I will never forget the lesson I learned upon reading about the poignant scene on Calvary when Christ tells his killers, "I thirst." Pope John Paul II, in his eulogy after Blessed Mother Teresa's death, said of her:
"In the silence of contemplation, Mother Teresa of Calcutta heard the echo of Jesus' cry on the Cross: 'I thirst.' This cry received in the depths of her heart, spurred her to seek out Jesus in the poor, the abandoned, and the dying on the streets of Calcutta and to all the ends of the earth."
This touching tribute to Blessed Mother Teresa's special love for the poor is also a reminder that as pro-life Americans, we are called to be extremely sensitive to Christ's words from the Cross, wherever we are and regardless of the sacrifices we might have to make to respond to those in need. The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium tells us,
[T]he Church encompasses with love all who are afflicted with human suffering and in the poor and afflicted sees the image of its poor and suffering Founder. It does all it can to relieve their need and in them it strives to serve Christ.
I tell you these things because yesterday I was privileged, thanks to the efforts of one of my favorite pro-life attorneys, Richard Collier, of Collier & Basil, to share in a very scary scenario as it unfolded in a little burg in New Jersey.
There was a woman there named Barbara, who had been in a nursing home for 14 years, conscious but unable to speak. A couple of weeks ago, she was moved to a Catholic hospital because she was diagnosed as suffering from abdominal pain. The hospital, St. Joseph's Wayne, had on its staff someone who arbitrarily decided, this past weekend, to change Barbara’s course of treatment. At that point, Barbara's nutrition and hydration were stopped and, of course, the end result would have been her death by starvation.
But thanks to a wonderful lady in New Jersey who called on Richard Collier for help, the worst-case scenario did not occur. Collier started pressing the hospital and the Catholic diocese for answers. As he pointed out in his first communication with the Diocese of Paterson, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is very clear on Church teaching regarding the provision of nutrition and hydration. The document Responses to Certain Questions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration teaches, in part,
The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life. It is therefore obligatory to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper finality, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient. In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented.
Further, Collier made it clear to the diocese that the hospital is a Catholic institution within the diocese and is therefore subject to the bishop’s authority. This is, in fact, what section 116 of Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor addresses when it states,
A particular responsibility is incumbent upon Bishops with regard to Catholic institutions. Whether these are agencies for the pastoral care of the family or for social work, or institutions dedicated to teaching or health care, Bishops can canonically erect and recognize these structures and delegate certain responsibilities to them. Nevertheless, Bishops are never relieved of their own personal obligations. It falls to them, in communion with the Holy See, both to grant the title "Catholic" to Church-related schools, universities, health-care facilities and counseling services, and, in cases of a serious failure to live up to that title, to take it away.
Collier's plea with the diocese to intervene and require the hospital to reverse the decision was voiced for the first time on February 4, when he initially got the tip about what was happening. With Barbara's life hanging in the balance, he told us and we, in turn, spread the word to Life Site News and our own media staff. At long last, late yesterday afternoon, Collier was informed by the general counsel for the Diocese of Paterson that feeding had been resumed and that Barbara was receiving the attention she deserved.
But in Barbara’s case, this action was simply too little, too late. She died hours after the diocese had communicated to Collier that her sustenance had been restored. This is a tragic loss that need never have happened, and we mourn Barbara’s passing as we pray for her happy repose and for her family.
The lesson in this story is that the true compassion and love that we are called to act on does not have parameters limited by what is socially acceptable or convenient, but is instead shaped by our understanding of the dignity of the human person. For just as the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-33) who stopped to pick up a total stranger on the roadside who had been badly abused could have walked on by, as others had done, so we are called to stop, pay attention and do all we can to help the one in need.
There are times when this call to love unselfishly makes us uncomfortable or creates a situation that others perceive as negative. How often, for example, has a pro-lifer on the front lines been told, "Mind your own business!" or "Get out of the way because you don't understand!" At times like these, we have to draw on our inner strength and faith in Christ and proceed because we understand, even when others may not, that when someone's life is at risk, we are not to leave a single stone unturned. Justice requires this of us as surely as night follows day.
Barbara could not speak up for herself. She had to rely on the unconditional love of others. The sad reality is that those closest to her were unwilling to recognize the obvious fact that nutrition and hydration are not medical treatment, but rather are comfort and sustenance for the ailing body.
Even in the wake of this sad outcome, we give thanks to God for the woman who contacted Collier and for Collier’s subsequent actions. Each of those who spoke out on her behalf responded to Christ, Who never ceases to tell us, “I thirst.”