Dying with dignity

This week my home state, Victoria, passed a law, known as the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act. This gives anyone suffering a terminal illness, with less than six months to live, the right to end their life. Just writing those words takes my breath away. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

Right now I can’t imagine myself approaching my GP and asking for his assistance to end my life, or the life of someone I love, seeing it as a viable alternative to living with the pain, lack of dignity and personal control that I know from experience can accompany terminal illness.

The Catholic Church teaches that ‘intentionally causing one’s own death, or suicide, is equally as wrong as murder; such an action on the part of a person is to be considered as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan.’

And again, ‘Life is a gift of God, and on the other hand death is unavoidable; it is necessary, therefore, that we, without in any way hastening the hour of death, should be able to accept it with full responsibility and dignity.’

Easy to write, but difficult beyond words when you or someone you love is facing a terminal illness. My husband Terry, at age 58 was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease, a progressive neurological condition that attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Gradually messages stopped reaching the muscles, affecting his ability to walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe. Eighteen months later he died in palliative care. He lived life right up to the last afternoon when he had watched the cricket, before his lungs stopped supporting his breath.

What gave him strength during the eighteen months of his dying was his deep-seated acceptance that life is a gift of God and the support he received from family, friends, the church community and palliative care.

God gifts you and me and every person that has ever drawn breath, with life. But we don’t get to pick and choose the basics, like genes and health and time, any more than when and how life on earth will meld into eternal life- that unknown we call ‘heaven’.

Ten years ago I had the awe-full experience of ‘seeing’ my unborn grandchild through the wonder that is an ultrasound scan. I marvelled at what I saw -a beating heart, half the size of a man’s thumbnail, fingers and toes, ten of each, minute kidneys, a perfect, miniature spinal cord and, delightfully, a little tongue practising sucking. Driving home the words of the psalmist floated into my mind: “You created my inmost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb. For so many marvels I thank you; a wonder am I, and all your works are wonders.”

The apostle Paul described each and every one of us as ‘God’s work of art’. Male or female, young or old, we’re made in the image of God, and like a picture, a poem, or a sculpture, we’re not finished, complete, until the last paint stroke, the last ‘just right’ word or final chip of the chisel.

For those of us who get to stand by and watch a loved one slowly die, it could be tempting to take the paint brush or sculptor’s chisel out of God’s hand and say, “Enough!”

Judith Scully


First Communion Day

Last Sunday was my grandson Jack’s first communion day. FC

Nine years ago he was baptised. If Jack had been baptised in the early days of Christianity it would not have been as a baby, the water gently trickled over his forehead, but as an adult. After a lengthy preparation time he would have been plunged, naked and trusting, into a pool of water. Dry again, and dressed in a white robe, his head and hands smeared with perfumed oil, he would have been led to the Eucharist table to share the bread and wine with the rest of the community.

That Sunday morning nine years ago, as the priest swirled the water in the clear glass bowl and poured a scoop of it over Jack’s head, I was aware that, one way or another, the waters of Baptism would ripple through his life. Now, in what seemed to be no time at all, Jack had reached the second stage of his baptism.

And there he was, his school uniform replaced by a suit, shirt and tie, freckles standing out in excitement and a shy grin. In the outer Melbourne suburb where he lives there is no stand-alone church, but there are two very large catholic primary schools. The massive assembly hall at one of them was set out with hundreds of chairs occupied by parents, siblings, grandparents and assorted other family and friends, greeting each other and chattering in a mixture of languages. I walked in and felt the breath catch in my throat. The place felt so – alive!

Flowers and twinkling lights marked a table set with silver cups and the Mass book. The priest moved to the table and as the hubbub gradually died away the choir sang and the girls and boys who were to receive their first communion processed into the seating set apart for them. The priest solemnly told the assembly that for the next hour it would not be the Stella Maris school assembly hall, but a sacred space.

I don’t know why he bothered. We knew that. We are used to finding God where we are. It’s just something not many people talk about or share easily. We don’t need a purpose built space for that. Our very presence was an act of faith, an acknowledgment that God has a place in our lives. Mass might not be a weekly or even a six monthly choice for most of the parents or their extended families, but God faith had powered their choice of baptism and catholic schooling for their children.

I have no memory of my first communion, not even a certificate. But I know that it was in a double classroom that was cleared every weekend for Sunday Mass – not very different to Jack’s first communion Mass.

I’m surprised that so many years on, the sacraments of first communion and confirmation are still tied to a particular grade level instead of parents being the ones to discern when it would be appropriate for their child.

In some ways the Australian Catholic Church, or possibly the whole church, has put more emphasis on educating children in faith and assuming that that’s enough to see them through adulthood. It isn’t, and the children like Jack who have just received their first communion are going to need a more creative and hands-on approach to enable them to live out their adult Baptismal relationship with God in a twenty first century world.

Jack, his family and close friends finished the day as it had begun – gathered around a table. And God rejoiced with us.

Judith Scully