Defending Life at Its End

The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde at the monthly Respect Life Mass on May 5 at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

Every time we gather for our monthly Respect Life Mass, we are united with Our Blessed Lord and through Him with each other in fervent prayer, seeking the strength to be faithful heralds of the Gospel of Life. The focus at each Mass is fundamentally on life; however, each time we gather, we reflect more specifically on some particular aspect of the inestimable gift of life.

This morning, we pray for the grace to be faithful and persevering in our defense of life at its end. After all, to be for life means to uphold the dignity of life and to protect life from its very beginning at conception all the way to its end of natural death. That is why we insistently point out the intrinsic evil of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, "Not all moral issues have the same weight as abortion and euthanasia. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion, even among Catholics, about waging war on applying the death penalty, but not, however, with regard to abortion and euthanasia." This morning, then, our focus is on upholding life at its natural end, therefore, eliminating any attack on life at its end. Such attacks are called euthanasia, mercy-killing and physician-assisted suicide.

As we reflect on the evil of euthanasia, mercy-killing and physician-assisted suicide, we realize the many in society do not see these attacks on life as evil. In fact, they have been seduced into believing that taking away life at this point is an act of mercy. Indeed, note the language often used: "mercy-killing," in order to persuade us that taking another's life is really a merciful act in the face of terminal illness, unremitting pain or devastating suffering. Obviously, this motivation is a false kindness, but many in society are persuaded by this mistaken and erroneous approach.

We need then to be clear and compassionate in our response to this misleading and false thinking. First, God alone has the ultimate power over life. Life is His gift to us; we are in His hands and so ours is not the right to decide when life begins or ends. As Job said, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Secondly, in the face of illness and suffering, we need to seek competent and moral medical assistance. Operations and various forms of treatment are legitimate ways for us to be cured or at least assisted. When suffering is severe, doctors can and should prescribe medications that remove or reduce the pain. Using palliative drugs is not the same as using drugs whose direct intent is to end life. Dr. Gregory Hamilton, chairman of Physicians for Compassionate Care, put it quite clearly in an article in the Oregonian: "Comfort care results in a comfortable patient; assisted suicide results in a corpse."

Thirdly, while suffering in itself is not a good, by joining our suffering and pain to the suffering and death of Jesus, we make it become an instrument for good. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II stated: "Living to the Lord also means recognizing that suffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good. It becomes such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing, by God's gracious gift and one's own personal and free choice, in the suffering of Christ Crucified. In this way, the person who lives his suffering in the Lord grows more fully conformed to him (cf. Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 2:21) and more closely associated with his redemptive work on behalf of the Church and humanity. This was the experience of St. Paul, which every person who suffers is called to relive: 'I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church' (Col 1:24)" (Evangelium Vitae, No. 67).

We must understand ourselves and help others to understand how uniting our suffering and pain with Jesus enables us to share with Him, in a way that we cannot fully comprehend, in His Redemptive work. Elizabeth Leseur, a holy woman, who was sick all her life with hepatitis and diagnosed with cancer three years before she died in 1914, understood so well how to transform suffering into an instrument for good. She once wrote to a woman who was facing blindness, "The Stoics said, 'Suffering is nothing.' They were wrong. Illuminated by a clear light we Christians say, 'Suffering is everything!' It demands, it obtains, everything. Through it God consents to accomplish everything. Suffering helps Christ to save the world and souls. It is through suffering that I ask to be allowed to serve as an intermediary between God and souls. It is the perfect form of prayer, the only infallible form of action. Through the cross to Light."

Yes, we must reach out to alleviate the pain and sufferings of those who are ill. In today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see St. Peter curing the paralyzed Aeneas and bringing back to life the dead woman Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas.

However, there comes a time when a cure is no longer possible, when the last chapter of our life is being written. Then, we must assist with palliative medicines, spiritual aids and compassionate care. Then, we must hold out the redemptive aspect of pain joined to Christ. Then, we must all the more look to Jesus, despite the horror of human pain and suffering, and once more affirm: "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."

The answer to suffering and pain as human life ebbs is not euthanasia, mercy-killing or physician-assisted suicide. The answer is Jesus Christ, Who joins us ever more closely to His sufferings and enfolds us with His mercy &#0151 a mercy which saves, not kills. We say "No" to euthanasia, or whatever it might be called and say "Yes" to life, united with Christ's life! As we prayed earlier, "May we not succumb to the influence of evil, but remain true to your gift of life."

Bishop Paul S. Loverde


Bp. Paul S. Loverde is the bishop of the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia.

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