A deadly ‘compassion’

Archbishop shares antidote to legislators' push for physician-assisted suicide in state


After two Colorado lawmakers announced plans to bring the physician-assisted suicide debate to the Capitol next year, Archbishop Samuel Aquila warned legalization would lead to a more self-centered, “throwaway” culture.

“When the weak and suffering are removed from a society, opportunities for loving, sacrificing and caring for those in need decrease and society becomes more self-centered,” the archbishop told a crowd at a Denver Catholic Medical Association meeting last week. “To use an analogy: our charitable muscles atrophy when suffering is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. A culture that shuns the sick and suffering becomes even more of a ‘throwaway culture’ that Pope Francis consistently warns us about.”

His comments came on the heels of local reports that Democratic Reps. Joann Ginal of Fort Collins and Lois Court of Denver are drafting a bill to pass physician-assisted suicide.

The legislators are working with Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society), the same group that publicized the story of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who suffered terminal brain cancer and ended her life Nov. 1 under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. Oregon is one of five states that permit physician-assisted suicide.

Pope Francis addressed the moral dilemmas at a meeting of Italian Catholic doctors this month.

He called assisted suicide a “false compassion” and urged doctors and faithful to act as Good Samaritans and care for the elderly, infirm and disabled with a respect for their dignity, even when against the current of modern society.

“In fact,” the pope stated, “in the light of faith and right reason, human life is always sacred and always ‘of quality.’ There is no human life that is more sacred than another—every human life is sacred.”

Locally, the Colorado Catholic Conference responded by saying it would fight efforts to pass a state bill.

“As Catholics, we believe that all life is precious, and God, as life’s author, has sovereignty over it,” said the conference’s executive director Jenny Kraska. “Even for people without religious faith, however, the logic behind physician-assisted suicide should be deeply troubling.”

Advocates of assisted suicide propose it’s a matter of personal choice, a way for the terminally ill to end their suffering in a way that does not impact others.

But Archbishop Aquila said, “We do not live in a moral and spiritual vacuum. Our actions have concrete consequences for ourselves and others.”

He called on faithful to show mercy and compassion when those with a terminal illness face the temptation to become the victim of their suffering.

The antidote, the archbishop said, is to show suffering has meaning.

“It is an act of mercy to help those who are suffering to know and experience that it has a purpose,” he said. “People need meaning. They need to hear that their suffering has meaning and truth, and has been redeemed by Christ and that it can give birth to their own eternal life.”

He added that St. John Paul II’s last months of life provide an example of persevering and enduring suffering.

The late pontiff addressed the topic himself in his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris.

“Suffering as it were contains a special call to the virtue which man must exercise on his own part. And this is the virtue of perseverance in bearing whatever disturbs and causes harm,” the pope wrote. “In doing this, the individual unleashes hope, which maintains in him the conviction that suffering will not get the better of him, that it will not deprive him of his dignity as a human being, a dignity linked to awareness of the meaning of life.”

Archbishop Aquila also encouraged faithful to bring the truth back into the public debate and unleash love in society.

“This unleashing of love within our families, medical practices, churches and society is the antidote to physician-assisted suicide,” the archbishop said. “Physician-assisted suicide will become more accepted in our culture to the degree that society becomes more closed off to selfless acts of love and more focused on self-centered living. It seems to me that we are standing at a crossroads.”

COMING UP: Mother Mary: Modeling joy even in suffering

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Where would we be without our mothers? We wouldn’t be! Father Gregory Cleveland, OMV, shares a beautiful quote from Cardinal Mindszenty on the importance of motherhood: “The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body. . . . Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature: God joins force with mothers in performing this act of creation (Beholding Beauty, Pauline Books & Media, 2020, 106).  

The same principle applies in the spiritual life. Mary cooperated with God in such a unique way that without her we simply wouldn’t be the spiritual sons and daughters of the Father that he wants us to be. The Creator came into the world through her, enabling all of us to be reborn. On the Cross, Jesus gave everything to us, including his mother: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). She cares for us as her son’s own beloved disciple, extending to us her motherly love, and showing us the true model of Christian love. As we show our appreciation to our own mothers this Mother’s Day, Mary models for us the joys of motherhood that endure even the most difficult moments.  

