“The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God: The Story of Ruth Pakaluk–Convert, Mother, Pro-Life Activist”

Reviewed by Megan McCrum

“The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God” is a line from the Graham Greene novel, Brighton Rock. It speaks to the radicalness of God’s grace that man’s nearsightedness typically cannot fathom. Ruth Pakaluk, author of the collection of letters contained in this book, declared this line to be her favorite of all literature, saying “it is so true. Life is very, very strange, but…it seems clear that all works out for the best.”

Ruth Pakaluk was a young mother of six children and pro-life activist [president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, an affiliate of National Right to Life] who died of breast cancer in 1998. Edited by her husband, Michael Pakaluk, this selection of letters from Ruth’s lifetime of correspondence gives readers a glimpse of the powerful beauty of a seemingly ordinary life.

The letters illustrate the fulltime nature of Ruth’s work as a mother and active pro-lifer, and surely reflect the all-encompassing commitment of many pro-life activists. In one letter from 1986 the announcement of the arrival of baby number 3 is followed by, “I’m up to my eyebrows working for a referendum campaign [to restore the right to regulate state-revenue abortion funding to the state legislature]…I never though I’d be so involved in politics, but here I am visiting candidates, addressing meetings, and organizing wards and precincts.”

Topics in the letters range from light-hearted, such as sharing a winning apple-dumpling recipe, and the practical, correcting her teenage son for leaving dirty laundry in a heap on the floor, to political commentary and religious education. An interesting reference to her own evolution from a left-leaning Reagan skeptic to and single-issue pro-lifer encapsulates a broader trend; “the point is totally moot now, but I did vote for Reagan. I even urged others to do likewise and coordinated the distribution of roughly three thousand pamphlets aimed at persuading people to follow suit…The paramount reason doing this…is the abortion issue.”

Among the more serious letters is one written in 1996 to the USCCB’s [then NCCB] spokesperson, Helen Alvare. Ruth was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991. In the ’96 letter, Ruth describes her and her husband’s decision to live life with hope that her cancer would not recur, and to give birth to their sixth child in 1993. Ruth wrote, “I will most certainly die of breast cancer in the next few years…but, as I said before, there is no evidence to indicate that carrying Sophie [her sixth child] caused the recurrence of my cancer…I hope this information may help increase support for a ban on partial-birth abortions.”

Among the most powerful of the themes in the letters is the hope-filled way Ruth approached her death, in one letter saying, “I am not afraid to die. In many ways, I am sincerely looking forward to it. But there is still a lot of worthwhile stuff for me to do here, so either way, I am content that God has the best idea.”

Anne Fox, president of MCFL, first met Ruth in 1984 handing out flyers at a Catholic college that was honoring Sarah Weddington (the lawyer in Roe v. Wade). After reading the book Anne said

“In the midst of the fun of reading the letters, whether or not one knew Ruth, is the realization of her many gifts; she could see so clearly and follow the right direction she had chosen.  She had a great deal of energy and determination, even in the midst of illness, to work to educate people and to make things better.  The person you see in her letters is someone you would hope to be like.  In spite of her gifts and achievements, you do not feel that is impossible.”

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