Exercising one's priesthood in dying
Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I didn't think it would take this long for the Supreme Court of Canada to arrive at this decision which now permits "doctor assisted suicide". When a principle is laid down, it's only a matter of time before the logical implications of that principle are unravelled, and the principle was laid down much earlier when abortion was made legal in this country. Many predicted this would lead to infanticide, and this is just what happened in the early 80s in the United States, and that too has come to Canada.

The ethics of "doctor assisted suicide" is not that complex, and the letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops gets to the heart of the matter: "[A]n act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, our Creator."

This decision, however, is frightening from a theological point of view. A chaplain once said to me that death bed conversions are rare; people generally die as they live. If they lived without God, they die without God. But, if they lived a life of prayer, if they have the habit of prayer, if they know the Lord and have made Him the center of their lives, He becomes the center of their death as well. Psalm 116 says "Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his servant". Death is our final act; it becomes a holy act, a final and definitive prayer in fact, when we join our suffering and our death to the suffering and death of Christ. Our death becomes an offering. We were anointed priest, prophet, and king at baptism, and at death, we get to exercise our office of priesthood in the act of dying, by offering ourselves and our entire life to God. The legalization of doctor assisted suicide will now allow others, who might not be as strong in their faith, to turn their final act, their act of dying, into an act of murder; a final act of rebellion.

If this life is all there is, if the purpose of our life is simply to enjoy it, to experience the pleasures and the goods of this world, then doctor assisted suicide makes perfect sense. We take our pets to the vet to get them euthanized; we don't have funerals for them, nor do we have Masses said for them. The life of a brute animal is all about the pleasures of eating, sleeping, and mating.

But this life is not all there is, and the purpose of this life is not pleasure. This life is a preparation for eternal life; this life is about learning how to love God. The Second Person of the Trinity joined a human nature in order to show us what it means to be man, and the purpose of our life is to make of it an offering to God. This life is a way of the cross. He said: "Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine, let him take up his cross and follow me". Follow him where? To Calvary. Our life and our final act, our death, must become an offering to God. In death, we do not die alone; rather, we die in the Person of Christ. We discover him in this life to the degree that we die to ourselves, and we find him completely by turning our final act into an act of prayer.

It's very hard to convince people without faith that euthanasia is wrong. If they lack faith in the Person of Christ, they see no meaning in suffering. All we are left with now are abstract philosophical arguments against it, and that does not compel those who are suffering. But just as Christ's suffering and death brought salvation to the world and allowed divine grace to flow once again through the veins of humanity, so to speak, so too the death of a person who has joined his life and death to Christ merits graces for others in ways that we simply cannot conceive at this point. Part of their joy in heaven will be the discovery of just how much their sufferings have brought grace and blessing to others. Christ redeems us by suffering and dying, and if we want to be a part of his victory, if we want to have a share in his work of salvation, there is only one way, and it is to follow him to Calvary. Those without faith can't make sense out of that; all this, in fact, sounds like gibberish. But to those of us with faith, we understand it. We know it. We live it.

In this gospel that we heard today, the leper shows tremendous faith when he says to Jesus: "If you choose, you can make me clean". Jesus is moved by such faith and responds: "'Of course I choose. Be made clean'. Then Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him".

It is the touch of Christ that heals. It is the touch of Christ that forgives sin and that strengthens us now and especially in our dying. In other words, it is the Eucharist that is our strength now and at the moment of our death. If you've made the Eucharist the center of your life, you are going to die well, because we die as we live. There is nothing to fear in death when you are dying in union with Christ. His strength will be your strength.

My good friend, a priest of a nearby diocese, anoints a lot of people during the year, and he has told me that when he gives the Eucharist to a dying patient who has loved the Eucharist all his life, the patient will often say something like "Don't let me hold you up, Father, you have all sorts of things to do". My friend has an acute awareness, at that moment, that he is not needed anymore. He's a well beloved priest, but they don't want him around, because they have all they need - they have who they need. There is nothing more for him to do but leave. Although it is the priest (or deacon) who dismisses the faithful at the end of Mass, now it is the one dying who dismisses the priest who brought him Christ in the Eucharist. Christ alone comforts them in their final moments of dying, so much so that any added efforts on the part of the priest or deacon to bring comfort to the dying is very often more of a nuisance than a source of comfort.

The moment of death comes for us all, and that is the most important moment of our lives. Let's not be afraid of it, for although it will involve suffering, in the midst of that suffering we will find what all the martyrs found, which is the joy and presence of Christ in the deepest region of our spirit, where no pain and suffering can touch us.