Proclaiming the Word: Part Three

Last time  I wrote about what makes a good homily and what is an image of a preacher.  At the preaching conference, most of the presenters dedicated their talks to how a homilist should prepare. “Prepare the homilist; not the homily” was a phrase used by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto during the keynote opening address. This, of course, does not mean that a preacher should not prepare the homily. Here’s how I think a homilist should prepare.

A good preacher must first be a person of the Gospels. Both Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB in his book Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church as well as the USCCB publication, Fulfilled in Your Hearing speak of being “listeners of the Word” and “listeners of the people.” Not only do I have to be knowledgeable of Scripture, but I must pray the Scriptures. I must let the Scriptures speak to me – not just while preparing a homily, but all the time. The practice of Lectio Divina and the Office of Readings as is the Liturgy of the Hours, are an integral part of this. In fact, out of the eight presenters during the conference, five of them spoke of the importance of Lectio Divina.

When I approach the Scriptures I am not just reading and/or praying. I also go to the Scriptures to look for hope. I must ask myself, where is the hope in this reading? Where is the good news? Fulfilled in Your Hearing suggests that preachers go to the Scriptures asking four questions:

1-What is the human situation to which these texts were originally addressed?

2-To what human concerns and questions might these same texts have spoken through the Church’s history?

3-What is the human situation to which they can speak today? And

4-How can they help us to understand, to interpret our lives in such a way that we can turn to God with praise and thanksgiving?

In order to help the People of God find meaning for themselves in the Gospel message, I must ask these questions. I must ask these questions every time I read Scripture, so that they become second nature to my relationship with the Scriptures.

But, I began last time, by defining a homily as a witness that is honest, truthful and authentic. It needs to be clear, simple and concrete. It also needs to be pastoral, sacramental, liturgical and doctrinal. And so, I need to ask myself all these questions. I also need to zero in on the key message that I hope to share. This will force me to have one message and not a confusion of ideas. I need to think of concrete ways to share and interpret this message. It may require research. It may require looking at current affairs or examples from popular culture. The key message needs to be something about Christ or God. It is not enough to say, for example, that “today’s message is that we need to go to confession.” That is not Christ-centred. The Christological message about confession is that Christ forgives all our sins! That is good news! But, it may not be sufficient to say that Christ forgives all our sins – how do we respond to this good news?

And so an important approach for me is to find a key message. Fr. DeBona calls it the “pearl” or “focus.” The focus has to be about Christ or God. Then I have to find what Fr. DeBona calls the “function.” The function has to be an action with which the congregation can respond to the “focus.” For example, if the focus is that Christ forgives all our sins, the function can be that we need to be repentant and approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In 1999 the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics (CATH) updated its 1992 “Report on Homiletics Curriculum and Preaching Professor Certification”. The resulting document is titled, Roman Catholic Homiletic Preaching Competencies, but is referred to as the “CATH White Paper”. According to the “white paper” the homily needs to be sacramental and liturgical. One way of achieving this is to find part of the “function” (the response to the “Focus”) in how we respond through the Sacraments and through the Liturgy. It is always appropriate to lead out of the homily inviting people to enter into the next movement of the Liturgy. This should not be hard if the homily is indeed inviting us to praise and thanksgiving.

Lastly, I think that the homily needs to be doctrinal. This can simply mean that the truths that are being shared are not the preacher’s personal truths, but the truths of the Church. We have to be sure that what we are sharing is part of the Teaching Office of the Church. And so, to use the above example – to tell people that Christ will forgive our sins in the quiet of our bedroom, may need some further explanation if we are to be true to the fullness of the Church’s Teaching on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Being doctrinal may mean, on occasion, that the preacher has to teach an important point of doctrine. This sometimes takes place on a special feast, where it may be appropriate to share briefly about a historical point (why we celebrate the Triumph of the Cross, or the Chair of Peter, for example). It is important, if we do so, that this is not the main focus of the homily. We have to remember that the focus needs to be Christ or God-centred.

And so we agree that the preacher has to be a man of prayer and a man of the Gospels. I spoke the first time that the preacher has to also be a listener of the people; the preacher must know his congregation. Today we looked at some ways a preacher can help focus on what the message of a particular homily is. Next time we will look at some more tips for making your homily effective and memorable.

Proclaiming the Word: Part Two

As I wrote last Sunday, last week I attended a preaching conference as part of St. Augustine’s Seminary 100th anniversary events. It was a who’s who in preaching, with all the talks by homiletics experts from all over North America.

I think about homilies all the time. Not so much because I have to prepare one at least once a month, but because I have to listen to one at least once a week. I’m also a public speaker, and TV and radio host, so I am thinking about communication all the time.

After the conference I dug out a paper I wrote when I was in formation for the Permanent Diaconate for our homiletics course. One of the main questions we had then (and that I still have now) is “what is a homily?”. How would you respond to that question?

Here’s my definition: A homily is a joyful, loving, passionate, clear, simple and concrete teaching/learning, challenge and witness that empowers and encourages to action and to growth the people of God through the power of the Word. A good homily needs to be truthful, authentic and honest, as well as sacramental, liturgical, scriptural, pastoral, doctrinal and Christological. Our homiletics professor, Deacon Peter Lovrick thought that was a tall order.

But I think that an outstanding homily has to be authentic, personal, loving and honest. If I want to be an outstanding preacher, I need to speak with authority and joy. I have to use concrete images, stories and other tools, such as music or art to share the Good News.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a very helpful little document on preaching called “Fulfilled in Your Hearing”. According to that publication, a preacher is a “mediator of meaning, representing both the community and the Lord”. This makes sense to me. It means that the preacher is so much more that someone who interprets Scripture: “The preacher acts as a mediator, making connections between the real lives of people who believe in Jesus Christ but are not always sure what difference faith can make in their lives, and the God who calls us into ever deeper communion with himself and with one another.” The document continues, “Especially in the Eucharistic celebration, the sign of God’s saving presence among his people, the preacher is called to point to the signs of God’s presence in the lives of his people so that, in joyous recognition of that presence, they may join the angels and saints to proclaim God’s glory and sing with them their unending hymn of praise.”

