Pope St John Paul II revitalised the defence of human life as a fundamental Christian value in his writing of Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and, in doing so, coined the phrase “culture of life”. In Evangelium Vitae, he issued a pressing appeal addressed to all, in the name of God: “Respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness!” (EV 5)
A growing culture of death
Now more than ever the Church finds itself in a battle to defend the culture of life against a growing “culture of death”, which has arisen in part from a faulty understanding of human freedom. With easy accessibility today to contraception, abortion and, increasingly, euthanasia, these acts of ending human life are seen as human rights and freedoms, removing the decision on life from God’s hands and placing it in the ill-equipped hands of Man.
While this culture of death is perpetuated in part by atheism and agnosticism, the Irish referendum in May 2018 reveals a worrying descent among Catholics to the ban on abortion, with the vote overwhelmingly being cast against the pro-life argument.
While we acknowledge that the issues are complex and emotions run high, at the heart of God’s Covenant with Man is the indisputable commandment: “Thou shalt not kill”, which points to the respect and defence of all human life. Pope St John Paull II wrote: “The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end.” (EV 57)
Have courage to defend life
“In the proclamation of this gospel, we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity that might conform us to the world’s way of thinking.” (EV 82)
In proclaiming by word and deed the Gospel of Life, all Catholics have a role to play in enlightening consciences, solving social problems and supporting life. Evangelium Vitae calls all of us to work for human dignity for all human beings as part of our human responsibility. We must find solutions that respect life as a gift from the Creator, who breathed into man the divine breath, thus making the human person the image of God.
It’s time to open the conversation
While these are indisputable truths, it is clear that the Church needs to open a conversation on the issue of abortion in relation to Catholic teachings, especially with the younger generations of the faith. In this issue, we start this conversation by hearing from two couples who were offered abortion as a choice and chose to trust in God’s plan for them instead, by allowing their pregnancies to run their natural courses, recognising their inescapable responsibility of choosing to be open to life.
A mission fulfilled
John and Joan are the proud parents of four beautiful gifts from God – their children: Julian 12, Jeanne 9, Joseph 6, and Joachim 3. However, God also gifted them with three unsuccessful pregnancies. Although the losses were great, they strengthened the couple’s faith. They believe their first born, Joshua, in particular, carried a special message from God.
When John and Joan got married on New Year’s Day in 2005 they were full of joy and hope for a future trusted in God. They found out two months later that Joan was expecting their first child, and they were overjoyed.
“Every visit to the hospital was so exciting, seeing how fast our baby was growing,” Joan recalls. “We eagerly awaited the scheduled scan to find out if our baby was a boy or a girl, as we were so excited about giving our baby a name.”
The scan did not go as expected. The couple were informed that their baby boy had abnormalities in the brain, heart and intestines. They were referred immediately for a Fetal Anomaly Scan.
They knew abortion was not the solution
“Before the scan, we spent time reading up on whatever little information we could get just to prepare ourselves for the worst,” says John, “but there was no doubt at all that we would keep our baby regardless of the outcome.”
The second scan delivered even worse news. Their baby had three major problems: he had a cyst in the brain and his head was slightly flat at the back, he had two major holes in the heart, and his intestines were outside his body. The couple were further told there was a possibility of Edward’s Syndrome, where babies seldom live until birth or beyond the first month after birth.
This was devastating news for the newly weds. At first they refused an Amniocentesis, which is a medical procedure to determine the nature of the chromosomal disorder, as there was a risk of miscarriage. However, a Catholic doctor in the hospital advised the couple that the test would allow them to focus on the medical help they could provide for the baby after birth.
The Church was the first place they turned to for help
“Obviously this was all so much for us to take in,” says John. “So we went straight to Novena Church from the hospital to pray and seek advice from the priest. Thank God a priest was there to provide the support and guidance we were desperate for.”
They decided to do the test so that they would be able to make informed decisions on how to care for their son, once born. It was an agonising two weeks’ wait for the result.
To compound John and Joan’s despair, they were pressured by many of their family members and friends to abort the baby. Some even thought the couple were not considering seriously enough, the financial, physical and mental burdens of keeping the baby.
“We were extremely disappointed that we didn’t get the support we had hoped for,” says Joan. “But for us, we knew we would never have been able to cope with the guilt of killing our own child. We felt that was a decision only God could make.”
However, God was with the couple. Over the next few days of prayers, people around them changed their hearts about the abortion. They began to accept that every child is a blessing from God and every baby is beautiful just the way they are.
“The turnaround in support was really encouraging for us,” says John, “and we named our little baby Joshua, meaning, “God is Salvation”.
Finding strength through the Church
The results revealed that Joshua had Edward’s Syndrome. Joan recalls the moment she was told: “My mind went blank but I did not cry. The thought that came to my mind later was, ‘My baby is going to die … Why didn’t God give me a Down’s Syndrome child? … Why must he take him away?’’’
