The Gospel: A matter of life and death

By Rev. Seamus Griesbach

(Father Griesbach delivered this homily at St. John’s Church in Bangor, Maine on Respect Life Sunday, October 5, 2008.)

I have been working on a homily for this Sunday, Respect Life Sunday, all week. And I wrote and wrote. After countless pages, I began to be overwhelmed by the task at hand, and it became clear to me that it’s just not possible to adequately address this subject in a homily.

First of all, this area of the Church’s teaching is very delicate because so many of us are affected by what John Paul II called a culture of death. Some of us have suffered the effects of abortion; some of us persist in using birth control or have undergone sterilization procedures. Some of us have watched loved ones suffer and prematurely recommended that they be put out of their misery. To speak flippantly about such matters would be foolish.

To make matters worse, many of the areas the Church’s teaching on life issues have become almost entirely politicized. Slogan slogging has become the norm. In taking a stance on a life issue during an election year, many could quickly jump to the conclusion that I am siding with one particular party or another. Politics quickly colors a discussion that should be about the truth of human life and human dignity, not about who is up in the polls.

And so I admit that it is tempting to flee into the celestial heights of religious hyperbole and give you some vague words about loving one another. But I cannot. As much as I cannot do justice to the Gospel of life placed before me, I must try.

The bitter fruits of rebellion

The readings [Isa.5: 1-7; Ps. 80: 9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20; Phil. 4:6-9; Matt.21:33-43] before us talk about what happens when a vineyard is taken over by forces opposed to God, when a culture refuses to serve the Author and Master of life, and tries to make itself its own master: Death. A society that is not grounded in a sovereign respect for God as the Author and Judge of all life dies.

John Paul II recognized that we live in a society that is faltering, that is losing its grounding. He writes,

 We are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life.” We find ourselves not only “faced with” but necessarily “in the midst of” this conflict: we are all involved and we all share in it, with the inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. (Evangelium Vitae [1995], section 28)

We are all aware, I think, that we live in decisive times. Everyone keeps saying it. We all know that something is not right. We look at the climate; we look at the war; we look at the economy; we look at the state of the family, the state of education and the drastic rise in mental illness. Something is not right. We know it.

But isn’t there the sense, deep down, that these problems are all symptoms of something larger? The truth is that we are dealing with a profound crisis of faith in the West. And because we no longer understand God, we no longer understand who we are. And that has led us to live in a way that is increasingly deadly.

The reality of our situation is stark: Until this culture comes to terms with its lack of faith, we will find no peace, no solace, no comfort and, ultimately, no life. Until we begin to believe once more that it is not in experts, not in big government, not in big corporations and not in our own private speculations that the answers to life’s biggest questions are found, but only here—in the Church of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer—we will flounder.

Wisdom and love

We seem to have forgotten that the Church exists for our salvation and for the salvation of the whole world. She does not exist to be a crutch, to make us feel better, to be nice or to appease us. She exists to save us, because without the saving mission of Christ in our midst, we will die. That is our faith.

Perhaps it seems to some that the Church’s teachings are in place to manipulate, to berate or to demean us. Far from it! Her teachings guide us along the way to salvation. They come from her wisdom and love for us, her dear children. You and I can try to pick and choose which things we might like to believe or not believe, which things appeal to us or don’t appeal to us. But we don’t do that with medical decisions; we don’t do that with investment decisions; we don’t even do that when we are trying to figure out what the weather will be like tomorrow. So why are we so willing to place our own judgment above that of the Church, who we know has been guided by the Holy Spirit so strongly that she has stood firm in her teaching for over 2,000 years? In life and death matters, we trust experts. Why don’t we trust the Church?

Pro-life from the inside out

The Church’s teaching on life is not simplistic or one-dimensional. Nor is it abstract. Rather, the Church teaches us a comprehensive way of life that will allow us to flourish as God’s children. And we shouldn’t be misguided; there is more to being pro-life than bumper stickers and posters.
The Church tells us, if you want to be truly pro-life, serve the lives of those around you. Turn off the television and the internet, and spend time with your children. Spend time serving your spouses. Show the members of your families how important their lives are to you.

And reach out to your neighbors, to those here at church and those who live in our community. Support young couples and families. Support those who have lost spouses and those who are living alone. Reach out to broken families, to teens who are in trouble. Go and meet them, and spend time with them. Let them know that you are open to the life that dwells within them, that you are a true servant of life.

There are all kinds of important legislative measures and political actions that must be undertaken in the defense of life. But let us not be misled. If we do not give ourselves over to the service of the life that God has placed right in front of us, we will have absolutely no credibility in the public square. We must be pro-life from the inside out. And that means that each day we must start by asking the Lord, “Lord, where do you want me to serve the life that you place before me today?” Because you never know who the Lord may put in front of you.

Thirty years ago, doctors told my mother that I was going to be born badly deformed: deaf, blind, mentally disabled. They recommended an abortion. I am glad that her mother convinced her to trust the Church, despite the fears and anxieties of her life at that time. Perhaps you can see why, for me, the Church’s insistence on proclaiming the Gospel of life is a matter of life and death.


Rev. Seamus Griesbach is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine. He was ordained in 2007 and currently serves as a parochial vicar for the parishes of St. Gabriel, St. Mary, St. Matthew, St. John, St. Joseph and St. Teresa, in the greater Bangor area.  This article was published in the March–April 2009 issue of Celebrate Life, American Life League’s bimonthly publication.