To me, while the above deals with the purpose of a homily at a higher level (that a preacher’s job is really to lead people to thanksgiving and praise) the role of the preacher is much more specific. Homilies that move me are ones that are personal and spoken with honesty and truth. They are pastoral in that they help me make connections between the realities of my life and the realities of the Gospel. A good homily doesn’t always give answers, but helps us see how God is present and acting in our lives, in the midst of whatever reality we may be facing. Fulfilled in Your Hearing clarifies this: “What the Word of God offers us is a way to interpret our human lives, a way to face the ambiguities and challenges of the human condition, not a pat answer to every problem and question that comes along.” In this way, in order for a homily to be pastoral, it has to be scriptural and also Christological.

I was eager to meet Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB at the conference because we studied with his book Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church. In it he offers four models of preaching, as described by Robert Waznak (who has written many books on preaching, the most popular, An Introduction to the Homily). The four models are: The Herald; the Witness; the Teacher and the Interpreter. (Preaching Effectively, pages 156-162)

HERALD: The word herald is taken from the New Testament Greek word, “kerusein”, which literally means, “to proclaim”. I like the image of the proclaimer (more so than the word herald) which really does not mean much to me. After all, Jesus himself sent us to the ends of the earth to proclaim the good news (Mark 16:15) and the Second Vatican Council Document, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, states clearly that the primary duty of priests (and deacons) is the proclamation of the Gospel to all. (Chapter II, Section 1, #4)

John the Baptist is the image of the herald for me. While other prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah are also proclaimers of the Word, John the Baptist literally proclaims THE Word, who is Christ. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness. (Mark 1:2-3) Like John the Baptist, a proclaimer is more than just someone who speaks. To proclaim is to announce passionately; to declare publicly. Proclaim it from the housetops  (Matthew 10:27) was Pope John Paul II’s message in 2005 to those responsible for Communications. (Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development, John Paul II) and a message he repeated to pilgrims at World Youth Day 2002. To proclaim requires something important that has to be said. We cannot proclaim in secret. Proclamation requires a large voice, for the message is monumental. If proclamation required a musical instrument, it would not be a flute, but a trumpet!

WITNESS/TEACHER: If the Gospel of Mark ends with Jesus‚ command that we are to proclaim the good news to the whole creation, (Mark 16:15) the Book of Acts tells us how we are about to do this. The author of the Book of Acts describes the same event slightly differently: Before his ascension, Jesus tells the disciples, that they will be clothed with power from on high and they will be his witnesses throughout the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) If Mark says that we are to proclaim, Luke in Acts tells us that we are to do so by witnessing! Fr. DeBona uses a wonderful explanation of the power of witness, taken from Paul VI’s On Evangelization in the Modern World. Paul VI wrote that people are looking for authenticity, truth and honesty and therefore they respond more to witnesses than to teachers. In fact, if they respond to teachers, it is because these teachers are witnesses first. While the image of teacher is not entirely a bad one for me, sometimes we associate teachers with someone who is authoritative and who speaks above the listeners. Sometimes teachers are more concerned with being heard and with teaching than they are with relating. It is because of this that I prefer to use the image of proclaimer and witness, than that of teacher, although, I do believe that there is a place for teaching during a homily.

INTERPRETER: The last image Robert Waznak proposes is that of an interpreter. This is an image that is also found in Fulfilled in Your Hearing, as we saw above. While the meaning of the word may be accurate, it is not an image that for me conjures up warmth and relationship. To me, an interpreter is merely someone concerned with meaning and ideas. I think that a preacher is much more. A preacher interprets the Gospel into the realities of the listeners, but more importantly does so in a spirit of hope.

ANOTHER IMAGE: The end of the Gospel of Luke leaves us with a wonderful image of a preacher: Jesus himself. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus opens up the Scriptures to the two travellers. (Luke 24:13-35) At the end, they were left with hearts burning within them. (Luke 24:32) Every outstanding homily has left me with my heart burning within me. How do we do this? I think that first of all the preacher’s heart has to be burning. Fr. Guerric DeBona offers a wonderful image: John Wesley was once asked about the source of his effective preaching. Wesley said, “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.”

MY IMAGE OF PREACHER: To me, a preacher is like a bon-fire that signals to a great distance and also gives warmth and invites people to gather. A preacher is also like a trumpet playing a warm melody. It carries importance and royal authority. His message is moving and touches the heart. It proclaims and witnesses to the good news. For these reasons, the word that best conjures up the image of a preacher for me is evangelisor.  The word evangelisor, by definition, is someone who shares or spreads the good news, the Gospel. An evangelisor is a proclaimer and a witness. An evangelisor sometimes teaches and sometimes interprets (as Jesus did on the road to Emmaus). I hope to be a preacher who, first and foremost is the bringer of good news. But not just any good news: the Good News of Jesus Christ. I hope to proclaim it, as it is the most important news there is to share. I hope to do so passionately and with joy. I hope to be a voice crying out in the wilderness. I hope to set myself on fire with the Word and, by the Grace of God, this fire will spread to those all around.

Come back on Sunday to find out how I think all homilists should prepare and please, tell me what you think. What do you think defines a good homily? What is your image of a preacher? Share your thoughts with us.

