By Becky Aubut
FALL RIVER, Mass. — “Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s Creation, made in His Own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect,” said Pope Francis.
Using those words as a soundboard, Marian Desrosiers, the director of the Pro-Life Apostolate of the Diocese of Fall River began her presentation entitled, “Suicide, Assisted or Otherwise, is always a Great Tragedy,” at last fall’s Faith Formation Ministry Convention, sponsored by the diocese’s Office of Faith Formation.
“Claire McManus [director of the Faith Formation Office] had asked me to do a piece on suicide, and of course in Massachusetts, the legislature had a hearing in the fall, and the bill could come out for a vote within the legislation for physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts,” said Desrosiers.
It was only a few years ago that voters in Massachusetts had their own say on the subject when the Massachusetts “Death with Dignity” Initiative, also known as Question 2, was put on the Nov. 6, 2012 general election ballot as an indirectly initiated state statute, where it was defeated.
Desrosiers’ office was part of the yearlong battle to stop the referendum from winning: “When we began, the polling showed the majority were in favor of physician-assisted suicide, so we had our work cut out for us,” she recalled.
Working in conjunction with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., vote “No” on Question 2 became the rallying cry.
“At the diocesan level, we worked to educate people who would actually be at the polling places the night of the vote,” said Desrosiers. “We wanted people to understand because wording can be confusing on ballot questions.”
Education was key, she added, and an advertising campaign took hold of the television airwaves, helping to get the message out to a wider audience.
“One of the elements of the campaign that turned things around was the way physician-assisted suicide is handled. It’s through a prescription of more than 100 pills that the individual has to take, and they’re encouraged to take it with alcohol,” she said, which is still the same method being prescribed for physician-assisted suicide today.
Desrosiers continues to educate Catholics and helps clarify Church teachings regarding end-of-life issues. When she presents in a Catholic setting, she begins by stating that God “formed us in the womb before He knew us, and Jesus tells us in John 14, that our hearts shouldn’t be troubled because He goes to prepare a place for us. So for Catholics in general, we need an understanding of the Spiritual nature of our dignity and Sacredness of God as our Creator, and Jesus as Savior in life.”
Those diagnosed with a terminal illness are susceptible to depression, and feeling as if they are a burden on others. Family and loved ones are just part of a support group that individuals, especially caretakers, can lean on. By echoing Pope Francis’ words, the Church could be a field hospital “and that in the parishes,” said Desrosiers, “we need to be ready to step out and offer our help, sacrifice and commitment to those in need; in this case, at the end of life, and be a support system. We can’t just be about teaching; we need to be about mercy and compassion.”
Years ago, when the husband of an elderly couple was sent home to die, Desrosiers went next door — “which was hard because it seemed like a private moment,” she said — but when the wife answered the door, Desrosiers asked, “Is there anything I can do to help? I know this must be difficult for you being here all day and night.”
The woman asked if Desrosiers could stay with her husband so that she could go out to shop, and when the woman returned home a few hours later, Desrosiers said, “When she came back, you would think I gave her gold. It was amazing to see. Sometimes we don’t have to look for the big things, but simple acts of kindness — bringing a hot meal, spending some time just talking, visiting and allowing personal time; just letting them know there’s a parish praying.”
There are many parishes who already do these things, said Desrosiers, but it’s up to every parishioner to do his or her part.
“This is where we, as a parish, can help,” she said. “Volunteering in simple ways to alleviate the pressure, the depression and despair. We have become a culture of waste, which is another term that Pope Francis has used. It’s a mentality that only the useful are valuable. All life has value, not just because it’s useful.
“I think the mentality is culturally driven; we spoke about it when abortion was legalized, that we would become a desensitized, throwaway culture. I think we’ve seen that spread, and I think it increases the anxiety of the elderly today. That’s why when we do the diocesan Pro-Life Boot Camp with the young people, we visit the nursing homes and have the youth interact with the elderly at the homes. It’s a few hours of watching a miracle happen; it’s wonderful.”
How much medication is too much, or when to stop nutrition and hydration are the most often asked questions for those dealing with end-of-life issues for a loved one. For those dealing with an ethical crisis, there is the National Catholic Bioethics Center (www.ncbcenter.org) with a 24-hour ethicist is ready to help deal with any ethical question: 215-877-2660.
“One of these things that’s really opened my eyes is understanding that faith, hope and joy illuminate every aspect of our human existence,” said Desrosiers, “and we need the grace of God for the conversion of our heart to encounter Christ at a very deep and intimate level in order to be able to allow Him to accomplish these things through us. We have to be willing to allow His grace to flow into us so our own conversion takes place and gives us the strength. I discovered a long time ago, you can’t do it on your own. When you’re frustrated or exhausted, at those moments you can just say, ‘Jesus, I trust in You; allow me to be less and You to be more.’”
And though the physician-assisted suicide bill can’t come back to the voters of Massachusetts until 2018, Desrosiers’ message to the legislators is “the people of Massachusetts have already spoken and said no,” she said. “You hope they will follow the lead that the voters gave them in 2012 to vote down physician-assisted suicide.”