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Dying With Dignity
By Bishop Joseph N Perry
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Most Reverend Joseph N Perry

Dying with Dignity is a touchy phrase these days – often repeated but interpreted in radically different ways. For some, dying with dignity means to be able to die without any pain and not having to depend on anyone.  Once you reach the point of not being able to take care of yourself or the point where, in your estimation, you are humbled, you should be able to die with dignity while remaining in control of your destiny and all things around you – if your mind is still ok – until you breathe your last.  Dying with dignity means still to some others the personal choice to end one’s own life either by your own hand or with the help of someone else.  The late Doctor Kevorkian’s assisted suicide to a number of people received huge headlines in past years and had become an explosive moral and civil law question.


The Church does not believe in assisted suicide. The Church does not see rhyme or reason to take one’s own life no matter how rough the pain of life might be. We all climb Mount Calvary in one way or another.  And our Good Fridays vary with their pain, no doubt.  Nevertheless, the Church and its members harbor great sympathy for those who go the way of suicide and the loved ones they leave behind while we beseech Almighty God for his mercy within the Church’s prayerfully-rich funeral rites.  In every instance of a suicide a lot of questions are left unanswered.  We see life as a precious gift of God that belongs to God and therefore has to be honored beginning with life in the womb up to and inclusive of senior age. To do anything directly to provoke death is nothing close to an honorable act, as the Church sees it.  To inject a person with a substance that ends their life is wrong.  The Church believes that is murder.


At the same time, the Church believes that we should allow ourselves and others to die when nature has taken its course.  If machines are the only things keeping a heart beating or lungs breathing, the church believes that these extraordinary and often expensive means need not be used to keep a person pulsating indefinitely when it is medically confirmed that all brain activity has ceased.  Extraordinary means this way can be chosen but need not be.  When nature signals that it is time to die then we should allow a person to die.  It is God’s Will that the person return to Him, why play a tug-a-war with God?


Sometimes, you have these situations where heaven is pulling in one direction and the family or medical personnel are pulling in the other, and so a person is suspended in limbo between heaven and earth, until and if someone recognizes the futility of the situation.  In fact, you can sign to that effect before major medical procedures, to let me die naturally with dignity.  If the brain and/or the heart or other vital organs simply stop working on their own, then by God, let God have me!  The Church does not require us to bankrupt the family to keep loved ones alive when nature has signaled that we should return to God.


These things being the case, then Jesus did not die with dignity.  In fact the scripture passages immediately leading up to the Feast of the Resurrection, events witnessed by the apostle John, indicate that there was very little dignity for Jesus in his last hours.  He was taken, mistreated, his backsides ripped apart with whips having sharpened shrapnel at the ends, made to suffer humiliation and dragged through the streets carrying the instrument of his torture, spikes driven into his flesh and left to die by asphyxiation.  Nothing could be farther from the dignity befitting a king.  They did not break his legs, the Scripture tells us.  This was a violent act to hasten the death of a person on a cross. When they came to Jesus they found that he was already dead so, as the apostle John witnessed again, an officer plunged a lance into his heart to make sure that he was dead and not simply in a coma.  Thus, without knowing it, the scriptural passage that says, not a  bone of his body would be broken, is thus fulfilled.


That was a brutal world with blood and gore and little respect for life, especially the lives of slaves and subjugated peoples. It is said that a recognized government has the right to issue the death penalty as a punishment for certain crimes.  But, in this case, the victim was clearly innocent, having rather suffered a travesty of justice.


But, Jesus never denies who he is. He never stoops to lying or denying the work he has been about.  He betrays no friends and never raises a hand to hurt someone else.  He never does anything to run away from the suffering others want to inflict – the supreme irony – of the whole Passion narrative.  Why does he submit while hardly opening up his mouth?  Why does Jesus allow himself to be treated this way?


A theme of victimization consequently runs through the Christian story – our story.  We are the doormats of the world. What we believe and stand for makes us the butt of jokes of late night TV shows and the subjects of ridicule and targets for the evil practices of the world.  Hints as to the reasons for this script for Christians can be taken from the passage of Isaiah the prophet – the first scripture text of Good Friday Service.  Faith does not really mitigate or dilute suffering.  Suffering and even death are not the last word for the believer. Suffering can take away sin in our religious experience.  Suffering can make up for a lot of things when it happens to come our way based on the sufferings of that first man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.  We thus have rich new ground with which to interpret our own agonies in life.


Suffering can be redemptive.  Some of us are redeemers – saviors of some child, some spouse, saviors of some friend, some community or society or job, by what we suffer. The work of redemption continues in the bodily persons of us – Jesus’ disciples.


In midst of a dehumanizing passion, Jesus is the most humane person in this tragedy, not allowing himself to become the animal that others who want him dead have become.  Good Friday in the Church calendar year is the feast of death with dignity. But it is not the meaning that the Kevorkians of the world propose.  Jesus had the dignity to accept his suffering so that our suffering would be alleviated.  We Christians can understand this kind of suffering – vicarious suffering, suffering so that another might live; suffering so that our children might have the things they need and grow to be the men and women of faith and responsibility we so sorely desire of them.


Perhaps, it is not suffering itself that needs to be feared and avoided at all costs.  Some suffering is simply part of the human condition.  Some parts of it we provoke in our making life miserable for another.  Perhaps, what needs to be avoided is a death without dignity that pretends that suffering does not exist at all; a death without purpose.  Jesus’ death is a sign that no suffering is meaningless when Jesus walks with us.  No tears are wasted when Jesus walks with us.  No pain is unnoticed by God when it is the pain of a believer.

JNP 2012

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Note: We talked with the author of this book about visiting the Catholic Men's Forum on April 15th, but decided he will not make it in time. So, it's best you go to this book signing on the 17th instead. Still, we'd like to offer it to those of you who would prefer to order it online. This is all in goodwill for the benefit of your spiritual reading.  -- Frank J Casella
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Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., was a model pastor and a heroic disciple of Christ. A native Chicagoan, he was told as a young man that he would never be a priest in Chicago because of a physical disability resulting from polio. He went on to be ordained a priest with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1963. He was appointed as Archbishop of Chicago in 1997, created a cardinal in 1998, and served in Chicago until 2014, just months before his death at the age of 78. 

Cardinal George's many gifts — including his superior intellect — made him a pivotal player in Church affairs nationally and internationally. He governed during difficult and challenging times, yet he always attempted to lead with the heart of Christ, living out his episcopal motto, "To Christ be glory in the Church.” 


A man of pastoral availability, Cardinal George poured out his life in service to Christ and the Church, always attentive to the poor and those on the margins. Universally admired for his pursuit and proclamation of the truth, and his personal witness to the Gospel, Cardinal George remains a model for discipleship and leadership. By the time of his death in 2015, Cardinal George was regarded as one of the most respected bishops in American Catholic history. His fascinating and inspiring story reminds us that God's ways are always better than our own.


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The CMCS Mission: Catholic Men Chicago Southland (CMCS) is engaged in fostering holy and courageous men and proclaiming the importance of husbands and fathers to children and the family. CMCS is a Catholic Apostolate founded in 2004 by Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Deacon John Rangel, and Mr. Frank J Casella.
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