Proclaiming the Word: Part One

Pope Benedict wrote in the Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini that “the homily is a means of bringing the scriptural message to life in a way that helps the faithful to realize that God’s word is present and at work in their everyday lives.” (VD 59) Add to that the 18 pages that Pope Francis dedicated to preaching in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. In it he writes: “The homily is the touchstone for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people. We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” (EG 135) It was with these thoughts in mind that I attended the preaching conference held at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary last week. The conference was titled, “How to Make Catholic Preaching Better.”

I’m a deacon. I am the minister of the Word. I think homilies are important. But before I was a deacon, I thought homilies were important (I went to theatre school and have spent the last 30 years of my life doing live theatre, film and TV, so I’ve always been a bit critical of public speakers in general) and I suspect that most of you “attach great importance” to the homily, but did you know that according to the Church, preaching is the main duty of deacons, priests and bishops? Fr. Guerric DeBona, OSB of St. Meinrad Seminary made this point very clear. In the Vatican II decree on the ministry and life of priests it says, “The People of God are joined together primarily by the word of the living God. And rightfully they expect this from their priests. Since no one can be saved who does not first believe, priests, as co-workers with their bishops, have the primary duty of proclaiming the Gospel of God to all. In this way they fulfill the command of the Lord: “Going therefore into the whole world preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15) (Presbyterorum Ordinis #4) On the last day of the conference, Toronto Auxiliary Bishop, John Boissoneau reminded us that since the Council of Trent it has been the primary duty of Bishops to proclaim the Word of God.

So why is it that so often we come out of the Liturgy of the Word uninspired and unmoved? When was the last time you heard a good homily? Or better yet, what is a good homily? Toronto Deacon Peter Lovrick, who organized the conference began by telling us the results of a survey of  conference participants: 50% said that generally in North America preaching needed improvement; however 43% of the respondents claimed that their preaching was “good”. Fr. James Heft, SM of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies of the University of Southern California also shared the results of a survey he used to do with seminarians. Commonly they would say that 90% of homilists were poor preachers. At the same time, 90% of these same seminarians would often claim that they were good preachers.

When Cardinal William Levada was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith I heard him say that a good homily had to be scriptural, catechetical, pastoral and liturgical. That means that first, it has to be based on the readings of the day. Not necessarily that they have to be a Bible study, but it should be rooted in the readings. But it also has to be an opportunity for teaching us something about our faith and our relationship with God. They need to be pastoral because everything we do as ministers of the Word (which is not just preaching, by the way) is pastoral. That’s why Pope Francis keeps reminding us that we need to smell like the sheep. The pastoral component of the homily is the part that connects with the listeners, helping them make sense in their lives what is being proclaimed. Lastly, the homily is not separate from the liturgy. There’s a reason why the homily happens in the Mass; it’s not just a speech, lecture or sermon. The homily should invite us to respond to the Word through the Sacraments and through the Liturgy. It is always appropriate to lead out of the homily inviting people to enter into the next movement of the Liturgy. This should not be hard if the homily is indeed inviting us to praise and to thanksgiving. Outgoing rector of St. Augustine’s, Mons. Robert Nusca reminded us in his talk that a homily is not an academic exercise; it is rather a conversation between Christ and the people. The homily should lead to prayer, but also to thinking. Many of the other presenters said the same thing.

In Verbum Domini Pope Benedict also wrote: “[The homily] should lead to an understanding of the mystery being celebrated, serve as a summons to mission, and prepare the assembly for the profession of faith, the universal prayer and the Eucharistic Liturgy.” (VD 59) I guess that’s why I’ve been trying to say.

Several of the speakers at the conference made the point that while the preacher must be a listener of the Word, he must also be a listener of the people. A preacher must know the congregation. A preacher must be with the people; a shepherd must be with the sheep. Fr. Guerric DeBona who is also the author of the homiletics book that I studied with, Preaching Effectively, Revitalizing Your Church (Paulist Press), said that the shaping of your homily text must be determined by who is listening: “If the text is not geared to the particular congregation, the word is not “fulfilled in their hearing.” He added that the text needs to be brought to life. The preacher needs to put flesh and bones to the message for that particular congregation. It sounds like something I would have learned in Theatre school.

The opening keynote address was given by Toronto’s Archbishop, Cardinal Thomas Collins. One of his comments was that we must prepare the homilist before we prepare the homily. In fact, most of the speakers dedicated their talks to this very thing: helping prepare the homilist. The homilist has to be a man of prayer. The homilist has to in relationship with Scriptures. The homilist must be in constant study and prayer with the Word. As well as Cardinal Collins, four other of the eight presenters spoke about Lectio Divina and how important such type of prayer is for a homilist. Lastly, as I just wrote above, the homilist must be with the people.

The main question that I still have is what makes a good homily. I’m curious to know what you think. Do you believe that content is more important than style; that the medium is the message? Is it enough to have a great message if the preacher is not a good communicator? To read or not to read? To walk around or to stand behind the pulpit? If you are a preacher, how do you prepare? Write a comment; share with us what you think.

Attending the conference made me go back to a paper that I wrote for our homiletics class while I was in formation for the permanent diaconate. Come back on Wednesday and I’ll share with you what I found.


To listen to a conversation I had with Fr. Guerric DeBona on this very subject, listen to the May 31, 2014 edition of the SLHour.

Photo credit: Jesuit Father Gregory C. Chisholm, pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Church in the Harlem section of New York, delivers a homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Respecting End of Life: Part 5

Resident Priest blessed centenarian at Little Sisters home in Washington  (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) (Sept. 30, 2009)

Resident Priest blessed centenarian at Little Sisters home in Washington (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec) (Sept. 30, 2009)

We’ve spent the last month looking at what it means to have euthanasia and/or assisted suicide legal in our country (see part 4, part 3, part 2 and part 1). Let me conclude by giving you some definitions to help you have this conversation with your family and friends.

