Growing Old With John Paul II

Editor's note: Father Jonathan will appear on "DaySide," Tuesday, April 4 at 1:45 p.m. ET.

It’s 9:37p.m. Rome time. One year ago, to the minute, Pope John Paul II passed away. Was it an accident? Not his death, I mean the fact I just looked at my watch and now I shiver. I had planned to be in St. Peter’s Square tonight with hundreds of thousands of others to remember, to pray, to make decisions. But instead, I’m here with you. And by being with you, I’m with him. He was a man of the word, and of the Word. He was a communicator, a humble and holy one who knew words were serious, and the best ones were not his own.

I’m not one to push religion. I think it goes down better on its own. And that’s one of the things we learned from John Paul II; it’s more important to be than to do, and more important to do than to say. When we are the real thing — good husbands and wives, businessmen, teachers, parents, pastors or priests, students, and friends — when we are what we profess to be, our actions matter and our words ring true.

Most of us aren’t Catholic. Some of us aren’t Christian either. But the world understood John Paul II, the man. And this man knew that news matters. He was worldly and other-worldly in a way I would like to be. We’re living in tough times, scary times, hopeful times, and times of singular importance. Yes, news matters. The temptation to just do (activism) or to not do at all (passivism) is strong. It pulls. To be in the world and not of the world is to feel the pull, and to pull back, to know things matter, but only relative to the bigger picture. It’s to always to put things and ourselves in our place. Sometimes we fumble and make minor things big and vice-versa. Putting things in their place is what philosophers call having a proper “hierarchy of values” — the recognition that not all worthwhile things are worth the same.

Ask your children or grandchildren what they remember of Pope John Paul. Don’t be surprised if they mention the trembling hand, the handkerchiefs or the drool. That’s ok. For him, growing old publicly — showing the drool — was part of helping us to put things in their place. With his life, he said youth is wonderful, old age is hard, and if we’re willing to learn, it can be wonderfully hard. That’s not the youth in me talking. It’s the reflective me, looking for meaning in what the old me will be. This great pope called it the theology of suffering, the “offering up,” or participation in, the redemptive suffering of God. If it weren’t for him, and for the millions of other bloodless martyrs of good, we might think the theology of suffering was academic gibberish.

In a few hours I’ll be on a big plane heading to the Big Apple to talk to you from there. That’s why I didn’t go to the square tonight. Nothing is done. My suitcase is still high in the closet. Oh well.

Before looking at my watch, I had planned to follow up on Friday’s posting on Terri Schiavo. Your responses were passionate and smart. Let’s take a look:


Father Jonathan,

If medical personnel had not intervened with the big machines and let God have his way, Terry would have died many years ago. It is my opinion that, thanks to Michael, God finally had his way.

— Jim

RESPOSE: Dear Jim, I chose to post your e-mail because it speaks for several others I received. Using terms like “big machines,” while I understand where you are coming from, is too vague. Applying a defribillator (larger than a feeding tube) to a young man suffering a heart attack on the basketball court, would go unquestioned. The better principle, in my opinion, is whether the proposed treatment is worthwhile or futile for the patient. If inserting a feeding tube is only going to increase and prolong the suffering of a dying person, I think it could be refused by the patient or relatives. This was not the case of Terri. She was not dying. She died because she was not fed.

Father Jonathan,

Thank you, Father, for that article. It was so timely. My father is in failing heath and the doctor has said his prognosis is not good. He is still in the hospital, appears to be alert at times but never says much. (He's had multiple strokes over the years and we just had to have his leg amputated due to an infection, he is also a diabetic.) He is not eating well enough to sustain himself and the doctor indicated it would be a family decision as to whether we put a feeding tube in or not. I was so torn about what we should do. Reading your article helped me to realize that a feeding tube IS NOT an extreme measure, but just another way of providing food. Since he is awake and somewhat alert, our family came to the decision that we would put in the tube. If he did not want it, he would let us know. Thank you so much for your article — it really helped me work through this.

God bless — Susan

RESPONSE: Susan, sounds like you got the principle right. I’m sure it’s not easy. I’ll pray for your dad and for your whole family.

Dear Father,

Thank you for your insightful columns. They do help to sort out the truth from the distortions presented by the secular world.

