Choosing Life: Witnessing to God’s Mercy with Charity and Justice

With her two-year-old daughter in one arm and a small backpack containing all her belongings, Carmen climbed onto the top of a freight train.  She has already been traveling for several days from her native Honduras, a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world.  Carmen was fleeing the domestic and gang-related violence.   She still had nightmares.  Images of her sister being raped and murdered as she watched in horror were seared deeply into her memory. Carmen was determined to do everything in her power so that she and her daughter would avoid the fate of her sister.  This is what pushed her to make the 1,450-mile trek on the infamous “Train of Death,” She had nothing to lose!

Arriving at the US-Mexican border, Carmen and her daughter were detained by the border patrol.  Subsequently, ICE allowed them to travel to Maryland with a GPS-enabled tracking bracelet on her ankle.   Soon after, she discovered that she was pregnant.   Many people around her advised her to have an abortion.  “You don’t want to bring a child into the world under these circumstances!  You can barely take care of your 2-year-old daughter.  You are alone and nobody is going to help you here,” they said.  Out of desperation, Carmen was leaning in the direction of ending the life of her unborn child.  But then, providentially, she came across Catholic Charities where she was directed to its Sanctuaries for Life program.

There she received spiritual guidance, rental assistance, some food, and access to prenatal care.  Carmen was also able to get help from Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services.   Recently, she came back to visit our local staff members at Sanctuaries for Life to say, “thank you.”   As staff members held Carmen’s 2-year-old son Jesús, all were overwhelmed.  It was a celebration of LIFE: the life of a child and Life for the larger community embracing its commitment to alleviate suffering through acts of charity.

This is but one of the many stories of lives that have been saved.  Catholic Charities’ Sanctuaries for Life serves about 100 women per year. Our holistic and collaborative approach integrates pre-natal care with spiritual, financial, and nutritional assistance.  We partner with local Pregnancy Support Centers in offering fertility awareness and parenting classes that teach young mothers practical techniques for bonding with their newborn babies.

Following his predecessors, our Holy Father, Pope Francis continues to challenge us to witness to the Gospel by acting with mercy and peace, charity and justice.   February 2-6, 2018, Catholic Charities USA sponsored a gathering in Washington D.C. of more than 500 Catholic leaders from across the country. We prayed and discussed some of the key domestic and international issues impacting the lives of the poor and marginalized.  It was a reminder for me that choosing life means not only opposing abortion but also providing food, health care, and quality education.  Choosing life entails a commitment to protect our common home, eliminate racism and nuclear weapons, and reduce huge social inequality.  To be pro-life means defending and healing the body of our politics and ensuring that everyone has a voice and a place at the decision-making table.  The Catholic Social teachings help us to avoid moral myopia and uphold the integrity of the Gospel of Life.

In his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis writes that “Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political.  Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects individual as well as social, economic and political relationships.” At the recent March for Life, I saw a banner with the image of our Lady of Guadalupe and a message: Don’t abort, don’t deport.”  Another banner had it inscribed: “Keeping Families together is pro-life.  No human being is illegal.  Keep God’s Dream Alive.”

I recalled the story of a 24-year-old man from Guatemala.   He, his wife, and their baby had fled to the United States. They wanted to save their lives from crushing poverty and violence ravaging their native country.  A few months ago, the father of the family was deported and subsequently killed by the criminal gangs.  He left behind a destitute widow and orphan child.  These are not isolated cases – there are hundreds of similar stories.  Millions of our immigrant brothers and sisters live in fear of having their families torn apart and deported.  As a Franciscan friar, I have had the privilege to get to know hundreds of hard-working, beautiful, immigrant families.  They have names and dreams.  They are already an integral part of the fabric of our communities and churches.

The Church upholds the rights of sovereign nations to control their borders.  But it also proclaims an Ethic of Life that imposes on individuals and states a Gospel-based obligation to champion the right to life and to care for refugees and immigrants.  When we debate contentious issues such as immigration, we ought to keep in mind that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were also immigrants who sought safety and refuge in a foreign country.  The Holy Father and our bishops remind us that callousness towards the poor, the immigrant, and the refuge, as well as indifference to systemic injustice, are antithetical to the Culture of Life.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to be champions of the Revolution of Tenderness and a Civilization of Love.  Yet, this cannot be reduced to a pious sentimentality.   Rather, it summons us to a commitment that includes economic, racial and intergenerational justice.

Lent is a time of a deeper encounter with the living Christ found in the poor and marginalized.  It is a time of profound change of mind and heart.  It invites us to step out of our comfort zones and act with courage to encounter the “other”.  Lent is an opportunity to re-examine our assumptions that hold us captive to certain ideologies that are alien to Jesus and that obscure the light of the Gospel.

We must not be lulled into accepting a false choice between, on one hand, protecting the right to life of the unborn and, on the other, protecting mothers in desperate situations, like Carmen from Honduras.   The Pope and the bishops have taught persuasively that our opposition to abortion and euthanasia must go, hand-in-hand with our efforts to oppose the wanton destruction of earth’s ecosystems, nuclear weapons, human trafficking, xenophobia, and religious persecution.  All these issues – cultural, social, economic, and environmental – are profoundly interconnected.

Lent 2018 offers an opportunity for each of us to recommit ourselves to the spiritual and social dimensions of our vocation.  So empowered, we can weave the diverse strands of our Gospel based-projects into a vibrant, seamless garment of Life that reveals a God whose name is mercy!