An immediate reaction that I had upon reading this article was to consult the Catechism and present the official teaching of the Church concerning euthanasia. But on second thought, I could see that here I could do better than just dish out a set definition from an important source. Aside from eliciting the wave of sympathy and support for Jam Sebastian in his bed of pain—something that he really needs, and which we really should give to him at this moment—his plight opens a very good opportunity for us to discuss certain important things related to suffering, death, and the value of life.
I could really try to understand what Jam is going through. All of us have been sick at some point; some of us have been seriously ill, and so we could sympathize and try to understand with what he’s feeling. It’s understandable that such a young man, at a point where life is full of promise and growth, could be left to undergo such suffering and pain. His suffering should be such as to let him ask for death as a final act of mercy.
I salute the courage with which his loved ones, especially his mother, is facing this challenge in their life as a family. There is no doubt to the fact that they also share his pain. I am edified and touched by his mother’s faith and by the strength of her hope, in refusing her son’s request.
One of the concrete consequences of our faith in God and in the Christ whom he sent is our respect for the gift of life, as well as the value with which we hold for it. It is a love for life in all of its stages—from conception to old age, in health and in sickness, until natural death. We know that, whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia (which consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons) is morally unacceptable (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2277). This is perfectly clear for all of us. A true Christian understanding of life’s worth would show us that we are not masters of this gift, but stewards. We don’t have the power to create it, to give it…neither is the decision to take it away. What is in our hands, though, is the decision what to make of our life, and thus be able to give an account of it at the end. In our hands is the power to make of our life something beautiful, something worth celebrating, something which is full of meaning.
The issue of euthanasia goes beyond the categorical rejection of thinking that it is okay to decide when life ends, with the intention of being merciful in ending one’s suffering. It should allow us to consider deeper realizations connected with suffering, with meaning in life, and thus enable us to discover our vocation with regards to the sick, to those who suffer, to those who have not been as fortunate as us with terms of good health.
Inasmuch as we would all choose to be happy, suffering nevertheless is a reality of life. With eyes enlightened by faith we could see that this is a consequence of sin; setting ourselves apart from the source of life, we opt for death, and in choosing to love ourselves than in accepting God’s love, we shrivel up. It’s very easy for us to think that suffering is meaningless. This is not hard to understand, considering that we are in a society which seems to place well-being, comfort and pleasure as its highest goals, the gauge with which true happiness is measured. But the fact is, suffering DOES have meaning, and this is something which people with faith are able to see and appreciate.. Faith in God isn’t something palliative; it’s not supposed to take away the pain. Contrary to that famous statement of Karl Marx, is not supposed to be an opium, a powerful narcotic used to make one oblivious that life is far from perfect. Far from closing our eyes to the realities of life (both pleasing or otherwise), it opens us to see meaning in everything, even in suffering and pain. For us persons, this is important. It is possible for us endure suffering in life, to put up with pain, to learn how to live with it, and even embrace it; however, we cannot live without meaning. We can live with suffering, but without meaning, our life is worthless. It is precisely because we find meaning even in pain that it becomes bearable, and even a path to salvation.
Our faith in Jesus Christ allows us to stand precisely in times like this. Pope Francis, speaking from the heart to people who are no stranger to loss and suffering at the Tacloban Airport during his latest papal visit, pointed to the image of the Crucified saying “Jesus is Lord, and he is Lord on the cross!” Having undergone that painful experience, and being a survivor myself, one could just imagine how comforting it was to learn that Christ had gone before us, had already experienced what we were going through, and so he could save us from a meaningless existence, which could just have ended up in disappointment and futility. There is meaning in suffering because we can never say that we suffer alone. The people whom we love, healthcare workers may even abandon us, but the Lord who had passed through suffering and understands what it means to suffer, to be rejected, to be alone, to be afraid—and even die—will always be by our side.
Furthermore, when we rest our gaze on the Crucified, we realize that even pain and suffering could help us get up. Suffering with the Crucified Lord is redemptive: it always leads us to life. To suffer with Jesus on the cross means to accept the invitation to open ourself up and abandon ourselves into the loving arms of our Father. It means rejecting the temptation to close in on ourself, becoming prisoners of our own pain, a prison from which no salvation will come.
Another thing that Jam’s suffering—and those of many others—should allow us to realize is the important role of those who accompany the suffering: the loved ones of the patient and healthcare workers. I think those in pain, those who are sick need to face two fears: that of meaninglessness on one hand, and abandonment on the other. “Why have you abandoned me?” was the eloquent cry of Jesus on the cross, addressed to his Father, and this is the same cry that is present in the heart of those who suffer. The families and loved ones of the sick and the ill, as well as those who are handicapped, are called to be present to them, to be with them. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are asked not to deny to their patients the gift of the human touch. Inserted with tubes, probed and prodded and subjected to other indignities, patients also yearn for the balm of the human touch, of sympathy, of love. The sick yearn not only to be well, to be relieved of their suffering, but in all things, the deepest yearning is that of knowing that they are loved, embraced and held. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was known for holding the dying in the streets until they gave up the ghost, embracing them until they died. At least, she reasoned, they died knowing that they were loved. What gave them real dignity was not that they were healed (something which was humanly impossible), but that they were loved, at a time and in a place wherein they were subject to gross indignities. Not all of the sick could ever hope of being healed, but all could be loved. Pope Francis once mentioned that more important than bodily healing was the salvation that comes from God, and salvation is nothing else than being held lovingly by the Father.
What a great vocation it is to care for the sick! To be there for them, to be present with them, to hold their hand! I am fond of telling nurses and doctors that theirs is the privilege not only of caring for the sick, but also of being able to touch the Body of Christ in the guise of the suffering. Their work is very much like that of a priest at Mass: the priest touches the sacred Host reverently placed upon the white corporal; doctors and nurses touch and care for the bodies of the sick lying upon hospital linens. Remember: “whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me!” (Mt. 25:40).
These reflections come to me as we are nearing the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is also the celebration of the World Day of the Sick. To defend, value, and love the gift of life in all of its stages: this is the way for every Christian who believes in God and in the Christ whom he had sent; to open our eyes in faith so as to see meaning even in suffering, and to realize that we have the obligation to those who suffer, to become real angels of mercy. These are things which the suffering of Jam Sebastian could very well teach to all of us.