Reaching out to Brittany

On New Year’s Day, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman in San Francisco, learned she had brain cancer. The newlywed, hoping for a family, immediately had two surgeries to try and stop the tumor. But by April, her doctors determined the cancer was too aggressive to treat and gave her a prognosis of six months to live.

Maynard made headlines earlier this month when she publicly announced plans to take her own life when she feels the time is right. She said she will do so by swallowing a pill, prescribed by her doctor, and in her possession.

“I do not want to die. But I am dying,” she wrote for CNN Oct. 7. “And I want to die on my own terms.”

Initially considering hospice care, she said, ultimately she decided to relocate to Oregon, one of five states where physician-assisted suicide is legal.

“Because the rest of my body is young and healthy, I am likely to physically hang on for a long time… I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months,” she wrote. “And my family would have had to watch that.”

If she changes her mind, she said, she will not take the medication.

“Having this choice … has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”

Maynard’s story has initiated a widespread conversation about assisted suicide. A video she made for Compassion and Choices, an advocate for physician-assisted suicide, has been viewed more than 6 million times. Many have responded with messages of concern, prayers and pleas to not take her life, including a Colorado Springs mother of four young children, Kara Tippetts, also suffering with incurable brain cancer.

“We see you, we see your life, and there are countless lovers of your heart that are praying you would change your mind,” Tippetts, 36, wrote in a letter to Maynard Oct. 8 that has been shared on social media more than a million times.

Tippetts, a member of Westside Church where her husband is pastor, also expressed her sympathy and understanding in being asked to “walk a road that feels simply impossible to walk,” and thanked Maynard for bringing the discussion to light.

“Brittany, your life matters, your story matters, and your suffering matters,” she wrote. “I think the telling of your story is important.”

If choosing her own death, Tippetts continued, she would rob herself and her loved ones of the opportunity to care for her.

“That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath matters,” she said, “but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”

A seminarian in the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., Philip Johnson, also suffering from untreatable brain cancer wrote to Maynard, where he shared his related feelings of fear and at times, hopelessness.

“Like Brittany, I do not want to die, nor do I want to suffer the likely outcome of this disease,” he wrote in an Oct. 22 letter. “This terrifies me, but it does not make me less of a person. My life means something to me, to God, and to my family and friends, and barring a miraculous recovery, it will continue to mean something long after I am paralyzed in a hospice bed.”

Johnson was diagnosed in 2008 at age 24 while serving his second Navy deployment in the Persian Gulf—doctors suggested he would survive about 18 months. He was discharged from the Navy and pursued his longtime dream of becoming a priest. He hopes to be ordained to the diaconate this spring and the priesthood next year.

“There have been times over the past six years that I wanted the cancer to grow and take my life swiftly so that it would all be over,” he admitted. At the same time, he also hoped for a miracle.

“I now realize that a ‘miracle’ does not necessarily mean an instant cure. If it did, would we not die from something else later in our lives? Is there any reason we deserve 15, 20, or 30 or more years of life?” he wrote. “Every day of life is a gift, and gifts can be taken away in an instant.”

He’s experienced countless miracles, he said, in places he never expected to find them, such as in hospitals and nursing homes.

“Through my interaction with these people, I received much more than I gave. I learned that the suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation,” he shared. “Perhaps this is the most important miracle God intends for me to experience.”

He will continue to pray for Maynard, he said, and join in her suffering.

“I still cry. I still beg God to show me his will through all of this suffering,” he wrote. “May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life, and that if she chooses instead to fight this disease, her life and witness would be an incredible example and witness to countless others.”

Deacon Alan Rastrelli, M.D., with St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial, is the medical director of a local Catholic hospice, Divine Mercy Supportive Care. He helps patients and families navigate through end-of-life—what he described as “this most important part of their lives.”

The prevalence of Maynard’s story has provided an opportunity for people to share the stories of thousands of terminally ill patients who choose not to end their lives with physician-assisted suicide, he said, but instead receive care through their natural end.

“We must pray,” he said, “that Brittany and others in her situation will respect and cherish the great gift that their lives are to all of us by living to a cared-for end.”

#PrayForBrittany

Read Kara Tippett’s letter here

Philip Johnson’s letter here

Divine Mercy Supportive Care: www.dmsci.org or 303-357-2540

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”