  1. Passive Euthanasia: Some will claim that this is disconnecting someone from medical life-support equipment without which they cannot live. This is NOT euthanasia. Disconnecting someone from an artificial life support system is not euthanasia, passive or otherwise. It is called withholding extraordinary care. Disconnecting someone from a respirator without which their lungs (or heart) would not naturally function is not killing them. They are already dead without the machine. This is different than ordinary care, like a feeding tube. In the case of Terri Schiavo, the courts considered that she was receiving extraordinary care, even though she was breathing on her own and her heart was beating on its own. The “extraordinary care” in Terri’s case was a feeding tube. But feeding someone is not giving them extraordinary care – it’s feeding them. It’s no different than feeding a baby who can’t feed herself. Terri Schiavo didn’t die because they removed a medical life-support system without which she could not live. She died because she was starved to death. Tube or no tube, no one was even allowed to wet her lips with a towel. There’s no dignity, freedom or choice in that.
    NOTE: It is permissible to have someone on life support (extraordinary care) if there is hope of their recovery. It is permissible to withdraw extraordinary care if there is no hope of recovery.
  2. Self-Deliverance is suicide. It’s taking your own life.
  3. Assisted Suicide is Physician Assisted Suicide. A doctor prescribes drugs and then you take them yourself. He doesn’t assist you in taking them, he assists you by prescribing them. But you have to be able to take them yourself.
  4. Active Euthanasia: This is the only kind of Euthanasia there is (as opposed to passive euthanasia, which is not euthanasia). This is when the doctor (or someone else) injects the lethal drugs, because you can’t do it yourself. The current law in Canada calls this murder under the Criminal Code. Euthanasia can be voluntary (you asked the doctor to do it), or involuntary. Take note: 2400 or so cases of euthanasia and assisted suicide are reported each year in Holland. But in 1991, the Dutch Government conducted a study that found that there were actually closer to 12,000 assisted suicides that year. Of these, the patient did not request or consent to being killed in close to 6,000 cases. One of the doctors explained that it would have been “rude” to discuss the matter with the patients, as they all “knew that their conditions were incurable.” This is what could easily begin happening now in Quebec.

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition in Canada defines Euthanasia as: to intentionally cause death by action or omission of an action, for allegedly merciful reasons. And Assisted suicide is to knowingly provide the means for a person to kill him or herself.

I’m sorry this is so long but we need to let Canadians know the dangers of having a euthanasia mentality. Once we legalize something, it becomes part of our collective belief system. I truly believe that. So, legalizing it today, means that three generations from now, it will be commonly accepted that it’s ok to resort to killing in order to deal with difficult situations. That’s the slippery slope. And there are no safeguards that will work. Once we accept that killing is OK in order to relieve suffering, killing will be the norm. Once we accept that killing is OK under certain circumstances, we’ll soon begin to think that killing is OK under ANY circumstances. And next thing you know, killing will be acceptable to rid us of other inconveniences.

For more information you can contact the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide or the Catholic Organization for Life and Family

Respecting End of Life: Part 4


Priest offers Communion to elderly man in Chile (CNS photo/Ivan Alvarado, Reuters) (April 15, 2010)

 I had been explaining some red-flags that I found in the book Final Exit by Derek Humphry (see Part 3, and also Part 2), and ended up talking about relativism: You may not want euthanasia for yourself, but don’t impose your beliefs on someone else, which is the number one flaw with this book, and with the thinking of anyone who is actually considering that euthanasia or assisted suicide are viable options. We can’t all come up with these things on our own. Your personal autonomy shouldn’t be permitted to trump the safety and well-being of society. In the words of disability-rights-activist Catherine Frazee (she used to be the chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission), “It’s not about the particularities of a law and what it prevents and prohibits. It’s much more about the messages of the law and how those messages get translated into a social and cultural order.” (Catherine is featured in our documentary on Euthanasia, Turning the Tide, which I produced for S+L Television back in 2006.)

I spoke to Derek Humphry at the Right to Die Conference in Toronto in 2006. I said to him that I found his book compelling (which is true). But I had one difficulty and that was his use of the word “dignity.” I said that when people who believe in God use the word “dignity” I understand what they mean. But when someone, who doesn’t believe in God uses that word, it’s meaningless. I don’t know what they mean. So I asked, “what do you mean when you say “dignity?” He couldn’t answer me. He said that we all have to come up with our own definitions.

But I looked it up:

Dig•ni•ty Pronunciation: ‘dig-n&-tE Function: noun Etymology: Middle English dignete, from Anglo-French digneté, from Latin dignitat-, dignitas, from dignus 1 : the quality or state of being worthy, honoured, or esteemed 2 a : high rank, office, or position b : a legal title of nobility or honour 3 archaic : DIGNITARY 4 : formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language

I don’t think he means “high rank, office or position” or anything about manner or language. He means “the quality or state of being worthy.”

If you don’t believe in God, from where does your dignity come? Nowhere. That’s where. There is no reason to consider human life has any value whatsoever if we believe we are the result of an accidental primordial blast and if we don’t believe there is anything after this life. I’m not saying you have to believe in God or in the afterlife, but if you don’t, don’t go around pretending that human life has value and worth. I’ve said this before, without God, we would be subject to entropy, which only leads to disorder and death. As soon as you accept that there is dignity in life, you have to accept that there is dignity in all life. I’m not going to decide which life is valuable and which one isn’t. Is Teague Johnson’s life valuable? Is Tracey Latimer’s not valuable? Was Terri Schiavo’s life not valuable (her brother, Bobby Schindler is also featured in Turning the Tide)? Are we suggesting that laws can be formulated to tell us whose life is valuable and whose isn’t? I currently working on Creation, a six-part series looking at the Catholic Church’s teachings on the environment and ecology. What I’ve discovered while working on Creation is that we can’t even come to the point of believing that we must care for the environment if we don’t first treat human beings and all creation with respect and all life with the dignity that comes with being created.

