My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Amid the joys of this life, there is one that looms high above all the others: the joy of parents who welcome a newborn child into their lives. When they cradle this precious gift of God in their arms, there are no words to express adequately the joy in their hearts. Heaven and earth unite in the marvelous gift of life. And so begins a journey for which there are no certain maps or charts, for the course is filled with many surprises and unexpected events — many joyous, some challenging, others disconcerting. There are anxious moments, times of worry and even heartaches. But through it all parents never stop embracing their children; theirs is a love without boundaries, unrestricted, forever alive and without question, "as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children" (Rite of Baptism for Children, 105).
The precious life of the newborn child is the same precious life of the old and the frail, the weak and the suffering, the ill and the infirmed, the distraught and the sorrowful. As we care for the child, so must we care for all people on the vast spectrum of life. When we subjectively determine the points at which life begins and ends, whether it is viable or not, when it is too burdensome to endure, we begin a path toward self-destruction. Life is no longer precious, but just another commodity in the business of living. Relativism becomes the absolute, and even the value of life itself is questioned.
Faithful to her founder, Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church must always be the defender of life, in concert with physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other health-care professionals; in union with them, we seek to protect persons with physical and mental disabilities, those in life-threatening situations and those who have no one to speak on their behalf when they are being viewed as burdens to society rather than as our sisters and brothers in the human family. What is needed is support for and further exploration of morally licit health-care measures that will effectively relieve suffering so that the terminally ill might know and feel the love, concern, compassion and care of a society that protects them and cherishes them. This, in itself, eases the greatest pain: that which attacks the heart when people feel that no one cares!
The Catholic Church, united with persons of other religious traditions and people of good will, does care, especially for those who are the weakest among us! Our concern appreciates the worth of the human person in his or her most difficult moments of life. Regarding those traumatic end-of-life issues, which are now in the forefront of many legislatures, it should be noted that "Catholic moral tradition has always taught that we can discontinue medical procedures that are burdensome, extraordinary, and disproportionate to the outcome. However, respect for every human being demands the ordinary treatment of the dying by the provision of food, water, warmth, and hygiene. Ordinary treatment is always a moral requirement." The church also "recognizes that some medical treatment may not provide benefits commensurate with the risks of certain medical procedures. Extraordinary medical treatment may not be morally required and can even cease in certain cases, depending on the benefits to the sick person and the burdens it will or may impose" (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, July 2006, p. 394). But intentional euthanasia — the willful and conscious act of putting to death those who are sick, disabled or dying — is morally unacceptable.
As the medical and scientific communities minister to the sick and the suffering, I am so very grateful for the chaplains, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, parish visitors and the countless volunteers who provide comfort, solace, encouragement and spiritual support to those in hospitals, health-care facilities and the homebound. I am most grateful to our priests who bring to the sick and the dying the great gifts of the sacraments of the anointing of the sick and of reconciliation, which culminate in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the most holy Eucharist. United to the cross, our brothers and sisters in these challenging situations are true examples of faith. In serving them we are uplifted and rejuvenated in our faith.
In his address to the members of the Pontifical Council for Healthcare Workers on March 24, 2014, Pope Francis praised the council’s members for their support to the sick, the disabled and the elderly. He told participants in the council plenary that "in suffering no one is ever alone because God — in his merciful love for man and for the world — embraces even the most inhumane situations, in which the image of the Creator, present in everyone, is blurred or disfigured. Thus it was for Jesus in his Passion. In Him every human pain, every anxiety, every suffering was taken on out of love, out of pure desire to be close to us, to be with us. And here, in Jesus’ Passion, is the greatest lesson for anyone who wants to dedicate him-herself to serving our sick and suffering brothers. The experience of fraternal sharing with those who suffer opens us to the true beauty of human life which includes its frailty."
The pope reiterated that "In protecting and promoting life, at any stage or condition, we can recognize the dignity and value of every single human being, from conception until death." Quoting from Evangelium Vitae, the 1995 encyclical of St. John Paul II, Pope Francis extolled the virtues of Our Mother Mary, "The one who accepted ‘Life’ in the name of all and for the sake of all … (and) is thus most closely and personally associated with the Gospel of life."
With continued advances in medical science, which aid us in nurturing and caring for all human life, and inspired by the words of our Holy Father, I pray that faith and reason will unite and be guided by an even greater Wisdom. Shakespeare said it well many years ago: "There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may" (Hamlet, V. ii). Indeed there is one greater than ourselves and he has said: "I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full." (John 10:10).
With gratitude for all those who reveal the presence of the Divine Physician to our treasured brothers and sisters suffering in any way, I remain, with an assurance of my prayers,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
+ The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester
EDITOR’S NOTE: The full texts of Pope Francis’ address to the Pontifical Council for Heathcare Workers and of the encyclical Evangelium Vitaeare both available in English on the Vatican website. Unfortunately, these web addresses are extremely long, so for readers’ convenience, we have processed them through the trustworthy URL-shortening service bit.ly.com. You can find the health-care address at http://bit.ly/1zLPWtp and the encyclical at http://bit.ly/1pMyYdE.