This Sunday is Respect Life Sunday, beginning Respect Life month. If you want to know what that really means, meet the Hudson family of Wauconda, Illinois, just outside Chicago.
The Hudsons are a huge Catholic family – and I do mean huge. Lena and Tom Hudson have eight children, with a ninth on the way. But this morning, I want to tell you about the seventh child, a little girl named Sarah.
When Sarah was born four years ago, she weighed only four pounds. She was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 Edwards Syndrome, a serious genetic disorder caused by the presence of an extra 18th chromosome. Some of you may know that Rick Santorum’s daughter has the same condition. It is like Down Syndrome, but with more severe effects. When Sarah was born, for example, her jaw didn’t have enough strength to nurse, and Lena had to pump breast milk around the clock and slowly give it to her with a special feeder.
Today, Sarah has the developmental abilities of a four-month-old, and will probably never develop beyond the level of a nine-month-old.
She can’t talk, can’t stand, can’t sit for long periods of time. She’s susceptible to sickness and requires constant attention. But she has already beaten the odds: doctors didn’t expect her to live past one year.
Her mother Lena was interviewed about how she raises a child like that – in addition to caring for the seven others in her household. Her husband Tom took over caring for Sarah when Lena gave birth to their eighth child. And all the kids have to pitch in and help out. “They have learned to be selfless,” she said. “Every day, they see someone who needs more care than they do.” Yet there is great joy in the family. Sarah loves to laugh, and everyone shares in that. “Sarah,” her mother says, “is our path to heaven.”
If you want to know what it means to “respect life,” look no further.
To respect life means to give it dignity, at every stage, in every circumstance—with all its beauty and challenges, its sacrifices and struggles, all its wonder and complexity.
In 1999, Pope John Paul spoke about what that means when it comes to children with special needs.
“To welcome the weakest,” he said, “helping them on their journey, is a sign of civilization. These persons belong in every way to the category of the poor who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.”
The gospel reminds us this Sunday that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who accept it as a child—in other words, it belongs to the most trusting, the most open, the most vulnerable among us.
It belongs to children like Sarah Hudson.
But on this Respect Life Sunday, we cannot overlook the ways in which our culture does not respect life—and, in fact, dismisses it or even discards it.
It happens at abortion mills, like the one down the road on Austin Street.
It happens in nursing homes, where the old and the frail are ignored or warehoused or so often treated as burdens.
It happens in schools, where children are taunted or bullied.
It happens in laboratories, where embryos are treated like commodities to be harvested, instead of lives to be nurtured.
It happens anywhere in the world where men and women are tortured or denied the most fundamental of human rights, including the right to pray.
It happens in societies where death is considered just one more freely exercised choice.
We’re seeing it in our own backyard. Just two weeks ago, a New Jersey state legislator introduced a bill to permit what he called “Death with Dignity,” allowing the terminally ill to take their own lives. This is nothing less than state-sanctioned suicide—and one more step on a slippery slope.
In short: we fail to respect life anytime we treat the gift of life—God’s first and greatest gift—as a problem, or an inconvenience, or a hardship, or junk.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We are Easter people—people of the resurrection, people of life.
Three weeks ago, Pope Benedict made a historic trip to Lebanon, and delivered an apostolic exhortation to the Church of the Middle East. It’s a remarkable document. I encourage you to read it. It’s on the Vatican website, Vatican.va. In just 100 paragraphs, the Holy Father lays out his vision for that troubled corner of the world—but he speaks, too, of so many vital issues of our time. And that includes our mandate that we reaffirm this morning: to respect life. And the Holy Father reminds us: it all begins with the ultimate affirmation of life, the Incarnation, when God became man.
“It is because of Jesus,” the Pope wrote, “that Christians are sensitive to the dignity of the human person. God wants life, not death.”
Shouldn’t we want what God wants?
In the days ahead, let us seek out opportunities to honor the priceless gift we have been given. Listen to those who are ignored. Remember those who are forgotten. Stand up for those who are victims of hate, or violence, or disrespect. Pray for those who will be aborted, or euthanized. And remember families like Sarah Hudson’s, who are living examples of what Pope Benedict said:
God wants life, not death.
And recall the reading today from Genesis. When we look into the eyes of another, no matter what their circumstances, see what the first man saw when God brought a new life to him: here is another one like me. Here is a life that is unique, and blessed, created by the One who created us all.
If we think that way, we can’t help but discover this heart-stopping truth: every life bears the thumbprints of the Creator.
Every life, in fact, is a miracle.