This leads me to my last point which has to do with the concept of quality of life. According to Humphry, self-deliverance should be an option when our quality of life has been reduced to mere existence. What are the criteria for life? Are some lives more valuable than others?

If you have life, then you have quality and value. Is it right for a depressed teen-ager that believes his life has no quality to kill himself? When I worked at Covenant House-Toronto, we did everything we could to help that teen-ager. We offered counseling and help. If we tell a person who is terminally ill that it’s OK to end their life, then we are actually saying that their life is not as worthy as another life. Your quality of life does not come from what you are able to do or not do; it comes from who you are. It comes from your relationships; how you relate to others. It comes from your ability to love and be loved. Compassion means giving them the proper emotional and physical pain control and being with them, loving them, caring for them, making them feel worthy. What we need in Canada is not legalized euthanasia or assisted suicide, what we need is better palliative care.

Come back next week for some final thoughts and definitions that will help you have this conversation with your family and friends.

Respecting End of Life: Part 3


An extraordinary minister of holy Communion, visits with patient for World Day of the Sick (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic) (Feb. 10, 2012)

In Part II, I gave a background on the author of the book Final Exit, Mr. Derek Humphry and a bit about the Right-to-Die movement. I do believe that the book is very compelling, but it contains some red flags. Here are some of them:

Choice: We have been brought up to believe that freedom means choice. But freedom doesn’t mean choice. Freedom means not being imprisoned. Recently I watched a wonderful documentary, Irreplaceable, produced by Focus on the Family. In it, one of the experts explained that the three generations have been the most permissive and “free”. It is not coincidence that it is these three generations that also have been the most addicted and depressed. That’s because we think that freedom is doing whatever we want when in fact the one thing that holds us most captive are our own desires. That’s the problem with freedom and choice. And when it comes to life and death, once we accept that it’s legally OK to kill another human being, it is not a long way until we will claim that it is our basic human right to have options in how we kill each other.

For those of us who believe in God, ultimately choice is about control and the minute we take control, we take control away from God. If you don’t believe in God, of course that it makes sense that you should have control over everything that you do. But I can’t even think of one aspect of my life over which I should have control. In all things, God should be in control.

A Good Death: This is what Humphry says the dilemma is: “should you battle on, take the pain, endure the indignity and await the inevitable end, or should you take control of the situation and resort to some form of euthanasia which in modern language means, ‘help with a good death’?” According to Merriam/Webster, euthanasia is defined as “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy”. I guess a “painless” way for reasons of mercy, equals a “good death”. I would claim that a good or bad death is directly related to whether you lived a good or bad life, not to the manner in which you die.

Suffering: Ask yourself this question, says Humphry, “Is your God willing to accept your suicide as a justifiable escape from further terminal suffering?” I suppose a non-Christian could consider this question. But if you call yourself a follower of Jesus Christ, find a crucifix and look at it. Is God willing to accept any human-controlled escape from any suffering? (Not to mention that there is only one God, not “your” god or “my” god).

Compassion: “This is compassion.” Humphry compares it all with putting an animal “out of its misery.” Someone endorsing the book is Isaac Asimov who says, “it’s cruel to allow humans to live in pain in hopelessness, in living death.” The truth is that compassion means, “to suffer with.” Killing you so you don’t have to suffer is not compassion.

Freedom and autonomy: This is one of the most common arguments for euthanasia: If you don’t want it for yourself, that’s OK, but don’t impose your set of beliefs on those who would want it for themselves. But if we applied that argument to everything, what kind of world would we have? Or does it only apply if it’s doing something to your own body? Humphry says that “life is personal responsibility” and “we must decide for ourselves”. But truth is not relative. Truth is absolute. Whether killing (or suicide or self-deliverance or whatever you want to call it) is right or wrong is not relative. Either it’s wrong for everyone, no matter the circumstances, or right for everyone, no matter the circumstances. We can’t make that decision by ourselves. And you certainly can’t draw out a charter delineating when it’s ok to kill and when it isn’t. That would never work.

I’ll continue in a couple of days. Again, for more resources on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide visit our Turning the Tide page, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, or the Catholic Organization for Life and Family site.

Respecting End of Life: Part 2


Respecting End of Life: Part 2

As many of you know, on May 6, members of the Quebec national assembly voted in favour of Bill 52, the “Act of Respecting End-of-life” making “assisted dying” legal in that province. I recently wrote about that.

I had already written a bit about this in the past explaining why we should be concerned. I promised to write a bit more about it to help clarify some of the issues and to explain why I am concerned.

Four years ago, while we were producing the documentary Turning the Tide, I read a book titled Final Exit by Derek Humphry. I found the book to be completely shocking and even today am amazed at the fact that it is real.

In 2006, almost to reassure myself that these people are not fictional, I walked around the display tables at the Right to Die conference in Toronto. What I saw and learned gave me the chills. Let me explain. The book’s subtitle is “The practicalities of self-deliverance and assisted suicide for the dying.” In case you’re new to this, “self-deliverance” means, killing yourself.

So there you have it.

Derek Humphry is the founder of the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization — ERGO — and the founder of the National Hemlock Society, an organization that has redefined itself as “Compassion & Choices”. The Hemlock Society was an end-of-life care organization for those suffering from incurable illnesses. In 2003 they changed their name to End of Life Choices. In 2005 they joined forces with the Compassion in Dying Organization to become what they are now: Compassion & Choices. Their vision is to help build a society where everyone receives state-of-the-art care at the end of life, and a full range of choices for dying in comfort, dignity and control. What this means, of course is that if it is your choice to end your life, because you can’t deal with the pain, suffering and the “indignity” of disease and dying, you should be able to. They believe that to allow people this choice is treating them with compassion.

