July 22, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Children are love’s greatest gift to us

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Pope Francis is famous for his colorful expressions frequently delivered “off the cuff” in interviews with reporters on an airplane.

One of my favorites is the pope’s statement that pastors—especially bishops—should take on “the smell of the sheep.” By this, he means that we should not be aloof or antiseptic, but should enter into the concrete realities lived by our people, “the flock” entrusted to our care by the Lord himself.

Another of the pope’s vivid expressions is that married couples do not have to “breed like rabbits,” but can—and should—be responsible in their openness to new life. Here the pope is counteracting the false notion that all Catholics are required to have large families because the Church opposes all forms of birth control.

Pope Francis affirms the value of large families. “Large families are a joy for the Church,” he writes. “They are an expression of the fruitfulness of love.” But Pope Francis also acknowledges, as “Saint John Paul II rightly explained that responsible parenthood does not mean unlimited procreation or lack of awareness of what is involved in rearing children, but rather the empowerment of couples to use their inviolable liberty wisely and responsibly, taking into account social and demographic realities, as well as their own situation and legitimate desires” (“The Joy of Love,” #167).

Above all, married couples are challenged to use their “inviolable liberty” as wise and responsible guardians of the great gift that has been given them—the privilege of participating in the generation of new life! (#167)

Pope Francis is very direct in his condemnation of the abuse of children, who are loved by God “even before they arrive.” Far too many children “are rejected, abandoned and robbed of their childhood and future.” This is totally unacceptable, a complete and total contradiction of God’s plan. “There are those who dare to say, as if to justify themselves, that it was a mistake to bring these children into the world. This is shameful! How can we issue solemn declarations on human rights and the rights of children, if we then punish children for the errors of adults?” (#166).

Nothing excuses the abuse of children whether they are still in the womb, or have been born into the world. No child is a mistake. No child is unwanted. Pope Francis states unequivocally, that “each child has a place in God’s heart from all eternity; once he or she is conceived, the Creator’s eternal dream comes true. Let us pause to think of the great value of that embryo from the moment of conception” (#168).

Children are a gift. Each one is unique and unrepeatable. God “awaits the birth of each child, accepts that child unconditionally, and welcomes him or her freely” (#170).

What an amazing, countercultural point of view! This perspective is the result of understanding married love as essentially life-giving. True love fills us to the point of overflowing. It cannot be contained, but must result in abundant generosity.

“So it matters little whether this new life is convenient for you, whether it has features that please you, or whether it fits into your plans and aspirations,” Pope Francis writes. “We love our children because they are children, not because they are beautiful, or look or think as we do, or embody our dreams. We love them because they are children. A child is a child” (#170).

Once conceived, every child has the right to be loved and to be reared in a loving home. “Every child has a right to receive love from a mother and a father; both are necessary for a child’s integral and harmonious development” (#172). Far too many children today feel orphaned, “rejected, abandoned and robbed of their childhood and future.” There is no excuse for this, and every one of us is responsible for defending the rights of children here in central and southern Indiana and throughout the world!

In my next column, I will reflect on what Pope Francis has to say about the unique role that parents—especially mothers—play in providing care and nurture for their children. “Mothers are the strongest antidote to the spread of self-centered individualism,” the pope says. “A society without mothers would be dehumanized, for mothers are always, even in the worst of times, witnesses to tenderness, dedication and moral strength” (#174).

Children are love’s greatest gift, the fruit of generous self-giving. May we always treasure them for the invaluable gift that they are. May we learn to cherish and protect them always! †

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