Love and mercy: A Christian response to suicide

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Two high profile suicides in four days.  Awful.

In the wake of the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, my Facebook feed has been filled with various musings and pontifications on suicide — what causes it, how to understand it, how to prevent it.

And because my Facebook friends skew to the highly religious side, what I am seeing is a lot of posts that say more or less the same thing: that if these people had only known Jesus, they wouldn’t have committed suicide.

If only it were that simple.

I am the first to agree that, with more Jesus, we would have much less suicide.  Genuine religion acts a deterrent to suicide in multiple ways.  First of all, religious faith gives meaning.  We aren’t just here just to amass a fortune, or to travel the world, or to achieve earthly status.  Many, I’m sure, reach the pinnacle of success only to think “Is this all there is?”  And when we see the self-inflicted deaths of two such successful people in the span of four days, it’s easy to assume that this was the reason for their despair, and that “If they had only known Christ, they would have had true meaning and they wouldn’t have ended their lives.”

But we can’t know that.

Secondly, religious faith gives meaning to suffering.  Knowing that Christ died for our sins, and believing that we can join our sufferings to his, we can endure far more than someone who sees no point or purpose to their suffering.

But we can’t judge any individual’s mental state, or know how much that “far more” is for any one person.

And third, our beliefs about sin can impact decisions about suicide.  How many desperate people have wrestled with the temptation to end their own lives, but ultimately won the battle because they were still rational enough to know that the Church considers suicide a mortal sin, and that they would be risking their eternal salvation if they were to carry out their plans?

So yes, I think it’s clear that knowing Christ is a significant deterrent to suicide.  And we should share the love of Christ with everyone, especially those who may be at risk for ending their own lives

But all the religion in the world will not, in and of itself, end the scourge of suicide in our culture.

Here’s the problem: Many of those I have known and loved best who committed suicide were faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  They loved him.  They spent their lives trying to do their best to obey him.  And, in their better, clearer moments, they would never have dreamed of ending their own lives, offending him, and inflicting a lifetime of pain upon their families and those they loved most.

But, at the moment of their deaths, they were very, very far from their better, clearer moments.  They were desperate.  Beyond desperate.  And most likely beyond fully rational thought.

Suicide is complicated.  It happens for many reasons — mental illness, extreme pain, emotional torment.  Even medication can cause suicidal ideation.  I can’t know the mind of any individual who resorts to it.  But I keep thinking that the instinct to self-preservation is so strong, and the pain necessary to overcome it is so great, that the percentage of people who are in sufficient possession of their rational minds as they are ending their own lives must be somewhat small.

And our all-merciful God knows that.

The problem is that when we pontificate on social media, especially on sensitive issues like this, we have multiple audiences.  We are speaking to those who may be deep in pain and contemplating ending their own lives, and also to those who have been left behind, and who are grieving and trying to make sense of their own loved ones’ suicide, and perhaps even wondering about their final destination.

And what one needs to hear may be exactly what the other does not need to hear.

Yes, we need to reach out to the suicidal with the love of Christ.  For some, it might be the difference between life and death.  They need to know that God loves them, and that they can unite their sufferings to his.  And that, yes, God wants them to persevere, and that usurping his authority and unilaterally deciding to end their own lives is most definitely not his will.

But for the survivors of loved ones’ suicides, especially when those loved ones were conscientious Christians, sprinkling holy water on the problem just diminishes that faith, and implies that all could have been well if the departed had just believed a little more fervently.

They need to hear that the love of God is bigger and stronger than their loved ones’ despair.  And they need to hear that there is reason to hope and pray for their salvation — that our merciful God knows what extreme physical or emotional pain does to free will, and that he sees the heart and the entire person, not just the final decision that may have come in an irrational moment of extreme weakness.

So yes, by all means bring the love of Christ to those who are in despair.

But don’t forget to bring the mercy of Christ to those left behind.

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

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As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.