Four years ago, I was in the hospital, laboring to deliver our seventh child. My husband paced the floors, and a television tuned to Fox News blared from a corner of the room.
Terri Schiavo was dying. And the world was watching.
I watched, too. Between contractions, waves of nausea, and breathing exercises, I listened to lawmakers debate the legality of withholding food and water from a dependent human being simply because she hadn’t yet had the decency to die on her own.
But Terri Schiavo wasn’t the only person whose last days were chronicled on the cable news channels that early spring. Pope John Paul II was dying, too.
It seemed especially fitting that this man, who had spent a lifetime waging battle against the forces of what he called the "culture of death," should offer such a fearless, contrasting example of embracing suffering at the end of his life.
John Paul II was the only pope I ever knew. I was just six years old when white smoke wafted from the chimney in the Sistine Chapel and my mother stood before the television, mesmerized and clutching a dishtowel, as Karol Wojtyla was elected pope decades ago.
Though I paid little attention at the time, the famous opening lines of John Paul II’s inaugural sermon came to have more meaning for me as I grew older:
Be not afraid. Open wide the gates to Christ. Open up to his saving power the confines of the state, open up economic and political systems, the vast empires of culture, civilization and development. . . . Be not afraid!
It can be hard not to fear.
In the face of pervasive cultural forces that encourage us to avoid suffering at all costs and to rid ourselves of "burdensome" human beings in the womb, in hospital beds, or at the brink of death, it can be hard to feel brave.
As parents raising the next generation of Catholics in a world that often mocks our values and offers all manner of godlessness presented in seductive packages, it can be very hard not to fear.
And sometimes, just knowing that death and pain are real, and that none of us can control when they come for us or for our loved ones, is the most fearsome fact of all.
That day in the hospital, when my unborn son’s heartbeat slowed unexpectedly and became erratic, one nurse ran to the hall and shrieked for the doctor while two others threw me roughly onto my side and forced an oxygen mask onto my face. When my eyes met my pale-faced, stoic husband’s, fear pressed hard against my heart.
Hours later, when I held my healthy, pink-faced newborn son, traced my finger along the gentle curve of his dimpled elbows, and felt his sturdy legs kick hard against the swaddling, I thought of our beloved, dying pope. I recalled his abiding love for families and unfailing confidence in the next generation.
John Paul II once said, "As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live."
And that’s just what I fear.
We are the families in whom he had such confidence. Ours was the generation he predicted would bring about a "new springtime" in the Catholic Church.
But I am no pope. How can I raise up a new generation to wage war against a culture of death that devalues human life, perverts the priesthood, mocks marriage, and forgets its dependence on God?
John Paul II had no patience for such paralyzing fears. I think this is what he had in mind when he reminded us, "The future starts today, not tomorrow." I think he intended that we should establish a culture of life by forgetting our fears, "opening wide the doors to Christ," and letting Him take care of the more worrisome details.
And I am grateful for the reminder.
Today my son Raphael, born into this world just as John Paul II was leaving it, is a barrel-chested four-year-old boy with soul-searching, chocolate eyes. He spends his days in the springtime sun, collecting worms in buckets, hitting trees with sticks, and dreaming of baseball.
Yesterday he approached me with a hand-hewn wooden sword his older brother whittled for him from a tree branch.
"Can you attach this to my belt?"
As I worked the sword through his belt loops, Raphael wiped his sun-kissed face with a dirty hand and squinted toward the trees.
"Where can I find some bad guys to fight?" he wondered aloud.
I watched Raphael march boldly into our open field with his sword at his side.
If we raise up soldiers for Christ, if we place the future of our Church in such capable hands and hearts as these, we will have nothing to fear.