Holy Week lessons from “The Passion”

George Weigel

For fifty-one years, a life-size crucifix has hung in my suburban Washington church – first on the apse wall, now above the renovated sanctuary. It’s as familiar as anything the parish has ever known, the “signature” piece that defines this space as our parish.

Yet during Holy Week this year, I expect that thousands of parishioners will look at that crucifix and see something new. Why? Because they’ll bring to their gaze images from “The Passion of the Christ.” Perhaps some, whose mind’s eye had never imagined the brutality of the sorrowful mysteries, will find it difficult to look at that familiar crucifix, or to venerate the cross during the Good Friday liturgy. Far more, I expect, at home and around the world, will live a richer encounter with the crucified Christ because of the experience of “The Passion.”

I hope, for example, that many Catholics live Holy Week 2004 with a renewed appreciation of the centrality of the cross in the Christian life. H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous critique of liberal Christianity – “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ with a cross” – has been cited frequently during the debate over “The Passion,” but it deserves repeating. There is no Christianity without Good Friday because there is no Easter without Good Friday. Good Friday and Easter, together, constitute the mystery of liberating obedience and redemptive suffering that stands at the heart of the Christian proposal. Those who remember Jesus in “The Passion” getting up, time and again, to embrace his suffering in obedience to the will of his Father will “see” Good Friday differently this year – and will have a more powerful, joyful experience of Easter.

Then there is the Marian dimension of “The Passion.” Maia Morgenstern, descendant of Holocaust survivors, will be the image of Mary at the foot of the cross in tens of millions of Christian minds this Holy Week. “The Passion” shows us Mary as “Mother of the Church.” It also shows Mary as the pattern of all Christian discipleship: Mary, whose spoken fiat at the Annunciation– “Be it done unto me according to your word” – is completed by her silent fiat at the foot of the cross, immortalized by Michelangelo in the Pieta. In a culture of delayed commitments and exit strategies, Mary’s unambiguous “yes” invites us to stake everything on the God who keeps his promises to the last generation.

Many Catholics will approach Holy Thursday differently this year because of the profoundly eucharistic imagery of “The Passion.” In recent years, Catholics may have forgotten that the Eucharist is (as the Catechism puts it), “the sacrificial memorial of Christ and his Body.” In “The Passion,” the juxtaposition of the lifting up of the cross and the lifting up of the bread at the Last Supper is a powerful reminder that every Mass is a memorial of Good Friday, as well as a celebration of the Risen Christ’s eucharistic presence to his Easter people. To accept the Lord’s offer of his Body and Blood in holy communion is not just a question of good manners, of saying “yes” to a gracious host; to say “Amen” to the declaration, “the Body and Blood of Christ,” is to embrace the sacrifice of the cross, present for our salvation in the Eucharist.

Finally, I expect that many Catholics will celebrate Holy Week this year with a deeper appreciation of Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:22: “Salvation is from the Jews.” The story of Holy Week is a very Jewish story and makes no sense outside the context of God’s revelation to his chosen people. Those of us from the “wild olive tree” of the Gentiles who have been grafted onto the “cultivated” olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:23) should reflect with gratitude this year that the savior whose redemption we commemorate and celebrate is a Jewish savior, who lived and died a faithful son of Israel, with the psalms on his lips as he commended his spirit to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

All of which will, I hope, take us from debate to prayer, and from contention to contemplation, in Holy Week 2004.

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.