Thursday, January 18, 2018

Homily on the Occasion of the March for Life

The 45th Annual March for Life takes place tomorrow, Friday 19 January, in Washington, D.C.  It is always an interesting time when tens of thousands of people, young Catholic students in particular, descend on D.C.  Anyone who knew anyone who was at Georgetown, or who knew anyone, who knew anyone, who had a cousin at Georgetown, could be found sleeping on dorm floors.  Not all Georgetown students supported the march of course.  There was always the presence of the Georgetown students for choice, mostly girls and a group of epicene boys, raising their usual hue and cry.  Young religious sisters, particularly the Sisters for Life in their blue and white habits, roamed the campus and city.  I never attended the march in person, mostly due to weather, distances involved, and old-age hood, the last being the most significant.  However, in January 2012, five weeks post CABG x 4, I had the privilege of leading the Holy Hour, Benediction, and Rosary in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel prior to the beginning of the 13th Annual Cardinal O'Connor Conference for Life.

The annual march began as a response to Roe v. Wade, a decision that signed the death warrants for untold numbers of children in the womb and, in retrospect, launched American society on a slippery slope of killing the imperfect, the undesirable, and the unwanted.  In response the scope of the pro-life movement has expanded to include opposition to what is euphemistically called physician-assisted suicide or, even more disingenuously "physician-guided death."  Justin Cardinal Rigali defined the Church's, and thus our, role in his homily at the Life Vigil held in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 2008:  "Our task is to build a culture of life in which every person is treated with the respect due to his or her human dignity, regardless of age, physical or mental ability, or stage of development." 

After more than 40 years of caring for the elderly as both internist and psychiatrist, and ten years as priest with regular ministry in nursing homes, I remain perplexed and sardonically amused by the exercise in the denial of reality represented by renaming killing grandma as physician-guided death.  I did not endure medical school, two residencies, and one fellowship so I could become a guide for people who want, or for families who want a loved one, to cross over some rainbow bridge.  Exactly when did old age or terminal illness become a capital offense?
In the spring of 1978, a few months before I finished internal medicine residency, I had the privilege of spending six weeks as a visiting registrar (equivalent to a resident) with Dr. Cicely Saunders at St. Christopher's Hospice in London. While St. Christopher's was not the first hospice in England, Dr. Saunders brought the hospice concept and the need for scrupulous pain control to international notice.  Her life story is fascinating.  It would be an honor to recount some of it here but that is not my purpose.  It is important to note, however, that she was a fierce opponent of what was then called euthanasia.  Any student so foolish as to ask about the question of 'euthanizing' patients realized in moments that he or she had made a serious mistake.  An article in the Telegraph described her argument, "Impending death is no excuse for ending life. Rather than rush to kill the dying in the name of ending their suffering, we should focus on practical measures for alleviating their pain and spiritual means to make their final moments worth living."
Robert Twycross, former research fellow at St. Christopher's, spent 25 years directing Sir Michael Sobell House, a hospice in Oxfordshire. I was struck by something he wrote around 20 years ago in which he suggested that a physician who had never considered killing a suffering patient was either new to the profession or singularly lacking in empathy.  He noted, however, that having the fantasy is not the same thing as acting on it.  Some fantasies must remain precisely that.  He went on to decry the idea of killing rather than treating the ill, the elderly, and the mentally disabled.  He is a contrast to Lord High Executioner Kevorkian. 

Jack Kevorkian had been a pathologist.  In general pathologists don't see patients whose body temperature is higher than that of the ambient air.  (NB:  Pathologists, alone among medical doctors, are not required to have the equivalent of an internship treating live patients prior to beginning their training.  The last warm body Kevorkian examined might have been in medical school).  His initial seven or eight patients were women, very feminist forward of him. One of the women was in the early stage of Alzheimer's disease.  I recall a photo of her waving fondly to her family as she entered the death chamber.  It was a painful photo and vaguely nauseating.  The photo raised questions.  Was this a free choice on her part?  Is free choice possible when significant Alzheimer pathology is present?  Are one's thought processes already skewed?  What was the role of the family?  Did anyone try to discourage her?  Did someone, a child perhaps, get the ball rolling?  (Mom, you know there are options.  And then you won't have to depend on anyone or sell the house.). Sometimes our vocations, willing or not, become caring for another who is ill, suffering, or dying, even though it significantly disrupts our lives.  Of course, having a child has the same disruptive effect on our lives for many years.    

