April 4, 2005
My dear friends of Priests for Life,
What a week we have just been through! United in faith and in the pro-life cause, we are grieving the murder of Terri Schiavo. Likewise, whether Roman Catholic or not, we are mourning the passing of one of the greatest voices for the right to life, Pope John Paul II.
This is one of those times when I'm especially grateful to all of you for your fellowship, and wanted to share a few reflections on what has happened in these days.
First of all, thank God we are at the height of the Easter Season! Last week was the “Octave of Easter,” that is, a special eight-day period which is all considered by the Church as “Easter Day,” the Day of the Resurrection! Death, in all its forms, has been conquered by Christ! We are called to rejoice in that victory and keep it uppermost in our minds as we battle the Culture of Death. Isn't it amazing that both Terri and Pope John Paul II died so close to each other, and within the Easter celebration! Is God speaking to us? He certainly is!
You may have seen on the news that I was at Terri Schiavo's bedside during the last 14 hours of her earthly life, right up until five minutes before her death. During that time with Terri, joined by her brother and sister, I expressed your care, concern, and prayers. I told Terri over and over that she had many friends around the country, many people who were praying for her and were on her side. I had also told her the same things during my visits to her in the months before her feeding tube was removed, and am convinced she understood.
Terri's brother, sister, and I read Scripture, prayed the rosary, and had times of silence during Terri's last hours. We held her hand and stroked her head. During all that time, there was always at least one police officer in the room, watching our every move, and several more immediately outside the door. During those hours, one of the things I did was to chant, in Latin, some of the most ancient hymns of the Church. One of the chants I used was the “Victimae Paschali Laudis,” which is the ancient proclamation of the resurrection of Christ. There, as I saw before my eyes the deadly work of the Culture of Death, I proclaimed the victory of life. “Life and death were locked in a wondrous struggle,” the hymn declares. “Life's Captain died, but now lives and reigns forevermore!”
As you may have also seen, those who killed Terri were quite angry that I said so. The night before she died, I said to the media that her estranged husband Michael, his attorney Mr. Felos, and Judge Greer were murderers. I also pointed out, that night and the next morning, that contrary to Felos' description, Terri's death was not at all peaceful and beautiful. It was, on the contrary, quite horrifying. She was dehydrating to death, and looked it. Her face had an expression of dread and sorrow. In my 16 years as a priest, I never saw anything like it before.
After I said these things, Mr. Felos and others in sympathy with him began attacking me in the press and before the cameras. Some news outlets began making a story out of their attacks and said I was “fanning the flames” of enmity and hatred.
Actually, there's a simple reason why they are so angry with me. They had hoped that they could present Terri's death as a merciful and gentle act. My words took the veil of euphemism away, calling this a killing, and giving eyewitness testimony to the fact that it was anything but gentle. Mr. Felos is a euthanasia advocate, and like all such advocates, he needs to manipulate the language, to sell death in an attractive package. Here he and his friends had a great opportunity to do so. But a priest, seeing their work close-up and then telling the world about it, just didn't fit into their plans.
One of the attacks they made was that a “spiritual person” like a priest should be speaking words of compassion and understanding, instead of venom. But compassion demands truth. A priest is also a prophet, and if he cannot cry out against evil, then he cannot bring about reconciliation. If there is going to be any healing between these families or in this nation, it must start with repentance on the part of those who murdered Terri and now try to cover it up with flowery language.
Another aspect of the Terri Schiavo tragedy is that many people misunderstand its cause and therefore its solution. They think the problem was that Terri did not leave any written instructions about whether she wanted to be kept alive. In order to avoid any such problem in their own lives, they are now told that they have to draw up a “living will.” This is both erroneous and dangerous.
Terri's case is not about the withdrawal of life-saving medical treatment, but rather about the killing of a healthy person whose life some regarded as worthless. Terri was not dying, was not on life support, and did not have any terminal illness. Because some thought she would not want to live with her disability, they insisted on introducing the cause of death, namely, dehydration.
So what good is a living will supposed to accomplish, aside from saying, “Please don't argue about killing me, just kill me?”
The danger in our culture is not that we will be over-treated, but rather that we will be under-treated. We already have the right to refuse medical treatment. What we run the risk of losing is the right to receive the most basic humane care like food and water in the event we have a disability.
Our culture also promotes the idea that as long as we say we want to die, we have the right to do so. But we have a basic obligation to preserve our own life. A person who leaves clear instructions that they don’t want to be fed is breaking the moral law by essentially requesting suicide.
If you want to make plans for your future health care, do not do so by trying to predict the future. The reason you cannot indicate today what medical treatments you do or don't want tomorrow is that you don't know what medical condition you will have tomorrow, nor what treatments will be available to give you the help you need. Living wills try to predict the future, and people can argue over the interpretation of a piece of paper just as much as they argue about what they claim someone said in private.
The better solution is to appoint a health care proxy, who is authorized to speak for you if you are in a condition in which you cannot speak for yourself. This should be a person who knows your beliefs and values, and with whom you discuss these matters in detail. In case you cannot speak for yourself, your proxy can ask all the necessary questions of your doctors and clergy, and make an assessment when all the details of your condition and medical needs are actually known. That's much safer than predicting the future. Appointing a health care proxy in a way that safeguards your right to life is easy. In fact, the National Right to Life Committee has designed a “Will to Live,” which can be found at Will to Live Project and which I recommend highly.
Today, my friends, I will fly back to Florida to be with Terri's mom, dad, and siblings and to preach at the funeral mass that will be held for her at 7pm this evening. I will again convey to them your best wishes, and if you want to relay a personal message to them, you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will pass it along personally.
Meanwhile, as we commend both Terri and the Pope to the Lord, and are reminded of the equal value of every life, no matter how prominent or obscure, healthy or sick. I will be writing more about the issues that have arisen in Terri's case, and about the teachings of Pope John Paul II on these matters. You'll be able to keep up on developments by checking in with us at www.priestsforlife.org. Meanwhile, be assured of my prayers.
Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
Fr. Pavone is the Founding Director of Priests for Life. You may contact Priests for Life at PO Box 141172, Staten Island, NY 10314; Tel: 888-PFL-3448 or 718-980-4400; Fax: 718-980-6515; Email: email@example.com; Website: www.priestsforlife.org.