St. John Paul II's "prophetic encyclical" on the value and inviolability of human life, "The Gospel of Life" ("Evangelium Vitae") provides "a clear challenge" to Catholics, said the chairman of the U.S. bishops' pro-life committee.
"With great openness and courage, we need to question how widespread is the culture of life today among individual Christians, families, groups and communities in our dioceses. With equal clarity and determination we must identify the steps we are called to take in order to serve life in all its truth," the pope said in his 1995 encyclical.
With these words, the pope "invites each of us to ask ourselves how we are assisting women in need who are pregnant or have young children," said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
"He challenges us to open our hearts even wider, and to improve our responses where needed, especially at the local level -- in short, to truly accompany each pregnant or parenting woman in need," the archbishop said in a March 23 statement, issued to mark the 25th anniversary of "The Gospel of Life."
The anniversary is March 25, which also is the feast of the Annunciation.
The encyclical, the 11th of St. John Paul's pontificate, forthrightly condemns abortion and euthanasia, the major attacks on human life at its beginning and end. It also contained what several observers at the time called the strongest expression ever of church teaching against capital punishment: It says the cases of justifiable use of it today are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent.''
March 25 also is the start of a yearlong nationwide effort the USCCB has launched to celebrate the anniversary of the encyclical "by assessing and expanding our help to mothers in need," Archbishop Naumann said.
The initiative is called "Walking With Moms in Need: A Year of Service," and the country's Catholic bishops are being asked to invite the parishes in their dioceses to participate in it.
The new program has its own website, www.walkingwithmoms.com, with "resources, outreach tools and models to assist parishes in this effort. Resources will be continue to be added to the site," according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.
The program, which will end March 25, 20201, was "enthusiastically embraced" by the bishops at their general assembly last November, the archbishop said. "I am very excited to see dioceses and parishes across the country making plans to join in the Year of Service in their own unique ways. It is capturing the imagination of our people."
"As Pope Francis reminds us, our parishes are called to be 'islands of mercy in the midst of a sea of indifference,'" he said.
Archbishop Naumann also addressed the current coronavirus pandemic gripping the United States and leading to the suspension of Catholic Masses and other liturgies as well as parish gatherings and programs.
He urged dioceses and parishes are encouraged to adjust their schedules for the Year of Service "according to what is pastorally and practically appropriate for everyone’s safety."
"In the meantime, we can still pray, wherever we are on March 25, that this Year of Service will help us increase our outreach, so that every pregnant and parenting mother in need may know she can turn to her local Catholic community for help and authentic friendship," Archbishop Naumann said.
Archbishop Naumann first announced the initiative on the National Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion through all nine months of pregnancy across the country.
"We pray that 'Walking With Moms in Need: A Year of Service' will help us reach every pregnant mother in need, that she may know she can turn to her local Catholic community for help and authentic friendship," Archbishop Naumann said that day.
In "recognizing that women in need can be most effectively reached at the local level," he explained, the year of service "invites parishes to assess, communicate, and expand resources to expectant mothers within their own communities."
The Year of Service is divided into five phases of parish action:
-- Phase 1: Announce the Year of Service and begin building a core team (March 2020).
-- Phase 2: Launch parish inventory process (May 2020).
-- Phase 3: Share inventory results and begin assessment and planning (September 2020).
-- Phase 4: Announcement and Commitment to Parish Response (January 2021).
-- Phase 5: Celebration and Implementation of Parish Plans (March 2021).
There are suggested steps for implementing each phase along with sample announcements, sample intercessions, homily helps and a prayer activity.
For example in Phase 1, the steps include appoint a parish leader; begin assembling a parish core team; establish a parish support network; pray for pregnant mothers in need as a parish community; and begin planning the parish's first core team meeting.