Your life in God’s hands

Archbishop Aquila

Recently, Pope Francis met with a contingent of people who suffer from Huntington’s Disease, a rare genetic illness that causes movement, cognitive and psychiatric disorders. “For Jesus,” he told them, “disease is never an obstacle to encountering people, but rather, the contrary. He taught us that the human person is always precious, always endowed with a dignity that nothing and no one can erase, not even disease.”

I was struck by this because those who are tempted to use Colorado’s new physician-assisted suicide law cite their loss of dignity as a reason for doing so. They feel like their life no longer has value, that they are a burden, or that their suffering is too great. Priests throughout the archdiocese have also been thinking about people in these circumstances since the new law passed. They have come to me and asked, “How can I respond to someone who asks for the sacraments but has requested assisted suicide?” They recognize the seriousness of the matter for salvation of the souls involved.

These kinds of questions led the four bishops of Colorado to discuss how to respond in a way that encourages an encounter with Christ and offers true mercy, rather than the illusion of false mercy that assisted suicide presents. Our discussions resulted in a set of recently published guidelines for priests called, “Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit,” which this column briefly summarizes.

At the heart of these guidelines is the importance of true compassion and mercy, which always sees the dignity of the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and points them toward the good. When people describe someone or an action as “compassionate,” what they usually have in mind is pity – feeling sorry for the person who is suffering. But real compassion is deeper than that: when someone has compassion, they share in another person’s suffering as if it is their own and they are willing to suffer with the person. Likewise, mercy is not just removing suffering, it always desires the true good for someone and is willing to remove any obstacles to that good.

Assisted suicide, on the other hand, is a false mercy. While it may end suffering, it simultaneously introduces a barrier to a person’s salvation, which is the greatest good possible. With assisted suicide and the official request process it involves, one encounters an action that contradicts the foundational gratitude we should have for life as a gift from God and a rejection of the way Christ taught us to live and die.

On this last point, the way that Pope St. John Paul II died comes to mind. Although he was suffering, he loved his life until the end and did not reject it or end it prematurely. His final words captured his pursuit of the greatest good: “Let me go to the house of the Father.”

As my brother bishops and I thought about assisted suicide and the way it treats human life as disposable, we sought to guide priests toward a response that is compassionate, merciful, and rooted in the dignity of the human person on their journey to the Father.

For that reason, “Into Your Hands” emphasizes the need for priests to accompany people grappling with terminal illnesses, urging them to make personal sacrifices for those they encounter who have decided to commit assisted suicide. At the same time, the guidelines also say that unless a person is repentant and willing to carry out a penance, then priests cannot grant absolution for requesting assisted suicide. In a similar way, those who have not received absolution for requesting assisted suicide cannot receive the Last Rites or Viaticum, since they remain in a state of sin. Every Catholic needs to understand the gravity of assisted suicide and how it violates the 5th Commandment – “Thou shall not kill.”

The state’s acceptance of this law creates a culture that treats certain people’s lives as disposable and involves various sectors of society in facilitating their deaths. Because of the risk that people might believe the Church is supportive of assisted suicide, the bishops of Colorado have decided to allow burial but not funeral Masses for those who die by assisted suicide. The Church in her faithfulness to Jesus Christ and his teachings, can never give the impression of supporting sin and that which is opposed to the culture of life.

The Church desires to respond to those facing terminal illnesses with compassion that is grounded in the truth and points them toward the good. To that end, the archdiocese has compiled a list of Catholic hospice and palliative care facilities, which will be distributed to all parishes over the Memorial Day weekend. Those who have questions about this important issue can also visit www.archden.org/life for additional resources.

Let us follow the example of St. Mother Teresa who spoke to the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast about the importance of loving people when it hurts. She said, “How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? And so, it is very important for us to realize that love, to be true, has to hurt. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is not true love in me and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.”

