Written by Anna Krohn, National Bioethics Convenor
Sometimes it is the unwelcome passage of years, or the banal paraphernalia or the unbridled consumerism of children's birthday parties today which make us dread or despise birthdays and anniversaries.
In fact birthdays, and the real celebrations they betoken, are central both to the Christian year and to the ethos of life which Christians share with so many people of good will.
In the large and colourful imagination of the early 20th century Catholic writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton, birthdays are momentous symbols of a world view in which gratitude and wonder over each person's existence is essential. He writes: "in being glad about my Birthday, I am being glad about something which I myself did not bring about…". June 14th 2011 marked the 75th anniversary of his death, or perhaps better 'his birth' into eternity.
For Chesterton, birthdays are not merely trivial parties. Underneath them is a celebration of a survival, a marking of a new event that human life is something we receive from our past, from our parents and ultimately from our Creator.
For Chesterton, birthday haters and birth deniers share a closed and resentful outlook: "I say it is a narrow view of life, which leaves out the whole of that aspect of life, all receptivity, all gratitude, all inheritance and all worship."
In vastly different continents and vocations, Chesterton, the imaginative layman and journalist/writer, and Sr Dr Mary Glowrey JMJ, the indefatigable Australian nun physician whose cause for sainthood began late last year, shared their times and the faith in what we call today The Gospel of Life.
Both spoke out against the fatal choosiness of the eugenics movements of the 1910s and 20s, which of course spawned apocalyptic genocides in the decades which followed. Both Chesterton and Dr Glowrey denounced anti-life practices such euthanasia, infanticide and eugenic population control. But as stoutly they fought, Chesterton and Mary Glowrey were never 'single issue' warriors. They saw the quest in global and widely cultural terms.
Chesterton realized that alienation from land, just living conditions and just wages would contribute to a moral and social homelessness. Dr Mary Glowrey realized that the only way to show the real touch of God's love for each person was by making her life, medical and organizational genius that healing presence to the world's most needy patients.
Chesterton and Mary Glowrey never waged hatred but hope against their antagonists. They recognised that the fatal actions being proposed and sometimes performed were grounded in mistaken ideas, damaged imaginations and misdirected attitudes.
In this sense, both Gilbert and Mary were in the early vanguard of the great mission to which Blessed Pope John Paul II challenged the youth of the 8th World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 (on the Feast of the Assumption). It was a mission to preach, live and show not one great Christian teaching but its entirety in what he called 'the Gospel of Life'.
Blessed John Paul II did not underestimate the cosmic scale of the task: "The outcome for the battle for life is already decided, even though the struggle goes on against great odds and with much suffering." Nor, the size of the mission field: "Vast sectors of society are confused about what is right and what is wrong, and are at the mercy of those with the power to "create" opinion and impose it on others."
The wide landscape that Blessed John Paul II described has not yet been healed: "The family is especially under attack. And the sacred character of human life denied. Naturally, the weakest members of society are the most at risk: the unborn children, the sick, the handicapped, the old, the poor and unemployed, the immigrant and refugee, the South of the world!"
The anti-life philosophies argue that there is not enough love for life to go round. The world is a life-boat on a random journey with rations doled out by fate or by the survival of the fittest.
Misguided by the promise of a God-free progress, shallow freedom or a false compassion, human beings become reduced to surfaces, functions and short lived experiences. The current search for new spiritualties and on-line intimacy and, the presence of extreme sub-cultures and addictions is evidence of an existential starvation in the midst of cultures in which "the criterion of personal dignity—which demands respect, generosity and service—is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality: others are considered not for what they 'are' but for what they have and produce."(Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae - The Gospel of Life)
The Gospel of Life is born, not merely by fine words or strategies, but with all the child-birth pangs described by St Paul. The perennial challenge of evil and human suffering, as the writing and life of Blessed John Paul testified, can only be answered by 'unleashing' God's merciful love (John Paul II,On the Meaning of Human Suffering).
The Pope writes with mystical insight that if suffering ones (even those suffering as result of sin) are embraced by Christ's love in us, rather than being eliminated, stepped over or condemned, new life can draw breath. On one level, our hearts become 'broken' and transformed. On a second level, we begin to find creative, generous and eminently practical ways to transform and even eliminate the suffering of others. Thirdly, this love transforms the world around us, transforming the fabric of the culture itself.
Blessed John Paul II knew very well, of course, that the birth of a child is not only an image which evokes the Gospel's message of life, but a precious, literal reality. In the opening lines of his Magna Carta for human life, his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II celebrates all the birthdays of every human person with The Birthday. This is the Birthday of the little child who is God-made-one-of-us, which "also reveals the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the birth of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfillment of joy at every child born into the world." (EV #1)