As the abortion avalanche has careened down the mountain it has taken on disturbing aspects.  Recent articles in the mainstream press have noted that Iceland has almost eliminated trisomy 21, Down's syndrome, by aborting all babies carrying a third copy of the 21st chromosome.  When will the lack of genes for blond hair, the chromosomes for musical ability, or probable non-inheritance of dad's three-point fade-away jumper become grounds for aborting a child?  Will the SATs have to be changed when selective breeding and abortion produce children who get uniformly perfect scores?  

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae St. John Paul II, Pope, described the  Icelandic approach as, "eugenic abortion, justified in public opinion on the basis of a mentality--mistakenly held to be consistent with the demands of 'therapeutic interventions'--which accepts life only under certain conditions and rejects it when it is affected by any limitation, handicap, or illness."

In ancient times physicians who pronounced and lived according to the Oath of Hippocrates were called "Hippocratic Physicians".  Not all ancient physicians--designated non-Hippocratic--took the oath or abided by its precepts.  Today, administering the oath is a trite ceremony at medical school graduations.  It is trite because the "oath" has been so bowdlerized as to be unrecognizable.  Phrases indicating ethical-moral behavior: "Into whatsoever houses I enter, . . . I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free" were removed.  The injunctions against killing are also missing.  Thus the young doctor will never say, "I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art."   It might be best to drop the absurd oath-administering exercise entirely.  Given that the oath was written between the third and fifth centuries B.C. the usual whine about the Catholic Church trying to impose its beliefs is invalid here.  

The danger today, as pointed out in Evangelium Vitae, is "the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person."  Women's Health and Physician Guided Death fall under this rubric.

Unfortunately, there will be a 46th and 47th Annual March for Life.  The need for such witness may become even more desperate over the coming years.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Requiescant in pace.

"Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace."
Chapel of Mary, Mother of Sorrows in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the site for a number of the liturgical activities associated with the march.

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Epiphany of the Lord

Is 60:1-6
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13
Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
Mt 2:1-12

One of the challenges to getting through the Christmas season is the amount of sickly sweet imagery that clings to the narrative of Jesus' birth.  These include images of a grinning newborn baby the size of a toddler and depictions of Mary dressed in blue and white watered silk encrusted with pearls and rhinestones.  Morbidly obese Santas, reindeer, and elf cards are beneath contempt. The images imposed on Jesus' birth are frequently painful and embarrassing.  Much too often we hear about  "The Magic of Christmas."  Or "Christmas is for Children."  Christmas is not a holiday primarily for children.  It is a holy day for all people of the world.

Christmas is not magic.  It is not a panacea for sorrow.  No one is required to be happy at Christmas.  Too often the sorrowful, the dying, and those who are struggling with the realities of life,  are told how they must surrender to the magic of Christmas so that they'll feel better.  Families, friends and neighbors of those grieving the death of another insist that a large dinner at someone's house will make all cares disappear, or, at the very least, begin what is called closure.  Closure is a made up word.  It is a pseudo-psychological concept. It does not exist. It does not occur. Unfortunately, Epiphany is not exempt from the gooey sweetness. 

Epiphany derives from the Greek:  epi:  forth and pheinein: to show.  Thus Epiphany:  to show forth.  Among the dictionary definitions of epiphany one finds, "a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something, a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization."  The intuitive realization of Jesus as Messiah is the perfect description of this feast. It is an intuition symbolized by a star.  But, then there is the problem of "the kings." 

The word "kings" does not appear in Matthew's Gospel.  Those who bore the gifts are called magi.  Some translations use wise men.  No matter the translation, they were not monarchs.  The word kings came into use only around the sixth century. 

Matthew did not give a number, he simply used the plural. There could have been as few as two or many more than three.  Because the gifts were described as gold, frankincense, and myrrh, tradition holds that there were three magi.  Despite the tradition of Kasper, Melchior, and Balthazar their names are not listed in scripture. In the end, the number of magi, their names, and their kingly or non-kingly status, is an irrelevant distraction. 

