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The spiritual meaning of suffering and death

March 20, 2015
Father John Catoir

Anyone can commit suicide. It’s done all the time. But recently we have seen a movement toward legalization of assisted suicide.

It seems that the right to die soon becomes the duty to die. Given medical expenses in today’s world, some are tempted to say that it costs too much money to stay alive. The physical suffering of the patient isn’t the only worry. There’s the added worry of the medical costs, which can make the patient feel guilty about receiving care.

Society is moving from the ideal of valuing life as a sacred gift into a slipshod vision of it as a dispensable burden. Can you see yourself on a sickbed hearing that your cancer treatments are too expensive? I, for one, as a prostate cancer survivor can tell you how glad I was to have enough insurance to pay for my surgery and follow-up treatment.

The nobility of the medical profession rests entirely on the commitment of its practitioners to do no harm, to care for all patients equally, rich or poor, young or old, famous or insignificant. The confidence with which a patient turns to his physicians depends on this ideal. It also spurs physicians to find innovative ways of helping the sick.

The pleas of sick people, who are weary of suffering and have nothing to look forward to, are deeply distressing. As a priest visiting the sick and dying for more than 50 years, I readily admit that at times I have wished I could have put some patients who were suffering out of their misery. So I can easily understand the doctors who face these painful decisions every day.

However, physicians long have been upholding the rule to do no harm. They may be weeping on the inside, but they know that killing patients will lead to a sentimental kind of medicine where patients and families dictate the treatment.

Catholics and other Christians have a theological understanding of suffering and death that gives rich spiritual meaning to a complete life well lived and one in which no one can take away the life of another person.

We can look for guidance at the passion of Jesus Christ, the coin that purchased our redemption. Our suffering, like the suffering of our Savior, transcends the hospital bed. Our suffering, united with the suffering of Christ on the cross, can have value if offered as a sacrifice for the salvation of souls.

The suffering of Jesus on the cross is a sacrifice of love worth imitating.

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