Death comes for us all, but it is not for us to decide the hour, we are not the arbiters of life and death. Despite all its limitations and hardships, life on this earth is always a precious gift, the first of many blessings that God bestows upon us. It is the foundation upon which rests everything else that we are and have and might have in the future. Without it we have nothing.
As a sacred gift entrusted to us, we are responsible for working to protect and preserve this life until it ends naturally, until the time that God alone appoints for our departure. Of course, since the time of Cain that gift of life has been brutally violated and violently taken away. Yet never has the responsibility to protect and preserve life been more difficult than in our day, either in our private personal lives or a social scale, given the assaults on life from widespread murder, war, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, and more, including the prospect of medicalized death from those whose profession exists to help save life, not take it.
A parishioner once told me about his Catholic nephew, who had shared with a large group of highly-educated Catholics the college paper he had written arguing that, because of their so-called minimal quality of life, it is good for people with handicaps and certain illnesses to be able to end their lives whenever they want. The parishioner challenged him to think about the issues of human dignity, the value of life and the reality of truth, but sadly no one else did.
Pope Francis has spoken often about a widespread cultural mentality that enslaves the hearts of so many today, a mindset where what is valued the least is human life, especially if the person is physically or socially weaker. That is why concern for human life in its totality is a real priority for the Church, he told a group of healthcare providers shortly after his interview in America magazine. There is a need to unreservedly say “yes” to life, he said, especially with respect to the most vulnerable – the unborn, the disabled, the sick, the newborn, children, the elderly, “even if he is ill or at the end of his days, [he] bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the ‘culture of waste’ suggests! They cannot be thrown away!”
At a time when many in society tend to judge a person’s worth on an obscure and subjective “quality of life” scale, we are convinced that human dignity is not based on productivity or usefulness, and dignity is not destroyed during times of hardship or even great suffering. Created by God, made in his image, each and every person is endowed with inherent dignity.
To be sure, we do not hesitate to use the word “sacred” when speaking of human life. It comes from God and only God is the true author, judge and Lord of life. When we approach the chamber of life, we are not the masters of the room. We are not the lords of the house of life. God alone has the right to determine who lives, who dies, and the life span of each person.
The injunction “thou shall not kill” applies not only to those who are young and healthy, but the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the suffering, as well as to those who are innocent and those who have committed horrific crimes. The commandment serves to not only protect our lives from other people, but to protect us from taking our own lives.
In the case of someone who is in despair and is tempted to suicide or assisted suicide because of suffering, the compassionate response is to find the appropriate solution, not the final solution, that is, the loving answer is to alleviate, not the life, but the pain or suffering of those who purportedly wish to die (see Comfort and Consolation: Care of the Sick and Dying, pastoral letter of the bishops of Maryland). Euthanasia or assisting a suicide are not only not dignified or acts of true mercy, they do not even address the true problem of the afflicted individual.
The revealed word of God broadens our understanding of these difficult dimensions of human life by providing an encounter with Jesus, the cross, and the meaning of suffering. Suffering and sickness are not wasted things. They can be transformed into something wonderfully positive. They can even be salvific if they are embraced with love.
Blessed John Paul II was a man who knew much suffering in his life, including his final years, as we all witnessed. He often spoke about and wrote about the great gift of life, even the life of one who suffers. His words here are most appropriate. “When God permits us to suffer because of illness, loneliness or other reasons associated with old age, he always gives us the grace and strength to unite ourselves with greater love to the sacrifice of his Son and to share ever more fully in his plan of salvation. Let us be convinced of this: he is our Father, a Father rich in love and mercy!” (Letter to the Elderly, 13) Amen.