Mr. Humphry’s first book is called Jean’s Way, where he tells the compelling story of his first wife Jean’s debilitating illness and subsequent assisted death by him. Since then, he’s assisted his father-in-law and made the call to disconnect his brother from life support. (Mr. Humphry claims that this is euthanasia – however, let me be clear: The removal of extra-ordinary care is not euthanasia. Mr. Humphry’s brother died a natural death without the extraordinary care (life-support) that kept him alive.)

Mr. Humphry is also the author of Let Me Die Before I Wake and now has several editions of Final Exit. This book is the how-to book. It is very complete. It even includes a checklist. It explains how to handle your financial affairs, how to make sure you don’t hurt your loved ones, what pill combinations to take, which ones not to take and what their effects are. There is even a diagram showing step-by-step how to kill yourself using a helium tank in combination with non-prescription sleeping pills and a bag covering your head. He even includes the address of where you can order this “exit bag” kit for $50.

To be fair, Mr. Humphry does try to make it clear that he doesn’t believe this book is for everyone. He is very clear to warn us that if we believe in God, or any higher power, or if we believe that we don’t have a choice or that death is bearable no matter what, or if you are depressed, then this book is not for you. This book is for competent people who are enduring hopeless physical suffering, who are in a hopeless medical condition, whose illness is unbearable and who wish to have control over their death, so as to do so with dignity and comfort. The Australian Right-To-Die group’s motto is, “I have a right to a peaceful death.” The aim of the book is, in Humphry’s words, to “allow terminally ill persons painlessly and legally to end their suffering.” This is a book for (rational) people looking for options.

He says that he doesn’t advocate the killing of the disabled. He also says that many depressed people, some teen-agers even, have used his book to assist them in committing suicide. He says this is unfortunate, but that he cannot be responsible for those people. It’s interesting to note that when this book first came to Canada, it was banned, the ban was challenged in court and the challengers won. I guess the winning argument was that we have an “intrinsic human right to choose the manner, form and time in which we are to die.”

I must admit, the book is very compelling. Mr. Humphry makes a very good case for his arguments. However, if you read carefully, you will note some flaws in his arguments. You will also note some red-flags. Tune in for my blog installment on Wednesday, and I’ll tell you all about them.

Until then, check out our Turning the Tide page for more resources on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, or visit the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, or the Catholic Organization for Life and Family site.

Respecting End of Life: Part 1


May 6 this year will go down as one of the saddest days in the history of the province of Quebec. On that day, members of the Quebec national assembly voted in favour of Bill 52, the “Act of Respecting End-of-life.” Supporters call it “medical aid in dying”. I call it what it is: Euthanasia. It is now legal in Quebec. Very sad, indeed.

What’s interesting is that Euthanasia and Assisted suicide are illegal under Canadian Law, but because health is a provincial matter, Quebec pro-Euthanasia activists have managed to convince legislators that Euthanasia is a health issue. The bill says that medical aid in dying is part of “end-of-life-care” and so it was passed under the province’s health care act.

It is sad, because we know how this goes: A law like this gets passed in one province or state and that empowers others somewhere else to move for a law in their province and slowly, the slope gets slipperier and slipperier until, inch-by-inch they take over the country, and before we know it, we’ll be euthanizing children as in Belgium.

Unless we speak out. Those of us who respect the dignity of every human person, from conception to natural death need to take a stand in defense of the most vulnerable, especially the elderly and the disabled. We also need to insist that our country provides quality palliative care for all, not just for those in big cities or those with resources. Palliative care experts assure us that the pain is treatable. Palliative care should be the first response to dealing with suffering and pain. For those of us who are Christian – especially if you are Catholic – we have to be absolutely clear that killing another human being is never acceptable. We must educate ourselves on the issue so we can have these conversations with our friends and loved ones who may be swayed by the side that tries to convince us that it’s ok to kill someone to ease their suffering.

This may be the appropriate time to remind you of what the Church teaches regarding euthanasia.

A lot of people think that the Church teaches that we must prolong life no matter what. But that is not what the Church teaches. The Church instead says that we must not do anything to hasten death or in effect, kill the patient. If the patient is dying, then we are called to make them as comfortable as possible, ease their pain but not necessarily keep them alive by extraordinary means. However, if the person is not dying, breathing on their own, heart beating, as was the case of Terri Schiavo, then withdrawing food and water is, in effect, murder. Terri Schiavo was not dying – she was not on a respirator – she was healthy. Food and water were administered through a feeding tube, but feeding a patient who cannot feed him or herself is not considered extraordinary care. Food and water are very much ordinary care.

This was the reasoning behind the Canadian Supreme Court ruling last October in the case of Mr. Rasouli.

Mr. Rasouli was misdiagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state since October 2010. According to his family – and apparently this is the case- he is conscious and able to communicate. He relies on the use of a ventilator.

The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the unanimous decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal that requires doctors to obtain consent from patients or substitute decision-makers before withdrawing life-sustaining treatment where such a decision is anticipated to result in the death of the patient.

The case of Mr Rasouli highlights another concern which illustrates the slippery slope argument, that of consent. If Euthanasia and Assisted suicide were legalized, the fear is that doctors would be making decisions based on misdiagnosis or even on what’s more convenient or cheaper, rather than on what’s in the best interest of the patient. For some patients, their best interest is to let them die naturally and comfortably. Doing things to hasten their death or killing them is never in the patient’s best interest.

No matter what assisted death and euthanasia supporters say, human nature shows that no matter what we do, there’s always a slippery slope. And in matters of life and death, once we begin to believe that killing is acceptable under certain circumstances, we’ll begin to believe that killing is acceptable under any circumstances. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that it’s ok.

Come back on Sunday to learn a bit about the right-to-die movement.

