Pope John Paul’s 12-day visit to Canada, Sept. 9-20, was his pontificate’s longest trip to any one country.  Human rights, including the right to life, were the dominant message in the Pope’s many addresses.

A Canadian Press (CP) writer, commenting on one of the Pope’s addresses, noted that the Pontiff used “human rights as a central theme in speeches in which he also decried abortion and euthanasia” (Ottawa Citizen, Sept. 11).  This referred to John Paul’s visit to the handicapped at the Francois-Charron Centre in Quebec City, where “the Pope reiterated his condemnation, of abortion and mercy-killing of the elderly.”  The report added, “it was the caring gestures he gave to the 700 physically-disabled people present that set the mood for the event” (Globe and Mail, Sept. 11).  After expressing his admiration for staff and patients alike, the Pope went on to say:

I see in all this a sign of the value that your people attach to the dignity of the handicapped, in spite of the fascination the modern world feels for productivity profit, efficiency, speed and records of physical strength…

I would like now to say once again clearly and forcefully: the handicapped person is a human subject in the full sense with all the innate sacred and inviolable rights that that entails…

We must facilitate his or her participation in all facets of social life and at all possible levels…

…In practice, this presupposes the absolute respect for the human life of the handicapped person from his or her conception through every stage of development…

…You seem to be well looked after her and encouraged to rediscover a taste for life.  I cannot help but think…of all the other handicapped people in this country and in the world; of the mentally handicapped, of the gravely ill, of those who have injuries so serious that there is no human hope for improvement but who have the right to the same respect for life; of the handicapped who are defenseless, of children waiting to be born and of the elderly on whose behalf I would like to say: We have the right to birth, we have the right to life…(Toronto Star, Sept. 11).


The Telegraph Journal of Saint John, N.B. carried this motif as a front-page headline: “Abortion, Euthanasia Decried” (Sept. 11.).

The same day, Sept. 11, the Pope moved on to Montreal where he received just as tumultuous a welcome as in Quebec City.  He began the morning with a visit to St. Joseph’s Oratory where he addressed a church full of priests and seminarians.  The Montreal Gazette (Sept. 12) reported that “four priests from the diocese of Longueil-St-Jean had written saying they would not attend the event to protest the Pope’s tough stand on abortion, ordination of women, celibate priests and divorce.”  Four did not come; 3,000 did.

Abortion: “…unspeakable crime against life”

Later that day, 200 people participated in a march chanting slogans denouncing the Papal tour.  CP reported that “the marchers protested the Roman Catholic Church’ stand on abortion, homosexuals and liberation theology.”  Others, it went on to say, paraded because, as feminists, they condemned the Church’s “outdated teachings.”  Said organizer Serge Morin: “We’re here to protest all the conservative and reactionary teachings of the Pope and the Catholic Church.” (Telegraph-Journal Sept. 12).  Naturally these 200 did not go to hear the Pope at Jarry Park, but 300,000 people (La Presse estimate) or 350,000 (The Gazette and Globe estimates) did.  That same evening, John Paul encouraged 60,000 enthusiastic young people gathered at the Olympic Stadium to avoid the lures of drugs and premarital sex and to put themselves without reserve into “the service of justice, of peace, of freedom and of love in the light of Christ.”

Open to new life

In Newfoundland the Pope spoke on the dignity of labour, and the needs for a just economic policy and Christian schools.  He also praised the traditional values of family life and of natural family planning.  At the Mass in St. John’s his sermon was a thanksgiving for Christian families.  He thanked God for all those couples who generously endeavour to follow God’s plan for human love as expressed in the church’s teachings”…and whose marriage is always open to new life; and for all those who help educate couples in natural family planning.” (Halifax Chronicle Herald, Sept. 13; The London Free Press, Sept. 13; St. John’s The Evening Telegram, Sept. 13).

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, The Pope called on hundreds of lay ministers at St. Mary’s Basilica to reject materialism and consumerism and to proclaim their respect for life, an unambiguous reference, said the Globe and Mail reporter, “to the Roman Catholic Church’s uncompromising stand against abortion”(Sept.14).  “You are called”, said the Pope also, “to exemplify purity of life and, if you are married, to be living signs of conjugal fidelity and of the indissolubility of marriage, just as Christ preached them.”(Halifax Chronicle Herald, Sept. 15).

In his homily at the open air mass in Moncton, John Paul urged the worshippers to live simply, to share and to be more open to less fortunate countries.  He urged respect for persons and respect for human rights, “according to the charters already well known including the right to life from moments of conception…” (Globe & Mail, Sept. 14).

Human rights and solidarity were mentioned once again at the Polish rally in Toronto.  In this city, the Pope also called for growth in holiness when speaking first to priests at St. Michael’s Cathedral, then to other religious leaders at an inter-faith group assembled at the Anglican Church of St. Paul.  Here John Paul also called for a new moral order, as he did again when addressing half a million at Downsview on science, technology and the industrial order (Toronto Star, Sept. 15).

