On the first day after he was elected pope, our new Holy Father traveled across the city of Rome to pray at the most important Roman Shrine of Our Lady, found in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. On the first day of the New Year 2014, Pope Francis again made an unannounced visit to this Marian Shrine. In the nine months of his papacy, he has made similar pilgrimages to pray to the Mother of God and ask her loving protection for the Church and the world.

It is not surprising, then, that a pope with such devotion to the Mother of God would have great love for children, including the unborn and their mothers. As I continue my series on Pope Francis’ game plan, as outlined in his recent apostolic exhortation titled “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium), I want to touch on this topic since he gives it such prominence.

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese's Catholics.
The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s Catholics.

Love human life at every stage

On numerous occasions, Pope Francis has mentioned his special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. In fact, on the very day that he was chosen as Time magazine’s Person of the Year, he issued a special message to all of us who live on the American Continent. He took the occasion to reaffirm the Church’s concern for the life and dignity of every person from conception until death. He said:

“Like Jesus, Mary is close to all her sons and daughters; as a concerned mother, she accompanies them on their way through life. She shares all the joys and hopes, the sorrows and troubles of God’s People, which is made up of men and women of every race and nation.

“Mary’s embrace showed what America — North and South — is called to be: a land where different peoples come together; a land prepared to accept human life at every stage, from the mother’s womb to old age; a land which welcomes immigrants, and the poor and the marginalized, in every age… That is the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it is also my message, the message of the Church. I ask all the people of the Americas to open wide their arms, like the Virgin, with love and tenderness.”

The joy of being a follower of Christ is linked to the joy of being a child of Mary. From her who is Jesus’ mother and our mother too, we learn to see every person as a child of God, as our brother or sister; from her we learn to love them as Jesus does.

Pope Francis’ Game Plan

Read more columns from this series by Bishop Olmsted.

A revolution of tenderness

From years of pastoral experience, Pope Francis has forged the deep conviction that love of Jesus must always involve love of the poor. This love is practical and deliberate; it recognizes the diverse faces of the poor, both its material and spiritual dimensions. Love is rooted, above all, in closeness to Christ. Thus, the Holy Father writes (#88), “The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”

Since his pontificate has already been filled with thousands of images of tender love for the poor, it should come as no surprise that Pope Francis expresses his pastoral concern for unborn children in his game plan Evangelii Gaudium. Thus it is that he writes (#213), “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.”

A revolution of tenderness is not a revolution without backbone or courage. On the contrary, the one who is called “Our Lady of Tenderness”, the Virgin Mary, is also a woman of fortitude who stood lovingly at the foot of the Cross, offering her maternal support to the end, when all but one of the twelve Apostles had fled in fear. Just as she tenderly but courageously stood by Jesus at the hour of His death, so the Church must stand up today for unborn children and their mothers whenever their lives are at stake.

Nothing is resolved by taking a life

The Holy Father knows well the various and even volatile reactions that the mere mention of abortion can ignite. Of course, this does not stop him from addressing the issue openly, but it does prompt him to do so in a way that invites a fair hearing. He writes (#214): “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question [of abortion]. … This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations’. It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

As a true father, Pope Francis exhorts his readers to do even more for women who face difficult pregnancies. Aware that most mothers who turn to abortion as a “solution” do so only because they feel that no other option is available, he goes on to say, “On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty, Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?”

As the bishop of Phoenix, I am deeply grateful to Pope Francis for his love of the poor and defenseless, including unborn children. I am also deeply grateful for all the many men and women in our diocese who are providing aid to mothers and their children in times of crisis. I am thinking of Maggie’s Place, 1st Way, Aid to Women Center, The Hope Mobile, Life Choices, 40 Days for Life, the constant, prayerful and welcoming presence of sidewalk counselors outside abortion centers, and others. Here, too, we must mention the post-abortion healing apostolates of Mantle of Hope, Project Rachel and Rachel’s Vineyard. Much more needs to be done but, thank God, much is already being done to live the Gospel of Life here and now.

Next time, I shall continue to look at Pope Francis’ game plan, Evangelii Gaudium, since it touches on many others issues of great import for the Church and the world today.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003. Since 1974, Bishop Thomas James Olmsted has been a member of the Jesus Caritas fraternity of priests, and thus has been deeply influenced by the witness and wisdom of Charles de Foucauld and by the prayers and encouragement of many brother priests. For 16 years, Bishop Olmsted lived in Rome, Italy, where he obtained a master’s dgree in theology, a doctorate in Canon Law, and worked more than nine years in the Secretariat of State of the Holy See. During the nine years of serving in the Holy See, he resided at the Pontifical North American College and assisted seminarians with spiritual direction. Having been reared on a family farm on the Kansas-Nebraska border, he attended a single-room grade school near Oketo, Kan., and a small rural high school in Summerfield, Kan. His first contact with Catholic schools came when he entered St. Thomas Seminary College in Denver, Colo., from which he graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

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