Four years ago I was studying abroad in Europe. One weekend our class had an opportunity to travel to Poland – to spend three days in Pope John Paul II’s beloved homeland. To prepare for the trip we all set out to watch various documentaries on and tributes to our late Papa. My image of JP II had always been of the young, vibrant Pope, despite the fact that throughout my life he had been in the last stages of his. In watching one of the tributes to him I was struck by how he looked in the final years of his life. Pope John Paul II was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and suffered from the degenerative disease, the same which my grandma has been suffering from for over 15 years, until his death in 2005. What struck me about his appearance was that he looked like my grandma. The disease had taken the same toll on each of them.
In our world today there are two approaches to disease, disability, and depression. The first, the euthanasia approach, says both “I don’t want to live like this,” and “I don’t want to die like this.” I don’t want to live attached to machines, too weak to care for myself. I don’t want to die in an undignified manner. When of course the truth is that there is no such thing as dying in a dignified manner. Death is a messy business wherever and however it takes place. The product of sin could never be otherwise, except insofar as it is accepted in love and humility and united to the death of Christ. There was no less dignified death than that of Christ on the cross. Stripped of his clothes, naked, beaten, humiliated, and “lifted up” before a crowd, Christ died. Yet this is what we as Christians are called to embrace.
Pope John Paul II not only embraced the indignity of his cross but embraced it publicly, as Christ had. Throughout the many years of his illness he continued his public ministry, making himself, and his suffering, visible to the world. He continued to make pastoral visits around the world through 2004. It had always been a trademark of John Paul II to kiss the ground when he arrived in a new country. By the time of his 1998 visit to Cuba it had become difficult for him to do this, due to the nature of his disease. In an act of love, several children approached the Holy Father with a bowl of the country’s soil as he disembarked from his airplane. They lifted this up to him so that his lips could touch the dirt without enduring the struggle of bending to the ground.
The last public appearance of John Paul II occurred 4 days before his death, when he struggled to bless the crowd in St. Peter’s Square from his window. Throughout his illness this man gave the world a public demonstration of the second approach to disease, disability, and depression. This approach says, in contradiction to the “I want” mantra, this suffering is not about my wants. This suffering is an opportunity to practice love and humility. The love which offers suffering for the salvation of souls, which sacrifices its own wants and dignity for the good of others. And the humility which does not insist on independence but allows oneself to be cared for by others and to appear weak and sickly in the eyes of others.
I’ve been privileged to witness this embrace of suffering on a very personal level, with the illness of my grandma. When her health began deteriorating, and it became apparent that she needed full time care, my aunt gave up her job and her life in upstate New York to come home and care for her mother. For the past 15 years my aunt has taken over increasing responsibility for my grandma, to the point that she now does literally everything for her. There is nothing more humbling than having to rely on another person for everything that is necessary for your life. There is no dignity in my grandma’s situation, except the dignity that comes from love. There is no dignity in death, except the dignity that comes from love.
Administering a lethal injection does not give someone a dignified death. Rather, it strips them of the opportunity to sanctify both themselves and others. The love which offers suffering for souls sanctifies oneself and the humility which allows others to sacrifice for you sanctifies them. If we truly want to offer “death with dignity” we will abandon our wants and engage in the hard work of caring for the diseased, disabled, and depressed.
During my pilgrimage to Poland I had the opportunity to visit the Divine Mercy Shrine, dedicated to the message of Divine Mercy which Our Lord communicated to Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska (now St. Faustina). One of the Sisters of Divine Mercy, the religious order which runs the shrine, gave a talk to our group on this message. She finished by inviting each of us to take a Divine Mercy holy card. They were not for us to keep, however, but to give to someone who needed to put their trust in Jesus.
My grandma had been on my mind since I had noticed the similarity in appearance between her and the Holy Father. I had been praying for her throughout my Polish pilgrimage and I sent the holy card home to her, to strengthen her in her suffering and to thank her for the example she has set for me.