By this time the Canadian Press had issued a series of articles reporting on the visit.  One analysis by Chris Morris in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record (Sept. 15) was headed: “Papal Visit is likely to intensify opposing views on Maritimers.”  Morris thought it likely that the Pope’s “lasting impact” might well be “to reinforce the divisions that exist over such controversial issues as abortion, birth control and ordination of women as priests.”  In support of this view he quoted Archbishop Donat Chaisson of Moncton who had said that he didn’t expect any extraordinary changes in the life of people or communities.  But, Morris went on, “Chaisson also said the visit would probably intensify, rather than diffuse, debate over controversial issues.  The Pope is a prophet, be argued, and when a prophet speaks on disputed questions, people toughen their stands.”  Morris noted that in Moncton, “the abortion issue has been a particularly sensitive issue ever since the city’s hospital suspended and then reinstated therapeutic abortions about two years ago.”  During the Monction Mass, he noted, “the Pope was applauded when he emphasized the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception.”  But it is unlikely, Morris surmised, that “his statement on that issue….won over any converts.”

Avoided taking a stand

Another observer, Kenneth Westhues (a professor of sociology and reputedly a long-time student of Catholic trends), quoted in an article by the religious editor in the same Kitchener-Waterloo paper, believed the Pope’s visit would have not lasting impact at all.  “Turning out for the Pope is like turning out for the Queen.  It’s a break from life,” he said.  In fact, he feared that the Pope was doing damage.  Westhues argued that John Paul’s view on birth control and women’s rights, such as abortion, exceedingly costly to the Church in Canada.  “If he is a good Pope he ought to be interested in preserving it (the Church) as a viable option in the modern world,” he said.  Dr. Westhues thought the only rational thing for the Pope to do was to acknowledge that different countries have different views of the issues and so save the Church from extinction and irrelevance.

The same reporter quoted another person who thought the time had come for the Pope and the Church to accommodate themselves to the plurality in the world on these issues.  The Rev. Fred Scinto, provincial superior of the priests and of the brothers of the Ontario-Kentucky province of the Congregation of the Resurrection, thought it clear from the surveys that “the Church is no longer monolithic; all Catholics don’t believe the same thing.”  He believed this to be one of the strengths of today’s Church, leading to a better distinction, he thought, between what is essential to the faith and what belongs to the periphery.  Rev. Scinto thought that such issues as bans on women’s ordination, birth control and abortion should no longer be part of the essential message of the Church.

Treating these three distinct issues as if they were equal in nature and weight, Rev. Scinto also expressed, a personal dislike for “what the Pope is saying about Liberation Theology.”  His objection was not, apparently because of what the Pope had said but “because too often I think the Gospel has been Westernized.”  Rev. Scinto’s explanation of the Pope’s popularity is that of image.  He does not stat the Pope’s teachings is correct and timely, he believes “the reason he is such an attractive leader is that he speaks out of conviction.”

The phrase was picked up by the newspaper’s editorial writer.  That day’s editorial was headed, “A man of conviction,” with explicit reference to Fr. Scinto’s interpretation.  “This pope knows how to address, and hold, an audience….”   it explained.  “It is a remarkable phenomenon that has superseded the substance of John Paul’s message…”  While it meant to be laudatory, no doubt, the editorial allowed the paper the same intellectual escape as that employed by Fr. Scinto.  Both items avoided taking a stand – either to accept the Pope’s teaching or to refute it by detailed reasoning.  Sincerity and conviction have been made the measure of truth; truth itself dies of neglect.

Outside Canada, many Americans as well followed the Pope’s daily journey via television.  One correspondent felt it necessary to state that all these messages were “uncomfortable for large numbers of North Americans – including Roman Catholics – for whom free market economics, sexual freedom and equality between men and women is the order for the day.” (New York Times, Sept. 15).

The Pope continued his journey across Canada speaking on natives’ rights in Midland, pleading for mutual respect among various cultures in Winnipeg, uttering a cry on behalf of the Third World in Edmonton and failing to meet with the Inuit and the Dene in Fort Simpson because of dense fog.

Crime of abortion

When he arrived in Vancouver, John Paul once again returned to human rights.  In a speech to the young, the old and the handicapped at BC Place, he made his most vigorous speech in defense of the family.  “Pope terms abortion ‘unspeakable crime’ against life,” was the front-page headline of the Globe & Mail.  The Toronto Star headed its report, “Stop ‘crime of abortion;’ Pope issues tough call.” (Sept. 19).  The Times Colonist of Victoria carried only one article on the BC visit that day, but it was headed “Abortion ‘incalculable danger.'”  Strangely enough, the Vancouver Sun made no mention of the address at all, despite the fact that its Wednesday issue covered every other aspect of the visit in no fewer than six and a half full pages.  However, in far-away Halifax, the headlines read “Abortion lashed by Pope” (Mail-Star, Sept. 19).

