Exhortation of St. John Paul II at his election as pope can guide Newman Center students and all Catholics
Recently, I paid an informal visit to our new St. John Paul II Newman Center, adjacent to the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus. I am proud this new apostolate is up and running. I encourage prospective students and their parents to arrange a visit. You will find it a very hope-filled place, as I always find when I visit.
I was grateful for a renewal of Christian hope in this gloomy election season. That virtue is reflected certainly in the staff and students at the Newman Center. It is also evident in the life and teaching of the center’s patron, St. John Paul II. There is a conscious effort to communicate his legacy in all that is offered to the students. In particular, a three-part motto taken from St. John Paul seems especially relevant these days. All who come to the Newman Center are encouraged to Be bold; Be faithful; Be not afraid.
When John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, he greeted the world with the exhortation: Be not afraid. His courage came from his relationship with Jesus Christ and from his conviction that Jesus is Lord. He had lived for decades under a Godless regime, first of the Nazis and then the Communists.
In both instances, cowardice and blind submission were demanded of citizens. Even though John Paul could not control the government directly, he found ways to exert a powerful influence on society, through his relationships, through his example of courage and through his ministry. The Holy Spirit used him as an instrument of change, to highlight the dignity of the human person, in large and small ways.
As we face challenging times in our country that extend beyond the coming election, I suggest we look to the example of St. John Paul II and ask his intercession. The lessons he learned and taught can give us encouragement and direction.
First, we should not be reluctant to be bold in sharing the light of the Gospel. When St. John Paul II visited St. Louis in 1999, he made a bold request of the governor of Missouri. A man who had been convicted of serious crimes was scheduled to be executed by the state within a few days. The pope asked the governor, not to pardon the criminal, rather, to commute his sentence to life without parole, sparing his life. The governor, not a Catholic, did as the pope requested. It was a bold move, and the governor was criticized by many.
In his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life), St. John Paul challenged us to be "unconditionally pro-life." He reminded us that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the same saintly pope instructed us that if non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from an aggressor, authority (the state) will limit itself to such means. This, the Catechism says, "is more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person." (2267)
It is time to take the bold action to retain the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska, and I encourage you to vote to do so. The arguments that say we will not be safe and that those convicted of serious crimes deserve to be executed are not convincing in the context of papal teaching. Instead we are invited to be unconditionally pro-life. It is a bold invitation and an opportunity to be bold in promoting the culture of life in Nebraska.
St. John Paul II also encourages us to be faithful. A disciple of Jesus should desire to be faithful in every aspect of life. This includes our participation in politics, both on Election Day and throughout the year. It is simply not possible for me to say that I am faithful to Jesus Christ while at the same time offering support to candidates or laws that protect or strengthen the so-called right to abortion. How can I claim to support the life and dignity of each human person if I am not strong in support of the right to life itself? It makes no sense to speak out for the welfare of women, children and families when the most vulnerable members of the human family can be killed at will.
The serious challenges to human life in our society cannot be solved by one election or by one vote. At the same time, we are called by Jesus to be faithful and to always use our influence – however small it may seem – for good. We ask for the intercession of St. John Paul II, to know how to act faithfully in challenging times.
Finally, we are urged to be not afraid. The truth is clear and comforting: Jesus Christ is Lord, on Election Day, on the day after the election and for all the days to come. It is no more challenging to live the Gospel boldly and faithfully now than when Jesus sent the first disciples out – and no less challenging. Pope Francis urges us to share the "joy" of the gospel, especially when our times seem gloomy.
Since New Testament times, governments have been more or less just. Men and women in power have been more or less honorable. Disciples of Jesus do not have the luxury of being cynical or indifferent. This is the time in which you and I are sent out by Jesus our Savior to announce the Kingdom of God and to give that announcement credibility by our lives. We trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to make us bold, faithful and fearless disciples of Jesus.