Even though I had it marked on my calendar, I still missed posting about the encyclical that I studied the most before I was received into the Church, before I sought instruction, before I took that fateful catechism class in the summer of 95. Before all of that I’d have to say it was this encyclical that moved my study from intellectual tourism to a heart-and-mind-engaged commitment to seeking and gaining admittance to the Catholic Church. (Notes and links will be at the end of this post.)
Which encyclical? Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, by Pope John Paul II, published on March 25, 1995, same day as the feast of the Annunciation, which is probably why I missed it. I got carried away tweeting and reading about the Annunciation and never got back to do this until now.
Many things played a part in this decision to seek to become Catholic. The Bible studies I’d heard and read from the likes of Scott Hahn, who probably influenced me more than any other contemporary apologist and Bible teacher, cerainly played a role, too, but I might have happily studied Hahn’s books for many a year before finally deciding to take the plunge and swim the Tiber. Well, that’s not quite true. Once I became convinced that what I was reading and understanding in the Bible was TRUE, I pretty much knew I was going to have to become Catholic.
Those were the words I actually said to myself as I read the Scriptures while listening to a Scott Hahn tape (yes, tape, I’m old, okay?) one day at my desk: “Oh, maaaan, I’m gonna have to be Catholic.” Very next words, spoken with a very different feeling: “Oh, man! I’m gonna be Catholic! Woohoo!” The change was that fast and profound and that much of a total turnaround.
Conversion can be exciting. Who knew?
But let me return now to Evangelium Vitae. I used to keep several different encyclicals and other Church documents in stock at the Catholic store where I worked. Some people came in to buy them, some people had never seen one before, some didn’t care. But I was fascinated by them, still am. After going so long searching for answers and not finding them, first as a Protestant, then new ager, then Buddhist, I was blown away to find such clear teaching, teaching that had the ring of truth about it. Ring? Did I say ring? Yeah, but not a doorbell or handbell kind of ring, but the ring of a bell bigger than a truck, a gargantuan ring, that kind of RING. I was amazed.
I remember going to get breakfast at MacDonald’s many mornings (don’t judge me), reading Evangelium Vitae in one of those little blue booklets from the Daughters of St. Paul, back when most of those booklets could be had for about $3.95 each. (I could have read it and put it back on the shelf, but I like to leave books in pristine shape for others, and own the books I read; and for ones like this, I want to make notes all over it and highlight passages.) And since I got a discount on it, I paid even less than four bucks for it.
(Ah, the good old days, how I miss those discounts. And going to other stores and being able to see and hold a book or tape before I bought it. I miss sitting in a bookstore with a hot cup of ridiculously over-priced coffee and getting back at them for it by staying ridiculously over-long, reading chapter after chapter of book after book, jotting down notes, looking for referenced works, too, never once imagining that I would one day have a tremendous digital library of my own consisting of many of the tomes I read about but never held in my hands—but I digress. All the time!)
“The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as ‘good news’ to the people of every age and culture.” (EV 1)
If you’ve never read the Gospel of Life, I highly recommend that you do. Every Christian should and especiallly every Catholic Christian. What the Gospel of Life teaches is not controversial and is not optional. If you’re a Catholic Christian and you have read it and still think it’s controversial, then I don’t know what you mean by Catholic, Christian or controversy.
I’ll share some quotes from the encyclical below.
“Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded.” (EV 2)
“The sacredness of life gives rise to its inviolability, written from the beginning in man’s heart, in his conscience. The question: “What have you done?” (Gen 4:10), which God addresses to Cain after he has killed his brother Abel, interprets the experience of every person: in the depths of his conscience, man is always reminded of the inviolability of life-his own life and that of others-as something which does not belong to him, because it is the property and gift of God the Creator and Father.”
“The commandment regarding the inviolability of human life reverberates at the heart of the “ten words” in the covenant of Sinai (cf. Ex 34:28). In the first place that commandment prohibits murder: “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13); “do not slay the innocent and righteous” (Ex 23:7). But, as is brought out in Israel’s later legislation, it also prohibits all personal injury inflicted on another (cf. Ex 21:12-27). Of course we must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person. It culminates in the positive commandment which obliges us to be responsible for our neighbour as for ourselves: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18).” (EV 40)
“You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:18, RSVCE
The Pope goes on to show that Jesus takes things much further in His New Covenant Law (delivered, by the way, Moses-like, on top of a mountain in the Sermon on the Mount). I recommend the entire section 40 and following through 47. I recommend the entire encyclical, but if you don’t read it all, then at least read that much. And if you still have time or have time later, then read Chapter III – You Shall Not Kill, beginning with EV 52.
“If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17): Gospel and commandment
And especially the part beginning with 58.
“”Your eyes beheld my unformed substance” (Ps 139:16): the unspeakable crime of abortion
“[T]oday, in many people’s consciences, the perception of its gravity has become progressively obscured. The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behaviour and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.”
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20).
Look at all that Scripture. Evangelium Vitae is shot through with it. Pope St. John Paul’s thinking in general is saturated with Scripture. All of his encyclicals and exhortations arise from his soaking in and meditating on and praying with Scripture. That’s one of the things I noticed right away when I began reading him, and it’s something I appreciate about him more and more as time goes on. I’m going to make a note right now to make a list of Scripture passages he quotes. Ah, another project. As if I don’t have a long enough list of great ideas for projects (that I haven’t even started yet and who knows if I ever will) as it is.
In closing, here is a Scripture quote from EV that has special meaning for me, after the past few years we’ve gone through, and what we’re going through now.
Oh, and what was it about reading Evangelium Vitae that pushed me over the edge and into the Church? This: realizing that I had been pro-life all along, long before realizing that there ever was such a thing, long before I ever heard the term “pro-life” and long before I ever considered returning to Christianity. Reading EV I realized that this was truly the truth I had been seeking, and that I had finally found the place that I could truly call
Thank you for visiting and reading. Until next time, whoever and wherever you are, please stay safe and well, and may the Lord bless and keep you and yours, and may His peace be always with you. +JMJ+
Notes and Links
- Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II, March 25, 1968, free web copy at the Vatican site.
- Get a copy at Amazon (Affiliate link).
- Get a copy at Abe Books.
- Browse the selection of encyclicals, homilies, exhortations of Pope St. John Paul II and others at Verbum. For use in Verbum software.
- See also: Just an encyclical? and Just an encyclical, oh, yeah?, both written while I was sponsoring a friend in RCIA. Oy, RCIA. Don’t get me started. Oy vey!
Images: Woman at the Well, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, Wikimedia, public domain. John Paul II quote, image by Cassie Pease Designs.
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