The Voice Crying out in the Wilderness

Bolivians celebrate as it is announced that the next Missionary Congress will take place in their country in 2018.

This an adaptation of my homily for the  second Sunday in Advent, Year A. The readings were: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72;  Romans 15:4-9 and Matthew 3:1-12.

On this Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist it is good to reflect on the meaning of being a “voice”.

The voice crying out in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord!” I love John the Baptist. He’s my role model. I guess we can say that John the Baptist is the  first proclaimer. Maybe we can say that he is the first  missionary.

I’ve been  thinking about missionaries a lot for a number of reasons. The first is that  last November, Pope Francis published his first Apostolic Exhortation. It’s  not like an encyclical, or a letter; it’s more like a book! It’s 214 pages!  It’s called Evangelii Gaudium: The joy of the Gospel. And he writes about a  lot of things, all in the context of the joy of the Gospel and the joy with  which we should always share the gospel. In it he writes, “I am a mission on  this earth.” [EG 273] That really struck me. It’s more than simply I am called  to be a missionary or I have a mission: I AM a mission. And he doesn’t mean  that he alone is mission; he means that all of us are mission. We are the  mission of the Father: The Church is the mission of God. And who better to say  that about than John the Baptist? John was mission. On the day he was born his  Father, Zechariah (remember he had lost his voice because he doubted the  angel) regained his voice and prays a beautiful canticle (Luke 1:68-79), the  Canticle of Zechariah: “You my child shall  become the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to  prepare his way; to give his people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness  of their sins.” From the day he was born, John had a mission and he  became that mission: to prepare the way. Even before Jesus himself was  proclaiming the Good News, John was proclaiming the Good  News.

I’ve  actually been thinking about mission since this summer at World Youth Day.  That event was all about mission: Go be missionaries. The theme was from  Matthew 28:19, “Go make disciples of all nations.” That passage has been my  favourite since my first World Youth Day in 2002. In fact the whole section,  from verse 28 to 20 is my favourite: “All  authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make  disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the  Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have  commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the very end of the  age.” Everything we need to know about what we have to do as  Christians is there: Go, baptize, teach and remember.

And  especially, I’ve been thinking about mission because at the end of November  last year, I had the opportunity to attend the Missionary Congress of  the Americas in Maracaibo,  Venezuela. It’s a congress that takes place every 5 years to promote missions  and encourage missionaries from the whole continent, from Canada down to  Argentina, including the Caribbean. There were some 4000 participants, mostly  missionaries; 400 priests, 70 bishops – it was a great gathering and the motto  was very simple: “share your faith”. And so I’ve been thinking about how we  share our faith; or rather how we don’t share our faith.

It may be  a Canadian thing, I don’t know (it’s certainly different in  Latin America) but either we are too afraid, or shy, embarrassed  or ashamed. Or perhaps we are too “politically correct” and we really believe  that we shouldn’t meddle in other people’s business. We’ve really bought into  the idea that anyone can believe and do whatever they want as long as they  don’t bother me and that faith is private and personal; but it’s not. We  gather as Church in community because faith is public. It has to be shared.  And so our idea of mission is to take school supplies to children in the  Dominican Republic. We go on mission trips to build homes in Mexico; dig wells  in Uganda. I went on a mission  trip  with a group to paint a church up in the Yukon .  Don’t get me wrong, these things are important. We are called to do acts of  charity. Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who  are sick and in prison (Matthew 25:34-40). Jesus himself healed the sick and  comforted the afflicted. We must do all that, but if that is all we do, then  who is preaching the good news? Who is proclaiming the Gospel? Who is making  disciples of all nations? Who is baptising? Who is teaching? Who is the voice  crying in the wilderness? We love that expression that is attributed to St.  Francis that says, “preach the Gospel at all times and use words if  necessary.” We love it because it gives us an excuse to not use words. But we  must use words. I don’t even  need to know my faith in order to fill shoe boxes with toiletries and send  them to Honduras; but we must know our faith so we can share it. We cannot be  ignorant of our faith.

When I  arrived in Venezuela we had to wait for two hours for the bus to  pick us up and so I began speaking with a gentleman at the airport. Turns out  he was an evangelical pastor. Guess what that conversation was like! He was  evangelizing me and I was sharing my faith and we were evangelizing each  other. It was a great conversation. We really shared a lot and I believe that  we grew in communion with each other. But if I didn’t know Scripture and if I  didn’t know what the Church teaches about Mary and the Eucharist and about the  Papacy (because that is what he wanted to talk about), I could not have had  that conversation. Could you have that conversation? We have to share our  faith and we must use words.

That’s  what the Year of Faith was about. Remember the Year of Faith? We had three  things to do with our faith: Learn about it; live it and share it. Did you  take up the challenge? We have to learn about our faith. It’s not enough to go  to Mass on Sundays and pay attention to the homily. We have to read Scripture;  we have to study it; we have to study what the Church teaches and understand  it, so we can teach it. We have to live our faith, that’s why we have to do  charitable works, why we send money and resources to the victims of the  typhoon in the Philippines. And we have to share our faith. In  order to do that, words are necessary! And it’s not just with our family and  close friends, although that’s a good place to start. We are called to go out.  Pope Francis keeps telling us to go to the peripheries, to the margins. The  doors of the Church have to be open so that people can go out. That is what  the Church calls “missio ad gentes”: mission to those who are outside. We have  to go out to the wilderness. Part of today’s readings are about that: That  beautiful prophecy from Isaiah is for “all the nations.” It’s not just for the  Jewish people. And Paul writes to the Romans that the promise is not just for  the circumcised; the Jews. It’s for the gentiles; for everyone! Not just for  those in the Church. And what does John say to the Pharisees and Saduccees in  the Gospel? “Don’t think that salvation is just for you because you are  children of Abraham.” Salvation has come for everyone – not just for those in  the Church! And we have to go and get them. We are to happy being the ones  listening to the voice crying out in the wilderness; but we have to become the  voice in the wilderness. We have one mission: Go make disciples of all  nations!