However, the Magi are important. They are important because they represent the first Gentiles to worship Jesus.  They were the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus.  They were the first Gentiles to experience the sudden realization of the reality for which the world had long awaited.  Their epiphany was not exclusive then nor is it exclusive now.  We will hear of more epiphanies in the cycle of readings this liturgical year. There are many epiphanies scattered throughout our lives, if we are willing to notice them.

The reality of Christmas and Epiphany is found in a verse in today's Gospel. "When King Herod heard of this he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him." 

Herod's jealousy and the duplicity underlying his conversation with the magi gets closer to the reality of Christmas than do the lyrics of  "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "We Three Kings of Orient Are."  We see the first shadow of the cross in Herod's evil desires.  We see the path from Bethlehem to Calvary in Herod's malevolence.  "Go and search diligently for the child.  When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."  This, from a crazed and cruel megalomaniac! 

The first reading from Isaiah assured Jerusalem that the glory of the Lord would shine upon her.  We hear echoes of the covenant, we hear echoes of God's promise to His people.  In the context of the prophecy from Isaiah, the reading from Ephesians is consoling because it assures the Gentiles that they are also included in the promise.  We are reminded of that inclusion daily in the word of consecration said over the wine:

"This is the chalice of my Blood,
the Blood of the new and eternal covenant
which will be poured out
for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins." 

". . . for you and for many."

Once the word magic is forever disassociated from Christmas, we can begin to understand its true meaning.  Once the sloppy sentimentality is discarded, we can begin to comprehend the "Christmas story;" a story that did not end when the magi returned home, wherever that might have been. 

The best description of the meaning of Christmas did not come from an academic theologian. It came from an economist whose name is familiar to those of a certain age.  Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary general of the U.N., died in a still-mysterious plane crash in what was then Northern Rhodesia in 1961.  A small and irregularly kept journal was found in his apartment after his death.  He began keeping it at age 20.  He died at 58.  The entries are not dated. The journal has been in continuous print under the title: Markings. 

A number of the later entries are haiku, the Japanese poetic form limited to  twelve words with a total of seventeen syllables.  One of those haiku captures the entire meaning of Christmas.  There is nothing gooey, sticky, or treacly about it.  There is no magic in it.  It is not limited to children. It is for all people. It does not suggest a celebration of food, booze and consumer insanity.  It has nothing to do with a holiday.  It has everything to do with a holy day.

"On Christmas Eve Good Friday
was foretold them
in a trumpet fanfare."

We cannot separate the wood of the manger from the wood of the cross.

Neither event was magical.

The cold has been brain paralyzing.  If the temp hits 33 as predicted tomorrow it will be the first time in two weeks that it has gone above freezing.  This AM it was -4 F at 7:30.  Haven't gone outdoors with the camera in a while.  Not sure at what point there is a risk of damage.  The other problem is condensation forming on the glass surfaces when the camera comes in from extreme cold into a warm house though the house is not all that warm.  

Campion Center.  The decoration this year has ditched the colored lights in favor of clear.  Makes the photography a lot easier.  

The altar in the chapel in St. Mary's Hall Jesuit Residence set up as if for Mass.  It helps to have keys to get the off-hour shots.

Close-up photographs of Christmas ornaments is somewhat trite.  But it is fun.  Had to do a lot of processing to tone down the lights.  

Stained glass in the St. Mary's chapel.  The stained glass is terrific.  During one of the breaks I want to get permission to go in with a ladder so I can shoot straight ahead rather than looking up.  The chapel is narrow thus there is distortion.  I was able to correct this with the new processing program.  There are four windows all of which have this kind of exquisite detail. 

Looking through the metalwork between two plates of glass in the doors to the chapel from the main hallway. 

The creche with the light adjusted.  

The altar set for Mass.

A carved Madonna and Child.  It is not a large statue but it is lovely. 

Prepared for Mass.

An angled view of the altar.  I like the simplicity of the decor. 

Standing in the center at the back of the chapel. 

Every year the bakery at Boston College gives the Jesuit Community a gingerbread house.  This is not small.  About three feet from the apex of the roof to the "ground."  It is hard to avoid chomping on a chunk as I walk by. 

Some very good detail.  Like the BC insignia above the door.  These guys did a great job with scale.  Nothing is out of scale. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD