We went to a friend’s Church last weekend for a Baptism, and sat behind a family where a mother was sitting with her 4 boys, ranging from elementary school to high school. Next to them was a man in the aisle in a wheelchair, with a breathing mask on and his limbs strapped to the chair. I didn’t know what family the man belonged to until a beep on the chair sent the mother of the 4 boys rushing to the chair to take care of the matter. Then, at the Our Father, the youngest boy – maybe 5th grade?- reached over and grabbed the man’s hand. I then saw his ring, and knew he was the husband and father of this family.
We learned after Mass that he was suffering from ALS, otherwise known at Lou Gehrig’s disease. We were told that a year ago he was walking, and now he was losing his muscle function. It is a terrible way to die, but it was clear from that hour I spent sitting behind them how much this family cared for their husband and father, and were willing to give him the dignity he deserved until the end. I can imagine there is so much fruit for the husband as he walks the way of the Cross, and the family, as they learn to give of themselves and witness the way of suffering. Suffering is always difficult, but in our Catholic faith, we believe it’s a path to sanctity. There is meaning and purification in our suffering.
It reminded me of the time I visited my mentor and youth minister before she passed away from brain cancer. I was on break from college, and she was asleep in her hospice bed in her bedroom, with rosaries hung on her wall, prayer cards next to her bed, and praise and worship playing softly in the background. She loved the Lord and for her to journey towards Him in this way was so appropriate. It also gave us a chance to say goodbye, and for us to contemplate her journey of suffering. She was willing to offer it up, knowing that there was a reward beyond the cancer, an eternal reward with the greatest good waiting for her: union with God.
When we see suffering like this, we should think of Christ, and the agony he endured. He is our example for our own suffering. He wasn’t just sentenced to death, he walked with the way of the Cross with the heavy beams on his shoulders, endured the scourging, the nails, the crowns of thorns, and suffocating to death for three final hours on the cross. The beauty of that suffering and the reason there is a crucifix in every Catholic Church is that it reminds us there is a point to suffering – that there is Easter after Good Friday, and there is redemption after suffering.
This November, our state of Colorado and I suspect other states as well, will be voting on bills to pass assisted suicide. No matter what fancy terminology they use such as end of life options, or death with “dignity”, it is suicide. To take a life because it is inconvenient or expensive to suffer is what ultimately denies the dignity of the human person. We believe as Catholics that life is valuable because it.is.life. Not because it is a healthy or productive life. We’ve already started to abort babies with abnormalities. If we starting ending adult lives because of suffering, what’s next? Ending lives because they are old? Disabled? Expensive? Annoying? Only God knows when it’s our time because there is so much purification, or reconciling, or conversion that may need to happen before a person finally breathes their last. And as we can’t know or read hearts, we just don’t know when that is.
Fr. Fox, a Denver parish priest, wrote in the Denver Catholic paper:
“It is a truth that each of us will die. It is also true that death is not clinical and pretty. People age, people suffer, some face long-term battles with debilitating diseases. But death should never be a quick fix. Death should require the most compassionate and personal response from families and communities, especially communities of faith. . . We as a Church have a great and remarkable challenge to join in this most human act – accompanying those who are dying with love until their death.”
Suffering is purifying; it burns away our facades and selfishness and helps us to see the deeper truth of who we are. Instead of telling people through an assisted suicide bill that they are unwanted or a burden, let’s walk with them the way of the Cross, so we can help them to reconcile with God and prepare for the glory that waits beyond the grave.
“Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly.” 1 Peter 4:13
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” Romans 8:18