If we were to ask “Which person in your lifetime became famous for spending his or her life in service to the poor?,” most people today would answer, “Mother Teresa”—and rightly so; the recently canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta was remarkable for her devoted service and willingness to care for the least of her brothers and sisters in the Name of Christ. If, fifty years ago, we had asked the same question, most people would have said “Albert Schweitzer.” He was a Protestant medical doctor, concert musician, theologian, and author; his approach to life, expressed in his book Philosophy of Civilization, rests on the concept of “reverence for life.” This wasn’t just an abstract theory for him; he put it into practice as a medical missionary. Dr. Schweitzer went to Africa and established a medical clinic in the nation of Gabon, then called French Equatorial Africa, where he lived most of his life before dying in 1965; he became internationally famous for his devoted service to desperately poor and suffering persons unable to care for themselves, and many volunteers came to help him. The American author Norman Cousins spent much time with him, assisting him at his little hospital; he later wrote, “Albert Schweitzer was . . . severe in his demands on the people who worked with him. Yet any demands he made on others were as nothing compared to the demands he made on himself. . . . History is willing to overlook almost anything—errors, paradoxes, personal weaknesses or faults—if only a man will give of himself to others” (Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Ultimate Book, p. 512). As you and I know, in today’s media-driven world, it’s very easy to become famous, but celebrity doesn’t necessarily equate with authenticity. People respect those whose words are backed up with deeds—and if this is true for sinful human beings like us, it’s infinitely more so with God. The Lord looks into our hearts, and only those who genuinely try to put their faith into practice can be sure of pleasing Him.
When the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, He responded by mentioning the idea of service. Faith is not merely an intellectual experience; it must be made practical and down-to-earth. Those who serve their brothers and sisters will come to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of God, though this is usually a gradual process—something we in our impatience often have trouble accepting. Through the prophet Habakkuk (1:2-3; 2:2-4), the Lord reassures us that His promises will be fulfilled, even if they seem to be a long time in coming. We are capable of persevering and going about our daily duties in the meantime, for as St. Paul writes in Second Timothy (1:6-8, 13-14), “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” As long as our hearts are open to God’s grace, we are capable of carrying our cross each day, even in difficult or challenging times. Moreover, if we do so in a spirit of humility—acknowledging that “we are unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:5-10) who have merely “done what we were obliged to do,” the Lord will be pleased with us; He will help us persevere in living out our faith in this world, and greatly reward us in the next.
The relationship between words and deeds always becomes especially timely and important in an election year. Politicians make lots of promises; they pretend to mean what they’re saying, and voters pretend to believe them. It’s considered rare and noteworthy when elected candidates actually keep their promises and remain true to their principles when in office—and, most of the time, those unusual persons earn our respect, even if we disagree with them politically. We have an unusual situation this election year in that both candidates for president are distrusted by a majority of their fellow citizens; it’s very easy to find instances in which their words are not matched by their deeds, and it’s hard to picture either of them uniting our nation and helping our society turn back to God. Many Americans are understandably worried, confused, and frightened, especially those of us who are old enough to remember election years when it was possible to respect both presidential candidates, even if we didn’t agree with their positions.
When talking about hypocrisy, we can easily point the finger at political candidates—but as the saying goes, when we point a finger at someone else, three of our own fingers are pointed back at ourselves. This truth is especially relevant on Respect Life Sunday, which is being observed today. We are confronted by the question “Do we truly live in a pro-life manner, or are our fine-sounding words contradicted by our deeds?” We may be verbally opposed to abortion and euthanasia—but if we are unkind and uncaring toward the people around us, we’re not really putting our faith into practice. We may say we’re proud to be Catholic, but if we’re not active in the Church through our presence, our contributions, and our service, we haven’t placed God at the center of our lives. We may believe we’re pleasing to God, but if we’re nursing any grudges or harboring unforgive-ness toward others, we’re not listening to the voice of His Holy Spirit. We may consider ourselves good persons—but if we’re not responding with compassion to the suffering of people around us, we’re not fooling God, even if we are deluding ourselves. We may claim to be followers of Jesus, but if we vote for pro-abortion candidates, we’re not living as His disciples or demonstrating a desire to be part of His Kingdom.
The late Fr. Paul Marx, founder of the pro-life organization Human Life International, used to say that if God has indeed numbered the very hairs of our heads, He certainly keeps track of every vote we cast for a pro-life, or a pro-abortion, candidate. As Catholics, we will be judged not only on our beliefs, but especially on our actions—including those we perform on election day. How terrible it would be to stand before the judgment seat of God and have to explain why we ignored the teachings of the Church and voted for pro-abortion candidates; or why we engaged in hateful thoughts, words or actions; or why we went along with the values and priorities of this world, even as we called ourselves Christians. On that day no excuses, rationalizations, or self-deceptions will be possible; every act of malice, selfishness, and hypocrisy will be exposed. In contrast, how happy we will be if it’s shown that our daily actions were consistent with our religious beliefs, that our treatment of others truly was rooted in our love for God, and that our efforts to live as followers of Jesus bore fruit in every area of our lives, including in the voting booth. Like Dr. Albert Schweitzer, we must base our lives on the theme of “reverence for life”—for only in this way can we be part of God’s Kingdom.
To quote our Archbishop in his monthly letter to parishioners, “…rarely does one candidate or party embody all that is morally good or all that is morally evil with respect to a situation, and to quote from “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”, “not all issues are equal, addressing matters of different moral weight and urgency. Some involve intrinsically evil acts, which can never be approved. Others involve affirmative obligations to seek the common good.” For these reasons, the bishops of the U.S. try to provide principled guidance for conscience formation as Catholics to make political choices for the common good of the country and to participate in the political process. Along with a formed conscience we must also act with prudence so as to discern our true good in every circumstance and choose the right means of achieving it. Let us pray for divine assistance and for the gift of prudence so as to make the better choice in November.