Reflections on Evangelium Vitae by Rev. J. Michael Miller, C.S.B.

After describing present-day attacks on life, Pope John Paul II admits that "one could feel overwhelmed by sheer powerlessness." Will good ever be powerful enough to triumph over evil? To reply to this question, the Holy Father offers a meditation on the biblical message concerning life. The encyclical’s second chapter bridges the somber opening portrait of the culture of death and the more doctrinal chapter that follows.

While the pope bases his reflections chiefly on Scripture, he holds that the essential truths of the Gospel of life echo in every human conscience. Divine revelation, however, enables us to know "the complete truth concerning the value of human life" (#29, emphasis mine).

The Old Testament prepares for the Gospel’s message of life. In the events of the Exodus, Israel discovered how much God prized its existence as a nation. He saved his people from the despotic whims of the Pharaoh who tried to suppress their very life. Through their experience of God’s gentle and intense love, Israel gradually came to appreciate that "life is always a good" (#34).

In the Covenant, God revealed the truth about the sacred nature of life. At the center of the Decalogue is the commandment, "You shall not kill" (Ex 20:13). Besides prohibiting murder, this precept forbids, as Israel’s later legislation makes clear, any personal injury inflicted on another person. The Law requires respect for physical life. This high regard reaches its summit in the commandment: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).

Israel’s history also shows how difficult it is to remain faithful to the law of life, inscribed in the human heart at creation, and chiseled on the tablets at Sinai. The prophets pointed an accusing finger at those who violated human life and dignity. In addition, these indignant preachers expressed the hope for a new age, when God would infuse a "new heart" and "new spirit" in his people (Ez 36:26). Then they would be able to carry out fully his commandment to respect and promote human life.

With the coming of Jesus, the divine message of life takes on flesh. He is the "Word of life" (1 Jn 1:1), who receives life from the Father. The Savior in turn shares this life with his followers, giving their existence meaning and value. This is the good news for them. Now they know for sure that their lives are "a gift carefully guarded in the hands of the Father" (#32).

Jesus’ mission, with the many healings He performs, shows God’s concern for bodily life. When sending out his disciples, Christ tells them to heal the sick (Mt 10:7-8). Love for human life marks the Lord’s entire ministry. He is the physician of man’s body and spirit.

In his teaching, Christ vigorously reaffirms the commandment, "You shall not kill." But He also expands its scope. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demands from his disciples a respect for life more exacting than that previously known (Mt 5:21-22). It now extends even to the love of one’s enemy. According to the pope, at the heart of the commandment to protect life is "the requirement to show reverence and love for every person and the life of every person" (#41). Christ proclaims this love by making a gift of his life for others. It is by his death that "Jesus reveals all the splendor and value of life" (#33). Through offering himself on the cross, He becomes the source of new life for everyone. In Jesus of Nazareth, "the Gospel of life is definitively proclaimed and fully given" (#29).

Why is human life always a supreme good? From the opening verses of Genesis, the Bible describes human beings as unique among creatures. As the summit of God’s creative activity, they are manifestations and signs of God’s glory in the world. By a "special decision" God establishes a special bond with men and women: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen 1:26). Only human beings can discover truth, distinguish between good from evil, and exercise freedom.

Sin’s entry into the world obscures this divine likeness in man. With the Incarnation, however, the image of God in man is fully restored. The Holy Father cites Vatican II to explain what this entails for human dignity: "By his Incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every man" (Gaudium et Spes, 22). According to the pope, the incomparable value of every person’s life is reaffirmed by the Son’s stupendous intervention in history. Furthermore, the redemption won on the cross confirms "how precious man is to God’s eyes and how priceless the value of his life" (#25).

Our vocation is to share God’s own "eternal life." This is the "real object of Jesus’ mission" (#37): to give life to the world. For those reborn in Christ, "the divine image is restored, renewed and brought to perfection" (#36). This sharing in the fullness of God’s love reveals the most sublime truth about life.

All stages of life - from conception to the vision of God - are of inestimable value. Man’s life, writes John Paul, is "something which does not belong to him, because it is the property and gift of God the Creator and Father" (#40).

This is the fourth in a series by Father Miller, who writes for Our Sunday Visitor. @1997 by Our Sunday Visitor. Used by permission. Check the Articles by Authors index for more on this series.