Father Cleveland, the director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver, helps us to reflect on Mary’s essential role as mother and model in his book Beholding Beauty: Mary and the Song of Songs. The book uses passages from the Old Testament poem, the Song of Songs, as a springboard to come to know Mary as in her deep love for God. The biblical book speaks of the love of Solomon and his beloved, referring allegorically to God’s love for his people. Rather than offering a Bible study, Cleveland connects the Song to the New Testament, offering a portrait of Mary as God’s beloved and how we can come closer to Jesus through her, imitating her spousal love of God. Each chapter offers practical examples and questions for reflection, making the book ideal for daily meditation.  

The book explains the unique privileges of Mary, while using them to invite us to share in them as well: “No human being ever received God’s love and grace as fully as did Mary, to the point of God becoming man in her. She conceived Christ in her heart and then in the womb. Mary, as spouse of the Holy Spirit, shows us our capacity to receive God and be entirely possessed by him. In receiving Christ, she was also empowered to completely give herself to him, spirit, soul, and body, in love as his mother. She became his partner in the work of salvation and was exalted to reign with him as Queen of heaven and earth” (2). Mary models the life of the disciple in giving oneself completely to God so that he becomes fully present in our lives and through us to others.  

Mary’s vocation of motherhood leads directly to her queenship in drawing others closer to her Son. Her motherhood is founded in her fiat, her “yes” to the will of God at the Annunciation. In her role as Queen Mother, she asks us to imitate her obedience when she says at the Wedding of Cana, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Fathe Cleveland explains the need for a daily obedience that will inconvenience us and even interrupt our lives: “Mary invites us to do whatever Jesus tells us. When we come to serve the Lord, we first listen to what Jesus is asking of us. . . . As servants of Christ and others, we are willing to be available and inconvenienced in offering people our practical and substantial help. We allow ourselves to be interrupted by people crossing our paths and overturning our plans with their claims and petitions” (153). Mothers know better than anyone else that love requires this willingness to stop everything to attend to others’ needs.  

Even after much sacrifice, however, we know that so often things do not turn out as we expect. Mary models the necessity of suffering in giving our lives to Christ and sacrificially loving others: “Just as Christ gave the blood of his heart to the last drop, so Mary completely gave of her heart, broken in compassion. Mary’s yes to God, her vocation to motherhood, her purpose in life, all seemed to be extinguished. She would naturally have cause for the deepest possible despair, and yet she was given supernatural hope. She abandoned herself to the Father’s will and trusted his plan. Her fiat was then realized in a completely new way and offered with Christ in those ignoble circumstances. We too are called to co-offer Christ’s sacrifice” (138). Mary’s suffering shows the full extent of her motherhood — not just bringing life forth but offering it to God. Giving birth is painful and the bringing forth of spiritual life, likewise, requires sacrifice. The Song of Songs shows how greatly God desires us and calls us to put him first, sacrificing other things to focus on him above all else. God asks us to trust in him even when things do not make sense or when we’ve been hurt by those we love.  

Overall, Beholding Beauty invites us to focus on the eternal a wedding feast of the lamb, to which God is calling us, a perfect union that Mary already models for us. Father Cleveland explains how Mary’s relationship with God serves as both a model and invitation for us: “Our encounter with Mary will always lead us to Jesus. She is one with Jesus in the desires of his heart. Her only desire is that we share the same life of heavenly beatitude that she enjoys. Mary is the queenly maiden of the Song of Songs .  . . We entrust our lives to her as our exceedingly beautiful queen, knowing that she will guide us to Christ our King” (229). In giving herself completely to God and loving him completely, Mary could serve as God’s mother and our spiritual mother as well. 

This Mother’s Day, let’s be grateful for our earthly mothers and also for our heavenly mother who teaches us how to love God and our family more fully.  

Featured image: The Annunciation, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1660