Like his namesake, Pope Francis preaches with deeds. He uses powerful gestures and symbolic actions to communicate the Gospel in a visual age. When a little boy came on stage and embraced him, the Pope allowed him to remain there. In Brazil, he gathered a little boy into his arms and wept when the boy said he wanted to be a priest. Time and again, Pope Francis reaches out to children, reminding us of Jesus’s own words and actions, taking the little children into his arms to bless them and saying to his disciples, “Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them.”
Over the last week, we have seen the Pope’s continued emphasis on the preciousness of children and the sanctity of life. On Sunday’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, the Sistine Chapel was full for the traditional ceremony in which the Pope conducts infant baptisms. In a positive pro-life message, he told the parents not to worry if their babies were noisy: “The choir sings, but the most beautiful singing is children making noise!” In a natural and wholesome way, he also encouraged women to breastfeed their babies, because they were the most important ones there.
On Monday, in an address to Vatican diplomats, Pope Francis spoke out forcefully against the horror of abortion saying, “It is horrific even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day,” His comments were in the context of criticism of a “throwaway culture” where even human life is disposable. Not only in abortion, but in abuse, child soldiers and human trafficking children are used, abused and then thrown away.
Some Catholics have criticized Pope Francis for not speaking out more against abortion. This is shortsighted; abortion is a terrible crime, but as Pope Francis is teaching us, abortion is a symptom of a much deeper disease in our culture - a disease in which all human life is regarded as a disposable commodity. We throw people away if they do not give us pleasure or if they cost us too much money. Through pornography, low wages, prostitution, economic injustice, and slavery, we abuse people and use people for our own selfish ends, then discard them when they are no longer wanted. Abortion is merely a horrific symptom of our society’s greater horror.
Pope Francis holds children before our eyes so that we might see what we are really doing. His message is not simply a tirade against abortion, but a positive, abundant and powerful pro-life message. Catholics are called, like Christ, to love not just humanity, but every human being. Each soul is a precious eternal treasure created in the image of God. Every child, Pope Francis says, bears the face of Christ the Lord. When we see a beautiful baby, we see a beautiful human life. When we see a beautiful old person in the final stages of life, we see a beautiful human life. When we suffer with a disabled person, have compassion on the poor, and take pity on the sick, we are affirming human life and treasuring every moment of God’s amazing gift of life.
Catholics are opposed to abortion because we’re in favor of life. Catholics are also against war, terrorism, pornography, prostitution, human trafficking, the slavery of low wages, poverty, euthanasia, cruelty to the disabled, injustice to the elderly, and economic oppression - why? Because we are in love with life.
This love of life is symbolized most powerfully in our love of children. With an open heart, an open mind, and open arms, we say not only, “Let the little children come to me,” but “Let all of God’s children come to me.” The love of children is the love of human life, and there is a further lesson: as the Pope embraces children, he reminds us that Christ reaches out for each one of us with an invitation to love and an embrace of life.
To receive that love and life, we are required to become as innocent and free as a little child. God must be - as St. Thérèse teaches - “our Papa,” and we must become like little children, hearing the words of the Lord: “Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom.”
The Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Greenville, SC. His latest book, The Romance of Religion, will be published by Thomas Nelson in February.