How, Father, do we respond to our family members who press us to "allow" them to die in the same cruel way Terri did, so they never become "a burden." They do not want to suffer, or have anyone else "suffer" by having to care for them. I, personally, have been instructed that this is their wish, though my conscience would never allow it. I have said that they must give someone else the legal right to make the decision to withdraw food and water because I never would, but even then, how could I stand by and watch it happen? It seems that suffering is seen as such a terrifying thing that most are blind to the good that can come out of it. Is it wrong to make people endure it?

God Bless — Nancy

RESPONSE: Nancy, my experience is that most people don’t make the distinctions we have made here, and for this reason there is a lot of confusion. If you explain to your loved ones that you will not use futile or “extreme” means to keep them alive, but will make sure they are fed if they have a chance to continue living, they will probably be in agreement, and will be grateful to hear how much you love them.

Father Jonathan,

As usual, your column is thoughtful and well written, but I wonder if you haven't missed the essential point of the Terri Schiavo controversy. If we take her husband at his word, and I have no compelling reason not to, that Terri had told him she would not want to continue life in a condition such as she was in, and, acknowledging that someone must speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves, the spouse is the traditional spokesperson, we are left with the single question, "Did Terri have a right to choose to die in such circumstances?" All the rest, the machines and non-machines, tubes, and politicians, her family's wishes, even the possibility of ulterior motives and dark conspiracies, are window dressing to that one question.

For those who do not find a pre-packaged answer in their religious or cultural traditions, the enormity of the decision precludes an easy answer. I hope never to have to make that choice for myself, let alone for another.

— Taomne

RESPONSE: I don’t know if any religion has a pre-packaged answer for these issues, but a few clear principles are helpful. Let me re-phrase your question and see if it helps. Do I have a responsibility to carry out all of the wishes of my spouse, no matter what they are? What if my spouse tells me to put her out of her misery the next time she falls asleep, passes out, catches a cold, or enters a coma? The spouse or guardian has a responsibility to respect the wishes of their sick loved one as long as the wishes are respectable.

Father Jonathan,

I find this old Fundamentalist Protestant agreeing with you, a young Catholic priest, more often than one might suspect (Grin).

Peace, Lloyd

RESPONSE: Thanks a lot, Lloyd, for writing in and for following the blog. I’m sure you can keep me in line as well!

Dear Father Jonathan,

Although I am one of those "nasty liberals," I did appreciate your article about Terry Schiavo. I agree, the statement that anything in a "grey" area implies that there are black and white areas as well. Morality and honor exist — no questions there from me.

But I have had a question about this case for a long time. It's about the soul, which I believe in deeply. Where does the soul reside when a person is suffering such a severe medical event as Mrs. Schiavo? I know that in the end, after the feeding tube was removed, her soul went home to God. But before that? I came to wonder if God had taken her soul already, leaving behind nothing more (or less) than a living shell. This is why I've instructed my family to wait for 60 days, and if there is no brain activity during that time, then give me last rites and then let me go as peacefully as possible. For some reason I believe the soul resides with the mind — not of it, but with it.

A strange musing, for someone on my political side of the fence.

Very truly yours, Anne

RESPONSE: That’s getting into some pretty deep philosophy and theology. To keep it simple, I would say, the soul separates from the body at the point of death. We have to be careful not to identify the soul with the “mind,” meaning the brain. The conclusions could be disastrous. People with less brain power would then be less human. According to Christian theology, at least, the soul enters the body when the “material” is sufficiently disposed (at conception). When the “material” or “body” dies, the soul is released. We are body and soul. I like to use the term “incarnate spirit” to avoid the trap of setting up one against the other (as if the body were bad).

Father Jonathan,

I am not a religious person at all and I am not going to become one. I have a very negative impression of organized religions and religious leaders.

You are the best public representative of a religious organization I have ever been exposed to. I would describe you as thoughtful, balanced, sensible and down-to-earth. The church is lucky to have you and the public is lucky too.

I am hoping that exposure to you will decrease the resentment that many people feel towards religious leaders presenting positions on world and national issues based on religious principles, as well as political leaders who openly declare a religious foundation to their thinking. Thank you.

Regards, Ellery

RESPONSE: You’re putting the pressure on me here! You must be a very humble and good person, and I’m sure I could learn a lot from you too.

Father Jonathan,

You’re an idiot. You are illogical and nobody cares. I wish I could stop reading what you write.

— Adam

RESPONSE: I’m speechless.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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