There’s an older woman at church that I’ve long admired. Quiet and prayerful, she is always in tune to what others need. Approaching her after Mass when I was stumped on a topic for this column, I asked what she thought and was surprised by both her answer and the tears in her eyes. “Write,” she said, “about the dignity of each person. I would like everyone to know that my daughter has value.” Her youngest child has Down syndrome and is an irreplaceable part of their family.
When she spoke of each person’s dignity, I thought immediately of the women’s homeless shelter. It can be easy to talk about homelessness in general, but it was a different story when I started learning names and realized how I identified with several of the woman there: the girl studying at Oregon State University who didn’t have a couch to stay on that week; and the woman who clearly struggled with mental illness, but who was trying so hard to care for her two young kids.
I thought also of the years I helped at a hospice in Argentina that was specifically for cancer patients from the slums outside of Buenos Aires. To many, these people dying on the streets had little value. But each one had a face and a story: Maria, who colored thousands of pictures of butterflies before she died; Rocky, who screamed and threw pills at the nurses; Jose, who liked to dance the samba with me while his sheets were changed; and Miriam, a brusque woman, who as she died cried out in surprise, “I see heaven!”
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When I think of dignity, I also think of how much I admire my sister’s courage to put her life plans on hold to raise her unexpected son. And how this smart, creative kid has changed our whole family for the better.
This understanding of the dignity of each human person is at the very core of what it means to be Catholic. You cannot understand the Catholic faith without understanding the immense value we see in each person: in each woman both living and unborn, in the elderly, the disabled, the very poorest, the marginalized.
Some might wonder why the Catholic faith has so many rules, if love is at the heart of what we believe? Why can’t we just let people “be people”? The answer actually stems in part from this same belief. The more we allow for moral relativism (where there’s no larger answer to what is right and wrong, but each person decides only for themselves), the more likely it is that some people’s choices will take advantage of the most vulnerable, since they cannot defend themselves. Although we do believe that actions and intentions have a right and wrong, this never undermines the dignity of the person doing them. Each person, no matter what they choose or decide, is valued and respected; each person has dignity. Period. We are not here to condemn anyone. Only God knows hearts, for he created them.
A few years back, I traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina on a pilgrimage. There I attended a late-night adoration service in a packed open square. Near me were children, a mechanic in a greased shirt, and a woman with diamonds; a man leaning on a motorcycle, an old woman with an oxygen tank and a homeless woman clutching a faded doll. Every person was praying: some singing, some quiet, some standing or kneeling. Each one facing God before us in adoration. I do believe this is what heaven will look like.
Gabrielle Merritt is a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Corvallis. She loves spending time with her husband and two daughters, Avila and Rose.