Be Not Afraid

In Mind, Body & Spirit, Pushing Forward by Chris Wong

In the last week, we’ve celebrated the joy of Easter, debated and been troubled by the death of Terri Shiavo, and witnessed the passing of a spiritual leader in Pope John Paul II.

In 1978, the words of a new pope to his flock were simple: Be Not Afraid.

His message of hope, then and now, rings as words of wisdom to his flock, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

As a matter of faith, Pope John Paul II will largely be remembered for his crusade to lead a culture of life. In the last week, however, our culture has spent a great deal of time not discussing life as much as the concern with death – or the ability to hold out against it. And with two figures, we have seen the debate framed in very different manners.

As a matter of Catholic faith, as well as many Christian faiths, the ability to refuse medical treatment has longstanding tradition rooted in the means of “extraordinary measures”. These measures have multiple definitions, rooted in part on the ability of the family to upkeep them while continuing to operate as a unit, and the desire to not suppress God’s will in the end of life decisions.

Within his final days, Pope John Paul II, being informed that the end was near, elected to refuse burdensome treatment, and to be placed in the Vatican, where his final mass could be said, and words of prayer could be passed to his flock. Be Not Afraid, for this is a moment of joy, a moment of his passing to be with his creator.

So, why then, did such a stir develop around Terri Shiavo? If the debate regarding extraordinary measures was framed in such a way, with such longstanding tradition, what was it about this debate that stirred such emotion? In my opinion, a tipping point occurred at the moment that the discussion stopped being about extraordinary measures or even Terri Shiavo, and began to be focused around “quality of life”.

For those with disabilities, and many who are infirmed, at that point, the debate took on a scary thought; we were no longer judging the moral needs to let life go or to continue it, the debate turned to: how much value do we place on life that doesn’t meet flexible standards.

In 1977, before the rise of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to become Pope, I sat with my family in a waiting room, expecting the birth of a younger sibling. He would become the fifth child of my parents, who lived a simple but happy life. A planned C-Section, everyone was eagerly awaiting the news of the arrival, pacing and hoping.

As a doctor emerged from the room, we were prepared for the moment of joy, an announcement of a brother or a sister. Instead, my father was pulled aside and informed that the condition of his son was dire.

He would be born with a brittle bone disorder (OI) and it would be one of the most severe forms. He was born with numerous fractures, a malformed leg and skull, the doctor made his case: the quality of life of the child would be unlivable, and since the procedure had not been completed, termination was still an option.

Gathered in prayer, we elected to take the risk, and twenty eight years later, I’m proud to say he will soon graduate with multiple Master’s degrees, after having graduated Magna Cum Laude through his Bachelor’s program. This is not to say his life was trouble free; hundreds of fractures, numerous hospital stays, and trying moments on him and our family.

As the case of Terry Shiavo wound through the courts, on a subconscious level, many stopped viewing it as a matter of the right of removal of treatment, and many began to look inward at themselves, their own judgments, their own positions in life. At a certain point in the debate, the argument was put forward: “who would want to live like X” and “there is no quality of life.”

In the minds of some, the case of Terri Shiavo became less about Terri Shiavo, and more about their belief in themselves – how would others judge their quality of life? Did they have a high quality of life? Did their sons, daughters, and others meet a threshold that seemingly judged them worthy?

At the moment the quality of life debate began, the debate over Terri Shiavo ended for them; her persistent state, her husband’s desire to end treatment were secondary to the manner in which life was judged.

As Pope John Paul II visited the youth of Denver, special asides were made to those with disabilities, those who were disabled mentally, physically and both. The message was presented to the youth: protect the least amongst us.

In the last few weeks, there has been a divide over how we define life; sides cut bitterly as accusations and recriminations were made. I firmly believe that neither side in the Terri’s debate should ever be viewed as “evil”, it was a difficult circumstance, one that many have and will face.

But the lesson of those who fought hardest on this argument is not a case against this ending, but rather, a case for their belief in their own existence.

A friend, and Benedictine Monk once told met hat as we are born, we all have our own cup to carry; to fill it with our experience, our joy and sorrow. Life’s accumulation of goods, our intelligence, or physical strength, and other traits matter little – what matters most is how we choose to use them.

I think about these things as we remember the passing of the Holy Father.

I’m always reminded of watching a child run for joy, not finishing first or last at Special Olympics, but finishing with a broad smile of accomplishment. Being there to bear witness to a child born with Cystic Fibrosis battle through high school with the help of friends and family enjoy a trip to a prom. Watching a family member wheel across a stage after being so many times told his life would be for not.

As we pray for the passing of Pope John Paul II, Terri Shiavo, our own family members and friends we should also say a separate prayer. We should remind ourselves of the joy of that child running a race; of the fight of the disabled. And we should remind ourselves that for them, the quality of life they have is something that cannot be taken away from them.

The Holy Father reminded his flock in his final days that the struggle of life is the blessing bestowed upon us.

For all the struggles that they face, every day, I pray that I can find the joy and quality in my life to match the faith, perseverance and hope that I see in
my brother.
Chris Wong, 30 years old. Currently, Chris works on behalf of the Kansas Political Consultants Network, and works as a full-time consultant on behalf of Movie Theater & Studio Interests in Kansas City.
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