by Bishop Robert Vasa
The headline from Vatican City dated February 18, 2009 as reported by the Catholic News Agency (CNA) should have been neither shocking nor surprising but in many ways, it was both.
The story had been circulated that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be received by the Holy Father after his usual Wednesday Audience and this was accurate. There was a fear that somehow the Holy Father’s meeting would signal some kind of approbation of her erroneous thinking about life issues. The news story was very direct: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s photo-op with Pope Benedict XVI turned sour when the Pontiff used the 15-minute meeting to reaffirm the teachings of the Catholic Church on the right to life and the duty to protect the unborn.” Certainly this would have been “sour” for House Speaker Pelosi and perhaps it may have been a bit “sour” for other erroneously minded “pro-choice” Catholics but I find it difficult to describe it as “sour” in itself. For most in the Pro-Life Community, the news, far from being deemed “sour,” was received as a bit of fresh air, indeed even as “sweet.”
No one of us can afford to take any kind of gaudium or delight in the fact that the Speaker of the House was rather sternly rebuked. Rejoicing in this is to rejoice in her embarrassment and that lacks charity. It would also be uncharitable to rejoice that the gravity of the Speaker’s error necessitated such a reprimand by the Holy Father. Yet, in this, there is a cause for a suitable kind of rejoicing. One of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to admonish the sinner and we can rejoice that this Spiritual Work is being exercised. We can be confident that the Holy Father did not do what he did in order to embarrass or vilify House Speaker Pelosi. We can be confident that he spoke and acted as he deemed was good and necessary for both the admonishment of the sinner and the instruction of the ignorant, another Spiritual Work of Mercy. This second Work of Mercy is further exercised on behalf of any of those who have been misled by some of Speaker Pelosi’s statements. The clarity of the Holy Father’s words also serve as a bit of counsel for the doubtful, yet another of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
The news story continued: “No photo of Speaker Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and the Pope will be forthcoming since the meeting was closed to reporters and photographers. The two met in a small room in the Vatican just after the pope’s weekly public audience.” The fact that there were no photographs allowed could be interpreted to mean that the Holy Father did not want the media to send mixed messages, one in words and the other in pictures. I have no doubt that the Holy Father was nothing but extremely gracious when Madame Speaker met with him and a photograph of that graciousness could be used to put a different spin on the seriousness of the meeting. The disallowing of photographs puts an exclamation point at the end of the Official Press Release.
There is yet another Spiritual Work of Mercy which is operative here and it is one directed at all those who have grave concerns about the diminution of reverence for human life in our culture. The Holy Father’s decision and action stands as a great source of encouragement and even comfort to those who work so ardently in the Pro-Life trenches. The Spiritual Work is that of comforting the sorrowful. A vast number of increasingly discouraged Catholics, who are in many ways suffering and sorrowful over the ongoing legal disregard for our pre-born brothers and sisters, were greatly comforted and encouraged by the courage and clarity of the Holy Father.
The CNA news story then quoted the Official Statement of the Holy See’s press office: “Following the general audience the Holy Father briefly greeted Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, together with her entourage. His Holiness took the opportunity to speak of the requirements of the natural moral law and the Church’s consistent teaching on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death which enjoin all Catholics, and especially legislators, jurists and those responsible for the common good of society, to work in co-operation with all men and women of good will in creating a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development.”
I think this is quite clear. It is even clearer when one looks more carefully at the operative verb, that simple word “enjoin.” The Church’s teaching “enjoins” all Catholics and especially legislators to create just laws which protect innocent human life. The dictionary defines enjoin quite strongly: “to direct, prescribe, or impose by order typically authoritatively and compellingly and with urgent admonition.” Thus the Holy Father is not issuing here a gentle reminder or a subtle suggestion, he is reiterating a directive with an urgent admonition. While this admonition was issued on the occasion of the House Speaker’s visit to the Vatican and while it was clearly issued for her benefit, it was not directed solely to her but rather also to all Catholics. It should serve for us all as a call to Lenten repentance.
Since I have covered four of the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy it is a good time to complete the roster with the final three. These final three are particularly appropriate for our Lenten reflection for they do not look at the weaknesses or shortcomings of others but rather at our own. How about bearing wrongs patiently or forgiving all injuries as a pair of focused Spiritual Works for Lent 2009? There is a lifetime of work in simply trying to achieve some measure of success with regard to these two.
Finally, one that we can all relatively easily participate in, to pray for the living and the dead.
In light of the present discussion there are many possible beneficiaries of our prayers and we generally remember the major ones in our petition prayers at Mass. There we always remember Pope Benedict XVI. There we also pray for government leaders and our personal petition for them should always include: “That they work to create a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development. We pray to the Lord.”