CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 7, 2004 ( John Paul II considers it urgent to reflect on the roots of the "culture of death" that is leading sectors of public opinion to justify crimes against life.

The Pope expressed this in a message sent to Father Joseph Tobin, superior general of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists, on the occasion of the "Year of St. Gerard."

The year is dedicated to Gerard Majella, described by the Holy Father as one of the "most illustrious sons" of the Redemptorists. The centenary of Majella's canonization will be commemorated on Dec. 11; his feast day is Oct. 16.

"St. Gerard Majella paid special attention to unborn life and pregnant mothers, especially those going through physical and spiritual difficulties," the Pope said when sketching the testimony of the Italian saint (1726-1755), a disciple of the Redemptorists' founder, St. Alphonsus Liguori.

"For this reason, also today he is invoked as special protector of pregnant women," the Pope said in his message to the Redemptorists, published today by the Vatican. "This typical characteristic of his charity constitutes for you and for the faithful an encouragement to always love, and defend, and serve human life."

"The threats that continue to arise against life are well known, especially against unborn life," the papal message continued.

"I must call for reflection especially on the worrying spread of a 'culture of death' which leads large sectors of public opinion to justify some crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual liberty and, with this assumption, pretends its legitimization by the state," the Pope wrote.

John Paul II hopes that the Year of St. Gerard will "contribute to an even more determined effort by Christians to counteract this culture of death and to offer concrete and eloquent gestures in the service of the culture of life."

The Holy Father attested to the "diffusion of the weakening of the sense of sin and, therefore, of the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation in contemporary society."

This fact, the Pope added, addresses the Church and in particular the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, "which finds in the proclamation of Christ's redemption one of its fundamental elements."

Like St. Gerard, the Redemptorists must present to the world of today "the mystery of the Cross, mystery that brings into the light the tragedy of sin and, at the same time, proclaims the liberating and healing force of divine mercy," the Holy Father said.

Founded in 1732, the Redemptorists are missionaries who work in more than 70 nations. They have more than 5,500 religious, including 4,185 priests.