.
In other words, it we should always see the same picture - even if from different angles or highlighted in different ways. It's all the same image of life.
And it's worth more than 1,000 words.