This week American Catholics prayerfully entrust to God three annual commemorations: the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the annual March for Life. As a young seminarian I found myself deeply attracted to the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, whose efforts for the rehabilitation of people with addiction is heroic. (I am personally indebted to them in ways I cannot adequately say.) The order grew under the leadership of Fr. Paul of Graymoor, an Episcopalian convert to Catholicism, and Mother Lurana White, SA. Indeed, they inspired a worldwide movement, and a desire to attain what Christ prayed for at the Last Supper: Ut unum sint. (“That they may be one.”)
On January 20th, we commemorate the legacy of Dr. King, who based his principles of peace and social justice upon the foundation of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Applying their ideas to institutions that degrade or dehumanize whole sectors of the human family, he writes: “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God…An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
Finally, on Friday, January 24th, people of goodwill give voice to the voiceless in defense of all human life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. Wasn’t it John Donne who wrote: “Each man’s death diminishes me”? More tragic is the deliberate choice to end a human life, the imago dei (“the image of God”). Just as Dr. King tells us that “an unjust law is no law at all,” we pray that human law may come to acknowledge the dignity and value of every human being: that it is God alone who makes life worth living.
These events brought to mind the painting for this week’s cover art, the “Sistine Madonna” (c. 1513), by the Renaissance Master, Raphael Sanzio. It may be as famous for the two chubby cherubs at the bottom of the painting as for the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child they contemplate. Mother and Son are surrounded by Pope St. Sixtus II (thus Sistine) and St. Barbara, early Christian martyrs who sacrificed their lives in fidelity to Christ. Sixtus points outward; is he directing Our Lady’s attention to us, the faithful who gaze upon the holy scene, or to the cross that awaits Our Lord? My mother had an image of this painting in our house, and its effect, as I recall, was both comforting and saddening. Mary’s expression is somewhat apprehensive as she protectively holds the child in her arms. As for the defenseless, vulnerable Jesus, we behold a beautiful, albeit anxious face. St. Barbara, by contrast, looks downward in serenity, as if to reassure us that God makes all things work to the good. Even the angels look playfully to the heavenly realities that lie above them. This painting is known to have moved kings and potentates to tears.
Friends, the events of this week remind us that often we can only recognize great good as it contrasts with great evil. In light of threats to human life, dignity, and unity, let us pray—and work—as agents of God’s love in a world so desperately in need of his healing.