St. John Paul II published the encyclical "The Gospel of Life" in 1995, but the document was a collaborative effort: He had welcomed the input of all the world's bishops.

Representing the best of Catho-lic belief and practice when it comes to life issues, "The Gospel of Life" is rooted in Scripture and a 2,000-year tradition of defending life from conception until natural death.

Here is its simple yet profound opening: "The Gospel of Life is at the heart of Jesus' message. Lovingly received day after day by the Church, it is to be preached with dauntless fidelity as 'good news' to the people of every age and culture."

Later, the importance of the Gospel of Life is spelled out: "Today, this proclamation is especially pressing because of the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples, especially where life is weak and defenseless. New threats emerge on an alarmingly vast scale."

John Paul speaks of these new threats as the dramatic conflict between the "culture of life" and the "culture of death."

Why was he uniquely equipped to oppose the "culture of death?" As a young man in World War II-era Poland, Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II, struggled against Nazi repression. He entered the seminary in secrecy; if discovered, he could have been carted away, like so many of his friends and colleagues, to a concentration camp.

After the war, totalitarian communism replaced Nazi fascism, and the people of Poland were once again under foreign domination. Nevertheless, Father Wojtyla prospered spiritually. Eventually, as bishop of Krakow, he learned how to confront the communist regime in bold and creative ways, never backing down, especially in the area of religious liberty. It was for his courageous leadership and his emergence as a gifted theologian that he came to the attention of the rest of the Church, and was elected pope in 1978.

The pope identified the unique challenges of living out the Gospel of Life in our time: "Not only is the fact of the destruction of so many human lives still to be born or in their final stage extremely grave and disturbing, but no less grave and disturbing is the fact that conscience itself, darkened as it were by a widespread conditioning, is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil in what concerns the basic value of human life."

These "new threats to life" are not only evil in themselves, but also symptomatic of a new and pervasive spiritual sickness -- a "darkening of conscience."

Here's an example: When we're out on the street praying in front of Schenectady's Planned Parenthood site, we get all kinds of responses. We get some support from passing motorists and pedestrians. We also get opposition. People cry, "Get a job," or the ironic, "Get a life!" to which we could respond, "That's exactly what we're to trying to save here!"

Once, a car pulled up with a woman in it. She smiled at us. "I had my abortion here last year," she said, "and that baby was no match for the suction machine!" I prayed for her. When someone yells at us, the teaching of Jesus jumps to the forefront: "Bless those who curse you." We do as the Master taught. We offer countless prayers for those involved in the abortion industry - particularly the staff of Schen-ectady's Planned Parenthood.

Chapter one of "The Gospel of Life" concentrates on abortion and euthanasia. It assesses the horrific situation that the "culture of death" brings about, then focuses on hope: "It is from the blood of Christ that all draw the strength to commit themselves to promoting life....It is the foundation of the absolute certitude that, in God's plan, life will be victorious."

St. John Paul lists the works of charity and heroic efforts those in the Church and outside of it make to preserve life and nurture it in its weakest forms, concluding: "The Church is becoming more aware of the grace and responsibility which come to her from her Lord of proclaiming, celebrating and serving the Gospel of Life."

Chapter two speaks of the person of Jesus, "the Word of life." St. John Paul celebrates "God, the creator and lover of life."

Last year, a new friend joined us on the street. He brought a crucifix mounted on a pole that his pastor had given to him to use for our prayer vigil. As I looked at the image of Jesus nailed to the cross, I thought: "It is not by our strength or power that we can end abortion and euthanasia; it is not by our merits that we can save vulnerable lives. Rather, it is only by the power of Jesus - specifically, His cross - that we can have victory."

Chapter three of "The Gospel of Life" explores the fifth commandment: "Among all crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable...an unspeakable crime."

It says the perception of this gravity has become progressively obscured: "We need now more than ever to look truth in the eye and call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or the temptation of self-deception."

In other words, we should not tolerate linguistic distortions, like calling a baby "the product of conception" or dubbing abortion "the interruption of pregnancy."

In the closing chapter, St. John Paul calls us to have a contemplative outlook that "arises from a faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a wonder. It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility." He says that, "inspired by this contemplative outlook, the new people of the redeemed cannot but respond with songs of joy, praise, and thanksgiving for the priceless gift of life."

To sing and rejoice is a necessity for those of us committed to this struggle. Some of my favorite moments on the street have been lifting up my voice with others, singing praise to God.

Near the end of "The Gospel of Life," we come to the heart of the issue: "A great prayer for life is urgently needed, a prayer which will rise up throughout the world. Through special initiatives and in daily prayer, may an impassioned plea rise to God, the creator and lover of life, from every Christian community, from every group and association, from every family and from the heart of every believer. Jesus Himself has shown us by His own example that prayer and fasting are the first and most effective weapons against the forces of evil."

(Mr. Smith is a member of Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Schenectady and blogs at www.turntowardGod.com/blog.)