COMING UP: FAQs on Assisted Suicide and the Sacraments

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Beginning in 2017, it is legal for Colorado doctors to write a suicide prescription for a consenting person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness with six months or less to live.

As disciples of Our Lord, we know that suicide is a rejection of life, which is a gift from God. It also contradicts our natural inclination to self-preservation, and it contradicts the way Jesus Christ accepted death.

As we encounter loved ones in our families, parishes and communities who are considering Physician-Assisted Suicide, here are some guidelines developed by the bishops of Colorado on how to address this critical end-of-life issue in the context of our Catholic faith.

Q: What should I do if I know someone planning to use Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS)?

A: This person has decided to end his life and has convinced himself that he should reject God’s timeline for it. It is important to approach him compassionately, seeking to accompany him in his difficulties through listening, offering practical help with daily activities and directing him toward spiritual, medical and mental health resources. At the appropriate time, encouragement to reject PAS and embrace God’s plan for their life should also be given.

Q: How should I approach someone who is encouraging a relative to use PAS?

A: Seek to first understand why this person is encouraging PAS. Most often, people encouraging PAS are guided by a sense of false compassion and do not understand that it is spiritually damaging, undermines society’s perception of the value of life, and involves sectors of society in taking life (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, coroners, etc.). After striving to understand the person and explain the Catholic beliefs about life, suffering and eternity, try to encourage him to confess his sin and remedy the damage he has done.

Q: Can a person who has requested PAS receive Anointing of the Sick?

A: No. The Anointing of the Sick is aimed at strengthening the sick person in their trust of God, but PAS contradicts this radical surrender and entrusting of the sick person to God. Until a person has satisfactorily confessed the sin of intending to commit PAS, they cannot receive the Anointing of the Sick.

Q: Can someone who has taken the PAS drugs receive the sacraments?

A: On average, a person who takes the fatal overdose used in PAS falls into a medical coma within 5 minutes. In the unlikely scenario that a priest arrives at the bedside of a person in this window and she is repentant, then the priest can hear her Confession and administer the Last Rites.

Q: If someone discloses that they intend to use PAS in Confession what can be done?

A: If a penitent is not contrite and insists on killing himself, then the priest must delay granting him absolution until a later time. Meanwhile, the priest should accompany the person planning to use PAS, striving to convince him of God’s mercy, offering him practical help, and engaging in fasting, prayer and offering sacrifices for them.

Q: Can people who have died by PAS have a Funeral Mass?

A: Due to the significant risk of a Funeral Mass leading people to think the Church accepts PAS, the bishops of Colorado have decided to only allow Christian Burial for those who have committed PAS. Funeral Masses, Liturgies of the Word and paraliturgies are not permitted. Some days after the burial, loved ones are encouraged to have Masses said for the repose of the soul of the deceased.

End-of-life Resources

Counseling
The organizations listed below offer counseling for those struggling with the issues raised by terminal illness, such as a loss of autonomy, a perceived decrease in the quality of life, coping with grief and loss, and the impact of illness on family members.
• Regina Caeli Clinical Services is a ministry of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver and has multiple locations. For more info visit www.ccdenver.org/reginacaeli or call 720-377-1359.
• St. Raphael Counseling is a Catholic apostolate with offices in Denver, Littleton and Louisville. For more info visit www.straphaelcounseling.com or call 720-675-7796.

Catholic Hospice and Palliative Care
The medical facilities and services listed below are provided in accordance with Catholic teaching.
• Porter Hospice & St. Anthony Hospice serve the Denver Metro area. For more info visit www.centurahealthathome.org/CHH/Home or call 303-561-5100 for hospice care. To learn about Centura’s in-home palliative care services, call 303-561-5193.
• Collier Hospice Center in Wheat Ridge, Good Samaritan Medical Center and St. Joseph’s Hospital all provide hospice and palliative care. For more info visit www.sclhealth.org/services/hospice or call 303-425-8000.