At the time of their deepest despair and questioning of God’s plan for them, they were encouraged by a friend to visit the Carmelite Sisters for prayers, and that’s where they met Sr. Francisca. Through her, they were again filled with a sense of hope and peace from her encouragement, and she has been their spiritual mentor ever since.
Buoyed by Sr Franscisca’s faith and guidance, the couple decided to treasure and enjoy every moment of Joshua’s life. They rejoiced in his every movement and kick.
“Joshua gave his last kick on my birthday,” recalls Joan. “We knew something was wrong so we went to the hospital, and the doctor told us Joshua’s heart was failing. All we could do was pray. But when we went back to the hospital four days later, our doctor was surprised that Joshua’s heart had somehow recovered, although he had stopped moving. Still, we were overwhelmed with joy.”
Unfortunately, a scheduled checkup three weeks later revealed that Joshua’s heart had finally stopped beating.
A faith tested but not broken
“We were shocked and heartbroken,” John explains. “We did not expect him to leave so soon, so quietly. He was born on 5 August 2005 after 17 hours of induced labour. And the next day, we held a beautiful funeral service for Joshua in Church.”
It was an extremely difficult time for the couple – to carry Joshua after he was delivered, but not see him move or cry like the other babies in the ward; to be discharged from the hospital without him; to collect his little body from the mortuary and watch him being laid into a casket instead of a cradle; and to finally say goodbye to him after his funeral.
“It was also especially difficult when we went home empty-handed and had to live through the period of maternity leave without Joshua,” says Joan. “However, we brought Joshua home in our hearts and hold precious the experience of loving him unconditionally.”
One little small heart linked many big hearts
Sr. Francisca’s words comforted the couple and guided them through their grief: The message that Joshua brings to this world is that pure love exists, we live out of love. We love through hearts. One little small heart has linked to many big hearts. My dear, the Lord gives, the Lord takes away. He is the creator. He has the right and He knows when is the best time for little Joshua to go back to Him as he has fulfilled the mission that God has entrusted him. He died in the love of Mom and Dad. I guess he was happy to slip away in silence because he loves you.
“Though we still cry today as we miss Joshua terribly,” says Joan, “there is a sense of peace and joy that Joshua is now with God because he completed his mission … that is to teach all of us what love is about.”
50 days with our son
When Patrick and Lillian turned up for their scheduled scan in Lillian’s fourth month of pregnancy with their first child, little did they expect the news that was to follow. The doctor told the newly expecting couple that the baby was not growing properly. The head was abnormally large, the brain stem was not growing and hydrocephalus was also suspected. In light of the bad news and the lack of brain development, the doctor recommended that the couple consider aborting the baby.
Abortion was never an option
However, for Patrick and Lillian, this option was out of the question right from the start.
The couple had support to help them deal with this new reality and adjust their expectations around parenthood. They went to a Professor in the National University Hospital, who while sadly confirming the initial diagnosis, was supportive of the couple’s decision to see the pregnancy through.
Their Church community gave invaluable support
“Our friends prayed with us,” says Patrick, “and this really helped us through. We had decided at that point to leave it all in God’s hands. We knew He had a plan for us. It wasn’t the plan we had wanted, but we trusted in God’s plan.”
“There were happy moments too. John Paul was very active in the womb. We could feel him moving and ‘see’ his movement,” shared Lillian.
Welcoming an angel on Earth
Their baby, who they named John Paul, was born on 21 April 1996, and they were told that nothing could be done for him but to take him home and wait for him to pass on. Not knowing how much time John Paul had, the couple baptised him that day.
The couple made the most of the time they had with him, treasuring every day beyond the two weeks they were told he would live. Lillian was grateful to their church community, who came to visit them every day to lend their support and to pray: “It was a difficult time, but kindness from people around brought hope. All these acts told us that God was journeying with us.”
Building a close bond in a short 50 days
“Although the doctors said he didn’t have a brain and couldn’t respond to stimulus around him, he did respond to me.” Patrick says. He felt a very close bonding with his son and made the most of the time he spent with him, holding him, feeding him and bathing him in the 50 days John Paul remained with them.
When he passed away on 10 June 1996, the couple knew that they wouldn’t have done anything differently if they had had the chance to do things again. His life was short but precious.
John Paul’s impact
“We believe we can’t interfere in God’s plan,” says Lillian. “God is faithful to us. We don’t know what plan He had for John Paul, but we take comfort that John Paul helped those who came to see him. He also helped to strengthen our marriage and our faith in God. I’m comforted that he is now with God.”
Patrick and Lillian went on to have two more children, John Paul’s younger siblings, Justin, who is now 20 and Joan, 17. John Paul would have been 22 years old today. The family continues to celebrate his life and take comfort in the fact that, as short as it was, his life made a difference.