Sunday, February 05, 2017

How to be a ‘Salty’ Catholic

Stephanie and Brian Packer and their four children

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 5, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 13-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday 2017]

She’s definitely a “salty” lady.

Her name is Stephanie Packer.  She’s a 34-year-old Catholic woman who lives in Santa Ana, California with her husband and four children.  She’s also dying.  She was diagnosed in 2012 with scleroderma, an autoimmune condition that was attacking her lungs.  Her doctors told her she had only three years to live.  Well, given the fact that she received that diagnosis four—almost five—years ago now, the doctors were obviously wrong.  But Stephanie continues to struggle physically, and needs very specialized treatment for her illness.  For example, in June of last year (just after California’s law permitting physician-assisted suicide went into effect) Stephanie’s medical team recommended that she be treated with chemotherapy for a period of time.  At first the people at the insurance company agreed to pay for the chemo, but then they refused.  However, they did tell her that they were more than willing to pay for something else: a lethal dose of suicide pills—at the bargain basement price of $1.20. 

Maybe they were hoping that she was one of those women who just can’t resist a sale.

Stephanie, not surprisingly, was horrified!  She later said, “It was like someone hit me in the gut.  The most cost-effective solution was now assisted suicide.”

My brothers and sisters, this is why I and so many others have said that this so-called “right-to-die” movement, spearheaded by groups like Compassion & Choices (which used to call itself the Hemlock Society) is a sham.  It’s a lie—because the right-to-die very quickly becomes the DUTY-to-die!

Always and everywhere—you can count on it!

That’s what the agents at the insurance company were saying to Stephanie, was it not?  “Listen, lady, you’re a burden on the system.  You have the duty to get out of the way and let us treat the sick people out there who have at least some hope of recovering from their illnesses.  If you really care about other people, Stephanie, then you’ll save them some money and do yourself in.  Even your family will appreciate it, because you’ll no longer be a burden to them—and they’ll only be out a dollar and twenty cents!”

Many of you will remember Brittany Maynard.  She was the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who killed herself in 2014 out in Oregon (where physician-assisted suicide was already legal).  She was hailed in the secular media all over the country because she exercised her “right to die on her own terms.”  As Stephanie Packer accurately stated, “It glamorized suicide as a heroic event.”

Well that incident inspired Stephanie to go public with her story and to become an advocate for the elderly, the terminally ill, and others who are potential victims of this evil.  Her story has been covered by media outlets like CNN, NPR and The Washington Post.  This past November she even testified before the state senators of New Jersey, asking them to reject the proposed Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide in that state.

She’s received a lot of positive feedback for her efforts—but a lot of persecution as well.  So has her husband, whose life was actually threatened after her NPR interview.

But through it all, as I indicated at the beginning of my homily, Stephanie Packer has been a “salty” lady—a very salty lady.

Now I suppose that requires a bit of an explanation.  So here it is …

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew 5 Jesus tells us that we are to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  To be the light of the world is to allow the truth and love of Jesus Christ to shine through us by our good works—by the kind of activities that Isaiah speaks about in our first reading: feeding the hungry, sheltering the oppressed, clothing the naked, not turning our backs on our own, etc.

That’s clear enough.

But what does it mean to be like “salt”?

Well, remember that Jesus said this back in first century Israel, and, as Scripture scholar N.T. Wright reminds us in his commentary on Matthew, salt had one “main function” in the first century world: to keep things “from going bad”.  It wasn’t to make food taste better (although I’m sure it did!).  The main use of salt back then was as a preservative.  Remember, there weren’t any refrigerators or freezers in Israel in the first century.  There weren’t even any iceboxes!

So when I say that Stephanie Packer is a “salty” lady, I’m saying that she’s a woman who’s doing her best to see that things don’t “go bad” here in the United States through the further legalization of physician-assisted suicide.  And may God bless her for her efforts—and for her willingness to suffer persecution in order to spread the message!

If only we had had more doctors—and citizens like Stephanie—in our country back in 1973: men and women who were willing to come forward and take a public stand in order to preserve the right-to-life of the unborn.  Abortion would never have become legal in this country!  But, unfortunately, there weren’t enough “salty” people around at the time, and so our nation “went bad” (so to speak) on that issue in the Roe v. Wade decision.

And that’s the way it’s been with so many of the controversial moral issues of recent decades, such as pornography and euthanasia and so-called “gay marriage.”

Many sins have now become socially-acceptable activities here in the United States of America, because (to use the image of Jesus in this gospel) the “salt” of many Christians has “lost its taste.”  Consequently, we’ve failed to preserve many of the virtues and good laws that once made our nation great.

I think the Lord is telling us today that it’s time to bring back the salt!  Physically speaking, of course, doctors tell us to avoid salt because it raises blood pressure, but in the spiritual dimension “salt” is just what the doctor has ordered!  (That’s Doctor Jesus, the divine physician.)

And it all begins at home, in our families (at least it’s supposed to!).  Parents tell me all the time that they worry about their children’s future; that, in effect, they don’t want to see their children “go bad.”

Praise God for that.  Every Christian parent should have that desire for his or her children.

But for children not to “go bad,” parents need to making the effort every day to be as “salty” as possible—teaching them, in other words, what it means to be a follower of Christ by their words and even more importantly by their deeds (which is what Stephanie Packer is doing for her four children with respect to the issue of physician-assisted suicide).

So parents, when you sit down for dinner with your children in the future and they say to you, “Mom, dad—please pass the salt” try to hear that, not only as a request for the small container at the other end of the table with the white stuff in it, but also as a plea: a plea for you to be the best Catholic—the saltiest Catholic—that you can possibly be, so that they will learn from you how to be the saltiest Catholics that they can possibly be.