On Friday the universal Church and the worldwide pro-life and pro-family movement received two incredible gifts. First was the meeting of the heads of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths, which has been desired by faithful around the world for a millennium.
The second was their very strong Joint Declaration, which touched optimistically on many points of agreement, including clear support of the “inalienable right to life” and the natural family based on the lifetime, faithful, and life-giving union of one man and one woman. At a time of unprecedented worldwide attacks by the largest earthly powers on marriage and the family, as well as on the lives of the most vulnerable, such unity and clarity in sorely needed.
Also notable in the declaration was the strong condemnation of the slaughter of Christians and destruction of Christian culture by Islamic jihadists. All of these attacks on life and on the faithful exhibit an evil that runs through and underlies radical anti-life ideologies.
Francis and Kirill, with their defense of religious freedom in the face of radical secularism in the West, provide a solid basis for continuing conversations: “Today, the chains of militant atheism have been broken and in many places Christians can now freely confess their faith.” Indeed. Upon reading this, Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro, my colleague here at HLI headquarters added: “May the statement be prophetic and may the same happen in the West.”
Monsignor and I were talking about the Joint Declaration upon my return from a mission trip. He was moved especially by the sections on the defense of life and family, and the expressed desire that Europe recover its Christian roots, sharing the concerns of Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Monsignor has long been a student and writer on the history of Christianity. In the text he sees allusions to many of the trials that have befallen the Church, trials shared by East and West.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have gained a new perspective that allows me to appreciate how monumental this meeting and joint declaration really are. As Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill met, I was departing Minsk, Belarus following an eight-day pro-life and pro-family mission. We traveled over 2,000 kilometers presenting pro-life training sessions to seminarians, priests, and lay faithful – Catholic and Orthodox – in the cities of Minsk, Pinsk, Vitebsk, Mogilev, and Grondo. It was a great joy to witness the collaboration of Catholics and Orthodox working toward a common goal – the protection of every human life and dignity of the family.
My host, Vladislav Volokovich, director of Open Hearts Foundation and HLI’s affiliate in Belarus, was greatly encouraged by the participation of both faith communities during the eight-day mission. He acknowledged it to be a sign of hope and determination to make Belarus a nation that loves, defends, and protects life. In the cities and countryside we saw many pro-life billboards in public areas, including one with three nurses holding children with the message, “We beg you to please accept and protect your children.” Pro-Life Grondo even has their pro-life message on public transportation. I saw a bus painted light green and covered with pro-life messages. I believe this is the reason the political winds seem to be moving back toward greater respect for life and family. It really was something to behold.
Even at our grassroots level of work, we saw signs of hope among some who have grown skeptical of the intentions of those from the US and other secular nations. One of the Orthodox priests attending our event in Minsk on the final day humbled me when he said, “You have changed my mind about the U.S. and its people. Today you have shown me the face and heart of a Christian. Even though there are bad people in your country trying to force anti-life agendas upon other nations like Belarus, there are also good people like yourself trying to promote the good.”
What a humbling moment, when Our Lord opens hearts and minds.
The Orthodox and Catholic Churches in Belarus are very active. They are opening family centers and seeking other ways to support family life. We also were blessed to meet with four Catholic bishops, including the Archbishop of Minsk. We discussed ways of strengthening the Catholic Church’s outreach to families and how to support the growing pro-life and family movements throughout Belarus.
Vladislav thinks our visit and programs were encouraging for the seminarians, priests, and bishops. When religious leaders speak strongly and without equivocation, as Francis and Kirill did last week, the faithful are reminded of the uniqueness of the gift of Christianity and are emboldened to continue to fight for justice.
On behalf of all the pro-life and pro-family missionaries of Human Life International around the world, I express our deepest gratitude for this courageous and uplifting Joint Declaration from the Holy Father and Patriarch Kirill. May God continue to guide the leaders of the Church toward greater unity in truth and in love for Our Lord Jesus Christ and those who serve Him.