Saturday, April 22, 2006

Michael Schiavo’s ‘Mercy Account’—And Ours

Michael Schiavo and Terri in November of 1990.

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B): This homily was given on April 23, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 John 5: 1-6; John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Easter 2006]

Fr. Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life. You see him frequently on EWTN. In March of 2005 he was also on network television quite a bit, because he was the priest who ministered to the family of Terri Schiavo, as Terri was being publicly starved to death. He was interviewed many times by reporters in the mainstream media, in the midst of what can only be described as a “national horror show.”

A couple of weeks ago Fr. Pavone released an “open letter” to Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, on the one year anniversary of her passing. I’m sure some of you have read it, but for the benefit of those who haven’t, I’ll read it to you now:

A year ago this week, I stood by the bedside of the woman you married and promised to love in good times and bad, in sickness and health. She was enduring a very bad time, because she hadn’t been given food or drink in nearly two weeks. And you were the one insisting that she continue to be deprived of food and water, right up to her death. I watched her face for hours on end, right up to moments before her last breath. Her death was not peaceful, nor was it beautiful. If you saw her too, and noticed what her eyes were doing, you know that to describe her last agony as peaceful is a lie.

This week, tens of millions of Americans will remember those agonizing days last year, and will scratch their heads trying to figure out why you didn’t simply let Terri’s mom, dad, and siblings take care of her, as they were willing to do. They offered you, again and again, the option to simply let them care for Terri, without asking anything of you. But you refused and continued to insist that Terri’s feeding be stopped. She had no terminal illness. She was simply a disabled woman who needed extra care that you weren’t willing to give.

I speak to you today on behalf of the tens of millions of Americans who still wonder why. I speak to you today to express their anger, their dismay, their outraged astonishment at your behavior in the midst of this tragedy. Most people will wonder about these questions in silence, but as one of only a few people who were eyewitnesses to Terri’s dehydration, I have to speak.

I have spoken to you before, not in person, but through mass media. Before Terri’s feeding tube was removed for the last time, I appealed to you with respect, asking you not to continue on the road you were pursuing, urging you to reconsider your decisions, in the light of the damage you were doing. I invited you to talk. But you did not respond.

Then, after Terri died, I called her death a killing, and I called you a murderer because you knew—as we all did—that ceasing to feed Terri would kill her. We watched, but you had the power to save her. Her life was in your hands, but you threw it away, with the willing cooperation of attorneys and judges who were as heartless as you were. Some have demanded that I apologize to you for calling you a murderer. Not only will I not apologize, I will repeat it again. Your decision to have Terri dehydrated to death was a decision to kill her. It doesn’t matter if Judge Greer said it was legal. No judge, no court, no power on earth can legitimize what you did. It makes no difference if what you did was legal in the eyes of men; it was murder in the eyes of God and of millions of your fellow Americans and countless more around the world. You are the one who owes all of us an apology.

Your actions offend us. Not only have you killed Terri and deeply wounded her family, but you have disgraced our nation, betrayed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and undermined the principles that hold us together as a civilized society. You have offended those who struggle on a daily basis to care for loved ones who are dying, and who sometimes have to make the very legitimate decision to discontinue futile treatment. You have offended them by trying to confuse Terri’s circumstances with theirs. Terri’s case was not one of judging treatment to be worthless—which is sometimes the case; rather, it was about judging a life to be worthless, which is never the case.

You have made your mark on history, but sadly, it is an ugly stain. In the name of millions around the world, I call on you today to embrace a life of repentance, and to ask forgiveness from the Lord, who holds the lives of each of us in His hands.

Fr. Frank Pavone

One of the terrible “talents” we have as fallen human beings is the talent of rationalizing our evil behavior. That is to say, we can come up with some very clever reasons for doing things that are objectively reprehensible! In the 19th century, for example, some Americans tried to justify slavery by claiming that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites; the Nazis attempted to justify the Holocaust by saying that the master Aryan race needed to be purified; the people at Planned Parenthood attempted to justify abortion, when it first became legal 33 years ago, by claiming that the “cluster of cells” in the womb wasn’t really human. But then the science of genetics proved that it was human. Of course, that still didn’t stop them. At that point they simply modified their rationalization, claiming that it’s a matter of “choice” and “rights” and “freedom”.

And now, in the aftermath of Terri Schiavo’s tragic death, people are trying to legitimize the murder of the handicapped and the terminally ill by an appeal to “compassion” and “love” and “dignity”.

We human beings are a versatile and creative lot, aren’t we? In our selfishness and greed, we can rationalize just about anything!

And yet, in the midst of all this sin and rationalizing, mercy is still available—even to the worst of sinners; even to the Michael Schiavos of this world. Today, on Divine Mercy Sunday, that’s a message we all need to hear—and internalize—and pass on.

Fr. Pavone tried to pass it on to Michael Schiavo in that letter he wrote to him a few weeks ago. Granted, it’s not a very uplifting or consoling or sympathetic note. His words there are unambiguous and uncompromising! But in the end he makes it very clear to Mr. Schiavo that, in spite of all he did last year to secure his own wife’s death, he’s not beyond the hope of salvation. Mercy and redemption are still possible for him—as long as he still has breath in his lungs and blood flowing through his veins.

The same is true for all of us. And that’s very good news, because to one extent or another we ALL need mercy. Lots of it!

Thus it should come as no surprise that mercy was the last gift Jesus gave before he died, and the first gift he gave after he rose from the dead.

Did you realize that?

While hanging on the cross, he offered mercy to his murderers when he said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Shortly thereafter, he pardoned the good thief and said to him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

And then, after he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, he appeared to his apostles in the upper room, and the first thing he did was to give them the power to forgive sins in his name. He gave them power, in other words, to be instruments and dispensers of his mercy. He said—as we heard a few moments ago in our Gospel reading—“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Because Jesus “came . . . by blood,” as St. John reminds us in today’s second reading, we have lots of mercy available to us. In fact, we have all the mercy at our disposal that we will ever need!

It’s as if Jesus—by his passion, death and resurrection—has set up for each and every one of us a “mercy account” at his “spiritual bank”: an account that never runs out; an account that we can never exhaust no matter what we do!

Can you imagine having an account at one of our local banks that never ran out? For some of you who constantly overdraw on your checking account, it would be a dream come true!

Of course, none of that would matter if you never made a withdrawal, would it?

Having a bottomless bank account would be absolutely, positively useless, if you never took any money out of it.

And so it is with mercy.

Mercy is available to everyone—including Michael Schiavo, who murdered his own disabled wife. But that “bottomless bank account” of mercy does none of us any good, unless we access it through repentance; and, when necessary, through the sacrament of Confession.

Lord Jesus, merciful and glorious Savior, today we pray for Michael Schiavo, that he will do some much needed “spiritual banking” in the very near future. And we also pray for ourselves and for one another, that we will have the good sense to do the very same thing whenever we need to.