At the  end of Mass the deacon says “Go”. In Latin it used to be “Ite, missa est.”  “Missa” that’s where the word for “Mass” comes from. “Ite, missa est.” It  means, “Go, you are sent” or “Go, you are dismissed.” (later, when the whole  celebration was called “Missa”, this phrase in Latin comes to mean, “Go, the  Mass is over.” But originally it literally means, “go, you are dismissed” –  “dimissa est”) The root of that word, “missa”; “Mass”, “dismissal” is the same  root as the word “mission.” That’s what the Mass is all about: to send us on a  mission. Everything the Church does is because the Church is missionary. The  Church would not have grown had it not been missionary. The Gospels were  written because the Church is missionary. The Bible was put together because  the Church is missionary. The printing press was invented because the Church  is missionary. Great art and sculptures and music was created because the  Church is missionary. We have Mass because the Church is missionary. We have  Catholic Schools because the Church is missionary. We baptise because the  Church is missionary. Everything we do is because we have one mission: to make  disciples of all nations and we have to become that mission.

I can’t  tell you what words to use, except that we must learn about our faith so we  can share it. Perhaps a good place to start is by always using words of hope;  always preaching with joy (that’s why the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation is  called “The Joy of the Gospel”). Truly, John the Baptist is not just for the  Advent season, as we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. We must  prepare our own hearts at all times and we must help others prepare too. Let’s  be, like John the Baptist, the voice (using words) the cries in the  wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

God is with us

Ever since World Youth Day 2002, my favourite Scripture passage has been the end of Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20. I think it’s because my middle name is Emmanuel. It means “God with us”. I love that Jesus promises us that he will be with us until the end of time.

Today we celebrate a great feast, the solemnity of the most Holy Trinity. “Trinity” is a fancy word that means “three” – it refers to the reality that our God is one God, three persons.

It’s not three gods. He’s ONE God. It’s not three aspects of God, or three qualities of God: creator, redeemer, sanctifier… God is ONE God, THRE persons. One GOD, three PERSONS. It’s hard to understand.

That’s why we call it a mystery. But it’s not a mystery like a murder mystery, an Agatha Christie or Scooby Doo mystery that we have to solve. No, when the Church talks about mystery, it refers to something that is so amazing and so wonderful that it cannot be fully described in human terms. It cannot be fully understood. It can be partially understood, but never fully. And we use the word “mysteries” a lot. At Mass you’ll hear the priest speak of “these mysteries that we celebrate” – he also says, “the mystery of faith”. Next time you’re at Mass, pay attention to the many times we use the word during the Liturgy. We also pray the “mysteries of the Rosary”. In fact, the word in Greek for sacraments is “mysteries.” So we use that word a lot. And we have a few mysteries: The mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Cross, the mystery of the Eucharist… The mystery of the Trinity is probably the hardest one to understand: ONE God; THREE persons. The Good News is that, while I don’t think that we have to understand it, we can understand it in part. Also, looking at the Trinity tells us something about the reality of God, about the nature of God, which in turn, because we are made in the image and likeness of God, tells us something about our nature as created human beings.

There are several ways in which God is described in Scripture. There are no words to describe God fully, but throughout scripture people use different images to describe God. Most often, God is described in terms of what he does: God is creator, God speaks out of a fire or God saves the nation of Israel. By showing what God has done, Scripture writers show how awesome God is. But God is not just a God who does. God is a being. God is not a doing. God is a being and because we are created in the image of God, it means that we are a being as well. We are not human doings, we are human beings. We are not defined by what we do or by what we are capable of doing; we get our dignity by who we are: created beings, in the image and likeness of God. But God is also not just a force of nature – THE FORCE from Star Wars – God is not a life force or energy, God is not a concept (despite what John Lennon says); God is a person. You can have a personal relationship with God. God is a person – and we too are persons. We are persons from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. No matter what you have done, no matter whether you are in a coma, or whether you suffer from an intellectual disability, whether you are conscious or not, you are a person. But God is not just A person; God is THREE persons.

This, to me makes perfect sense. Think about it: If God is love, then God can’t be alone. You can’t be love in solitude. If God is love, it makes sense that God is a relationship; a community of persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is a living, dynamic, loving, relationship, community of love between three persons who continually, eternally are outpouring themselves into each other and receiving the outpouring of each other into themselves. It sounds a bit new age, but it’s true. God is a community. God is relationship. And so, we too are called to relationship. We too are called to community. We too are called to love. God is not just a being, but a “being with”. And that means that we are created to “be with” each other and to “be with” God. That’s what COMMUNION means. And by virtue of our Baptism (Jesus says at the end of the Gospel of Matthew that we are to baptise “in the name of the Father and the son and the Holy Spirit”) we are baptised into the Trinity. That means that through our baptism we can enter into that loving, inner relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That means that we are no longer outside of God. – By virtue of our baptism we can participate INSIDE the life of the trinity – not outside, as slaves, but inside as sons and daughters.

And this is good news. And what a better example of this than when we come to the Eucharist. We receive Christ in Communion. But not just Christ, but the fullness of God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist God comes to live inside of us and we are brought within God. He abides in us and we abide in Him. That’s pretty cool because it means that when we pray to God, we don’t pray to Him from the outside; we pray to God from the inside.

So when Jesus says (again, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew) that “I am with you always, to the end of the age”, he means it. He is God who is a “being with”. He is God who is “I Am”, God who is Emmanuel “with you” and God who is “always”. He is the Trinity. He is with us and we are with him; He is within us and we are within Him: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always, until the end of the age.