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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Respecting Life at All Its Stages


What Is the ‘Culture of Death'?
What Marriage Preparation Is Required?
Why the New Mysteries of Light?
How Are Deacons Trained?
Why Not Allow Research on Embryonic Stem Cells?

What Is the ‘Culture of Death'?

Q: I recently read that Pope John Paul II has warned against what he describes as the "culture of death." What does he mean by that expression? Isn't it a little extreme?

A: The pope has used this expression many times, especially in his 1995 encyclical Gospel of Life: On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life.

The term "culture of death" is related to the warning that Moses gave, in God's name, to the Hebrew people before they entered the Promised Land: "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land which the Lord swore he would give to your fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (Deuteronomy 30:19b-20).

The pope says that the culture of death "betrays a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong' against the weak who have no choice but to submit" (#19). He speaks of a deeply rooted struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death (#21, 28). The latter culture can create and consolidate "structures of sin" that go against life (#24).

The culture of death described by the pope denies any link between objective truth and freedom. There is only "my truth" as the basis for "my freedom."

"Life is indelibly marked by a truth of its own," writes the pope (#48). By accepting God's gift, people are "obliged to maintain life in this truth which is essential to it. To detach oneself from this truth is to condemn oneself to meaninglessness and unhappiness, and possibly to become a threat to the existence of others, since the barriers guaranteeing respect for life and the defense of life, in every circumstance, have been broken down" (#48).

A culture of death systematically denies that any rights are inalienable because they come from God, the creator of all life. In a culture of death, powerful people decide who has rights and  say, "It's no big deal," should anyone object to their description of rights.

In a culture of life, the weakest members have the same rights as the strongest members.

A condensed version of the pope's 1995 encyclical is available in Catholic Update's The Gospel of Life: An Abbreviated Version of Pope John Paul II's Pro-life Encyclical.

What Marriage Preparation Is Required?

Q: Are there any special conditions to satisfy before two people can marry in the Catholic Church? Any classes to take—or do you just contact a Catholic parish, meet state requirements, set a date and go for it?

A: A couple's decision to marry each other is probably the most important long-range decision that either of them will ever make. What each one presupposes about marriage will strongly influence how their marriage develops. A stable, loving marriage is the best context for bringing children into the world and raising them.

If all of that is true, wouldn't the Catholic Church be shirking its duty to help Catholics grow as disciples if it regarded marriage as a part of life not influenced by being a follower of Jesus Christ?

Every diocese in the United States offers a variety of marriage preparation programs from which the couple can choose: one-day programs, weekend programs, a series of meetings with a parish priest/deacon or a series of meetings with a married couple in that parish.

A couple usually meets with a parish priest before starting any program in order to begin their preparation, to establish that they are free to marry each other. A civil divorce from a previous marriage does not establish that freedom in the Catholic Church's eyes.

Only after an initial information-gathering meeting will a parish guarantee a date for the wedding. Most parishes request six months notice for weddings. There will be another meeting to work out the couple's choices among the options available for the nuptial Mass or wedding ceremony.

All of this is true regardless of whether both parties are Catholic, one is Catholic and the other baptized in another Christian Church, or one is Catholic and the other is not baptized.

Why the New Mysteries of Light?

Q: When I pray the rosary, can I pray the new "mysteries of light" or do I wait for more news from the Holy Father and the Holy See? If I pray them immediately, on what day do I say them? What will they add to my spiritual life?

A: On October 16, 2002, Pope John Paul II signed the apostolic letter "The Rosary of the Virgin Mary." After praising this form of prayer and recalling the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries, he suggested five "mysteries of light." They are: Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, his self-manifestation at the wedding of Cana, his proclamation of the Kingdom of God with his call to conversion, his transfiguration and his institution of the Eucharist.

The pope recommended that these mysteries of light be prayed on Thursdays and that the joyful mysteries be prayed on Monday and Saturday, the sorrowful ones on Tuesday and Friday and the glorious ones on Wednesday and Sunday.

The rosary links those praying it to Mary and leads them to Christ. The pope said, "The rosary does indeed ‘mark the rhythm of human life,' bringing it into harmony with the ‘rhythm' of God's own life." He recommended moments of silence as an aid to contemplation.

Any prayer that encourages us to be more generous disciples of Jesus is a good prayer indeed!

Read a condensed version of Pope John Paul II's letter on the new mysteries of the Rosary.

How Are Deacons Trained?

Q: What religious education must a deacon have? How long does it take to become a deacon? Why do some deacons wear black and a Roman collar? What are the basic duties of a deacon assisting in a parish?

A: The Catholic Church now speaks of permanent deacons (married or single men) and transitional deacons (men preparing for ordination to the priesthood).

Permanent deacons often have a three-year program of preparation, involving classes, retreats and internships. If a man is married, part of the program involves his wife because becoming a deacon will be a significant, new factor in their marriage. Before becoming a permanent or a transitional deacon, a single man makes a promise of celibacy.

Deacons wearing black suits and Roman collars are probably transitional deacons, who undergo a longer period of formal training in philosophy and theology as they prepare for priestly ordination.

A deacon is a minister of the Word, at the altar and of service. Ministry of the Word includes preaching, teaching or conducting retreats, for example. Ministry at the altar means assisting the priest during Mass, but it also includes conducting weddings, funerals and other prayer services. The ministry of service can be as varied as the needs for human compassion—homeless shelters, soup kitchens, St. Vincent de Paul work or visiting the sick, for example. Not every deacon may be heavily involved in all three types of diaconal ministry.

Most permanent deacons are married (over 90 percent) and have a full-time job or are retired. Few of the more than 13,000 deacons in the United States are employed full-time by a diocese or parish.

Why Not Allow Research on Embryonic Stem Cells?

Q: In doing a research project for my biology class, I found that some mothers were going to have abortions anyway. In that case, what's wrong with giving someone else a chance to live who might need embryonic stem cells? I agree that abortion is wrong, but why not use it for some good?

A: Your heart wants to do the right thing, but have you asked the most basic question: Are these embryos human life? They are. Compassion for the living cannot be at the expense of unborn human life.

The debate over doing research on embryonic stem cells concerns embryos created for the sole purpose of research, to "harvest" stem cells, or embryos "left over" after other embryos from the same genetic material have been implanted.

All life is sacred. It cannot be divided into "useful" or "not useful," "convenient" or "inconvenient."  True medical progress does not eliminate one human life for the sake of another.

For further information on this subject, visit this site's feature Cloning and Catholic Ethics.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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