Commentary: The peripheries of our own vision

Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 7, 2016. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.
Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 7, 2016. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

.- While Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation focuses on joy and holiness in everyday life, one passage has drawn sharp reactions from Catholics on the left and the right.

“Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development,” Pope Francis writes in Gaudete et exsultate.

“Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

What the pope says is true. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that all human persons have an equal sacred dignity, because they are made in the image and likeness of God.

This does not mean that we should avoid prioritizing certain political issues – Church teaching has long noted that the protection of unborn human life from abortion is a pre-eminent and foundational issue, the basis upon which other rights are most protected.

Too often, however, Catholics fall into one of two camps. “Pro-lifers” have a reputation for adamantly working to end abortion but remaining deaf to the cries of the poor, imprisoned, and migrants. “Social justice warriors” are criticized for seeming to championing every cause except the right to life for those in the womb.

Both of those characterizations are reductive, and they’re usually unfair. It’s natural, though, that different causes resonate with different people.

Maybe you were raised in a family that emphasized a specific issue, or maybe you’ve had a personal experience or an encounter with someone that led you to place a strong emphasis on a particular topic. That has certainly been the case for me.

Pope Francis is calling Catholics to recognize those people on the peripheries of our own vision – the suffering that we are blind to, the pain we’ve never taken the time to see.  

Not everyone can be involved in every protest, rally, or fundraiser for every just cause. But we can make efforts to educate ourselves about issues about which we have less knowledge. In many cases, simply learning the stories behind the statistics is enough to change minds and hearts.

Practically, what can you do to heed Pope Francis’ call to uphold the sanctity of all human life? Take a look at the causes you naturally gravitate toward, and make an effort to learn about other moral and social issues.

If you regularly pray outside abortion clinics, but have never spent time advocating or praying for migrants, spend a month following the work of Catholic Relief Services. Read the stories of parents who struggle with wages that are not enough to feed their family, or who watch their children face a choice between joining a local gang or being killed. Learn about those who decide to flee their homelands, at any cost.

Learn about the conditions that force women into sex trafficking, and the challenges that prison inmates face when they try to re-enter society.

See if you can volunteer through your local Catholic Charities at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Meeting people who are homeless is often the best way to dispel stereotypes and preconceived notions about them.

If you want to go deeper, you can even make the radical move of volunteering for a summer with a program like Christ in the City, a Denver-based ministry in which young adults work directly with homeless people living on the streets, getting to know them on a personal level and befriending them.  

On the other hand, if you are naturally drawn toward the causes of racial inequality and homelessness, but have never attended a pro-life rally, look for ways to broaden your scope of vision.

Volunteer at your local pro-life center or a home for pregnant women. Hear the stories of women who are pregnant and scared. Listen to the stories of pain and regret from women who chose abortion because they felt trapped or coerced and thought they had no alternative. See the joy in a woman’s face when she looks at her infant child – the child she had considered aborting until she changed her mind when she felt the support of a loving community.

Sign up to attend next year’s March for Life in Washington DC on Jan. 18. Or sign up to attend your local walk for life.

If you’re 18 or older, you can sign up to spend your summer with Crossroads, a pro-life organization that walks across the country – literally – every summer to promote the pro-life message.

Learning more about the causes outside the scope of our vision is a good way to awaken our sense of compassion and broaden our horizons, seeing the suffering and injustice that we may not have realized even existed.

We should allow ourselves to be humbled as we realize that there is so much suffering in this world – and even in our own backyards – that we had never even acknowledged. We should let ourselves be challenged to pray for people who need help, and in whatever way we feel called, to advocate on their behalf.  

It’s a way to “see the entirety of your life as a mission,” as Pope Francis calls us to do in Gaudete et exsultate. Because, in the words of Benedict XVI, cited by Pope Francis in his new document, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”

Tags: Pro-life, Pope Francis, Peripheries, Gaudete et exsultate