This weekend, in place of a homily, I preached a sermon on the document Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons and Families Considering or Opting for Death by Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia published by the Bishops of Alberta and the North-West Territories. Given the many requests for copies of my sermon, I have decided to post it here.
There’s a famous story about St Jean Vianney when he was sent to the city of Ars to be its parish priest. On the way, he got lost: He came upon a small boy who was playing, so he asked the boy for help getting to Ars. The boy said, “Yes, Father, I’ll take you to Ars.” St JeanVianney replied with his famous words, “You lead me to Ars, and I’ll lead you to heaven.”
Salus animarum suprema lex. “The salvation of souls is the supreme law [of the Church.]” The Church’s entire mission is oriented towards your salvation and mine; whenever the Church says “Yes” to something, it is in order to procure our salvation, and whenever the Church says “No” to other things, it is in order to avoid jeopardising our salvation.
If you followed the news on Friday, you will remember that the Church, by way of the Bishops of Alberta and the North-West Territories, said “No” to offering the Sacraments and even a funeral Mass to those who have decided to commit self-murder, which the government sugar-coats by calling it “medical aid in dying.”
Let’s put this into perspective, because perspective is just what you aren’t going to get from CBC or Global TV or the Edmonton Journal.
Remember the story of Jesus being challenged about paying taxes to Caesar [cf Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26]? What did He say? “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” Now, if payment of taxes were due to Caesar because Roman coins bore his image, our next question becomes: What bears God’s image such that it is due to God? The answer: Our souls, because we were created in God’s image and likeness, and just as payment was due to Caesar because coins had his stamp on it, so too do our souls belong to God because they bear God’s stamp upon them. St Paul wrote, “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die we die to the Lord; so when, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” [Rom 14:7]. The Apostle further emphasizes this by writing that, “You are not your own: you were bought with a price” [1 Cor 6:19].
But, in order to attain salvation, we must remain in the state of sanctifying grace. What does that mean? To be “in grace” is to be “in friendship with God.” When we sin, our friendship with God is impaired; when we sin gravely, we have unfriended God; if we die while still unfriended with God, he respects our choice of excluding ourselves from everlasting happiness in the next life. To die without grace in our souls is the most terrible thing we can do, because we have opted to forfeit heaven for something earthly. The sacraments are always given efficaciously, but they are not always received fruitfully; it is for this reason that the Last Rites cannot be administered to someone who has decided to break the Fifth Commandment by committing self-murder. To do otherwise would be to commit sacrilege.
Let’s pause for a moment. No doubt some of you are shocked by what I’m saying. Perhaps, even, you’re saying, “That’s hurtful!” or “That does not respect the feelings of the patient who wants assisted suicide.” But look what you’re really saying: You’re saying that feelings are more important than the soul. Look more closely: Many people have forgotten that they have souls worth saving, so they go for the next-best thing: Feelings worth assuaging. Many people have exchanged the salvation of souls for the assuaging of feelings.
But who, I ask you, in his right mind, would rather save his feelings in this life, only to lose his soul in the next? Wouldn’t you rather prioritise the salvation of your soul, despite all pains and sufferings? It is the height of insanity to escape temporal sufferings in this life, only to have everlasting sufferings in the next. Again, St Paul has something to say: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” [Rom 8:18].
Life is difficult, I know. I had spinal meningitis, which I would not trade the world for because it left me with the blessing of being Deaf so that I can proclaim the Gospel in sign language. I once had depression, and wanted life to be over with because my sadness seemed unbearable, but looking back, I would not trade that for all the world either, because it’s made me sensitive to those of you who may be suffering. And I know that the minutes of pain seem like hours, and I know that years of pain seem like an eternity. But I ask you to consider Jesus, whose life on earth had one simple purpose: To go to the Cross. God the Son became the Son of Mary precisely so that he would have a Body in order to bear our death [Heb 10:5], and to tell us on Easter: I know what it’s like, but Life is become victorious.
But consider another option open to Jesus. When Satan tempted Him the wilderness [Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13], he offered Jesus a following if he survived jumping off the Temple, the whole world if Jesus would worship him, relief from hunger if Jesus would use His Divinity for his own pleasure. What Satan was doing, in fact, was trying to get Jesus to bypass the Cross. But, no. Jesus went to the Cross anyway—and for what? To show God’s solidarity with suffering humanity, and in the Person of Jesus Crucified, to merit for us eternal life in heaven.
God made us for one simple reason: Happiness. But so many people have substituted happiness for pleasure, and in so doing, have given priority to feelings over their souls and to seek relief from pain in this life only to find it again, everlastingly, in the next. Thomas Merton said, “We were not made for pleasure; we were made for joy,” and that joy is found only in the company of Jesus, and only after we’ve endured the brunt of the world [cf Acts 14:22].
Did you know that the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross left something to be desired? Yes—he left an opening for us. During his imprisonment in Rome and awaiting his execution because of his faithfulness to Jesus, St Paul wrote: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” [Col 1:24]. I have yet to come across a suffering saint who died unhappily. I have yet to come across a tortured martyr who died grief-stricken. Why? Because suffering is only transitory, and Jesus gives us the strength to bear it, while anticipating an eternity of beatitude, provided we remain faithful to God, despite everything: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” [Apoc 21:4].
The Church desires nothing less than the salvation of all her children, indeed, the salvation of all peoples. That’s why she always has, to use the epitaph of Robert Frost, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls. Lead us to your pain and your suffering, and we will lead you to heaven.