Abortion, said the Pope, “sets the stage for despising, negating and eliminating the life of adults and for attacking the life of society…”  If the weak are vulnerable from the time of conception, then they are vulnerable in old age and they are vulnerable before the might of an aggressor and the power of nuclear weapons.”  “Nevertheless”, he said, “there is a way for humanity to escape its own tyranny and avert the judgment of God.”  “That way”, he said, “is to proclaiming in practice the sacredness of human life.” (Globe Sept, 19.)

On Sept. 19, the Pope addressed civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries, including many politicians and foreign diplomats at Government House, Ottawa, before leaving for home.  He urged Canada to continue its efforts for world peace.  As a concluding note, the following extract (from the Globe & Mail, Sept, 20) presents a somewhat fuller appreciation of the care with which John Paul presents his teachings on peace.  Emphasis has been added to highlight those items concerning the protection of life from conception:

At the same time, we cannot close our eyes to the persistence of many unsolved problems…which still remain as a dark mark on the international scene and as an unavoidable challenge to the international community.  We cannot close our eyes, nor should we harden our hearts, in the face of the untold suffering and needs that afflict millions of our fellow human beings.  Today, society is not lacking in information and statistics about the ills of the world.  It is however, lacking in sensitivity when it does not allow certain facts to influence its action; the absence of agreements to reduce and eventually to halt the arms race; the investment of scientific talent and funds in weapons of mass destruction; limited wars that continue to kill people in countries note one’s own; disregard for the value and dignity of unborn life.  Experimentation on human embryos; the starving or undernourished children in countries affected by chronic drought or underdevelopment; the lack of basic health care; the massive flight to urban concentrations that cannot offer employment, education, or food; the loss of liberty, including the freedom to practices one’s religion…

New vision of humanity

I appeal to you today….to be bearers of a new vision of humanity; a vision that does not see society’s problems in terms of economic, technical or political equations alone, but in terms of living people, of human beings created in the image and likeness of God and called to eternal destiny; a vision that is built upon and therefore promotes true human values; a vision that inspires action and overcomes complacency, insensitivity and selfishness.

It is not, in a particular way, the mission of all those entrusted with public responsibility – on both the national and international levels – to promote this vision of humanity that is capable of marshalling the goodwill that lives in the heart of every citizen?…

Nobody will deny that today’s world is truly in need of a new vision of peace.  People are being killed in war-torn countries.  People live in fear of the ever present possibility that tensions and conflicts will be settled by the might of weapons and not by the force of reason.  People feel threatened by the very existence of powerful arsenals of destruction and by the absence of meaningful progress in disarmament negotiations.  People suffer from hunger, malnutrition and disease.  Many lack education and the possibility of living meaningful lives, while at the same time they see immense funds being engulfed in the arms race.  It is important to state again and again that war is made in the hearts and the minds of men and women of our times, and that true peace will come about only when the hearts and minds of all are converted to compassion, to justice and to love.

In the new vision of peace, there is no place for self-centeredness and antagonism.  We are all involved;  we all carry the responsibility for our own conversion to thoughts and actions of peace.  One person alone cannot change the world, but all of us together, strong in the conviction and determination that peace begins in our own hearts, will be to create a peaceful and peace-loving society.

Dignity basis of rights

The relationships between individuals and between peoples are at the core of the problems of society… The dignity of the human person is the basis of all human rights…It is in this light that human rights and liberties, and the corresponding duties and responsibilities have to be viewed.

Today, I wish to draw our attention in a particular way to what I consider to be extremely fundamental in the whole question of all human rights;  the right to religious freedom.  Religious liberty is a right that directly concerns what is essential in the human person and what fully manifests his ore her dignity; the relationship to God, the Creator and the ultimate destiny of every human being.  It is all the more reprehensible that various forms of denial of religious freedom and of discrimination against believers and the whole community of the Church still takes place, notwithstanding the existence of constitutional legislation and international instruments which guarantee the right to religious liberty.

Right to life

I wish at this time, in union with all men and women of goodwill, to proclaim again the right to life, and to make a renewed plea that the right to life of the unborn be respected.  We must abhor the fact that in not a few societies, abortion has become socially acceptable and is made readily available.  Abortion is being presented as the ready answer to many problems; the problems of unwanted pregnancy, the problems of the unmarried pregnant woman, the problems of a fast growing population, the problems of the poor.  Not only does society permit the destruction of unborn human beings, it often tries to justify that destruction.  When respect for human life is systematically denied or refused, the dignity of every human being and the sacredness of all human life is being attacked.