Thursday, June 2, 2016

Reflections on Assisted Suicide

It has been a while since I posted on my blog. Sometimes I forget about it because most of my posts go the Archdiocese and Cathedral blogs in the form of homilies and pastoral letters. So, I need to be a bit more attentive to this blog.

As you know, this is not an official forum where I speak on behalf of and for the Church. The Archdiocese blog is primarily the venue for that. This is a forum wherein I give my personal opinions and reflections on certain issues and topics. Granted, the opinions and reflections I post here will always be founded (I pray that they are!) in the teachings and Tradition of the Orthodox Faith and Church, but they are less formal in their presentation.

Sometime ago, I issued a pastoral letter on physician-assisted suicide. This is one of the subjects I have a great personal interest in and one which I follow very closely. Because physician-assisted suicide is becoming more and more common and the debates surrounding it more and more intense, I wanted to share with you my own personal thoughts on this very important matter.

Several American States already have enacted legislation and laws permitting physician-assisted suicide. And Canada legalized it in February 2015, making her one more of a handful of countries (the others being Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) where physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal. On June 6th, Canada will further strengthen its physician-assisted suicide law by enacting further legislation which will "create exemptions from the offenses of culpable homicide, of aiding suicide, and of administering a noxious thing, in order to permit medical practitioners and nurse practitioners to provide medical assistance in dying and to permit pharmacists and other persons to assist in the process.

The rapidly growing movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia is disturbing and alarming. When combined with impersonal healthcare and insurance systems, the movement to support physician-assisted suicide is fast proving itself to be not only dangerous but lethal.

Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia exists on an immoral slippery slope that erodes and corrupts the doctor-patient relationship and the very nature of a physicians role in healing. In addition, PAS endangers families and relationships and destroys the very dignity of the human person as a being created in God's own image. 

In those states where physician-assisted suicide is already legal, the number of deaths is rapidly increasing. For example, the Oregon Public Health Department reported in 2015 that 132 people died using physician-assisted suicide, compared to 105 the year before. At first glance, this may not seem significant but in really it is. The reason it is significant is because it represents a trend that PAS is becoming more acceptable not only among patients but physicians as well. If the numbers continue to rise, we will see the value of human life diminish more and more. Human life will be considered more and more a "disposable commodity."

The slippery-slope of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia also lies in the fact that it may reach beyond terminally-ill patients. As proof of this, one only has to look to the countries of Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal. These countries allow assisted suicide for non-terminal illnesses and conditions, including psychiatric disorders like depression and schizophrenia. This is both alarming and disturbing. What we see is that people who are unhappy or depressed because their life is what they would like it to be can end their "suffering" by ending their miserable or unhappy existence. Someone whose spouse has left them or who lost their job and is diagnosed with depression now has a legal right to end  their "suffering" by ending their life? 

Advocates of physician-assisted suicide want us to believe that it is "heroic" and "noble" for someone who is terminally ill to take a handful of lethal pills. They say doing so spares family members undue anguish and pain in watching a loved-one suffer. In reality, such an act is cowardly and selfish and offends the majesty of God. It is not, therefore, an heroic or noble act but a grave sin. 

For those who profess themselves to be Christian, physician-assisted suicide puts their soul in dire jeopardy. In fact, I feel very comfortable in saying that such a person would not be saved since he or she has made the very conscious, fully-informed and deliberate decision to take own's own life. This is nothings less than premeditated murder.

When someone commits suicide, the Church always takes into consideration the circumstances which prompted a person to commit such an act. In most cases, there is often involved some extreme form of severe emotional stress/distress, or a medical condition such as PTSD or mental illness, which clouds a person's judgement or impede their use of reason. In these cases,the Church may permit a church funeral out of compassion and mercy. But when someone commits suicide because of a lack of faith or in the belief that such an action is rationally and ethically defensible, such as in the case of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, such a person may be may not be given a Church funeral or burial.

Legalizing physician-assisted suicide is not about giving patients the right to die but about giving the government the right to kill those whom they deem to be undesirable, inconvenient, a burden on society, and no longer useful. It amounts to playing God by the government.

Advocates of physician-assisted suicide like to hide the word "suicide" behind nice words like "compassion," "love," and "death with dignity." Dignity is not found in a handful of lethal pills or a plastic bag over someone's head. Dignity is found in compassionate and quality hospice care and the attendance and prayers of  loving, caring and attentive family who walk the journey of the dying process with their loved one right up until the very end. That is true death with dignity.

Physician-assisted suicide is dangerous for families. It has the potential to destroy families as some family members may oppose it while others may support and encourage it. It also opens the door door to the worst form of elder abuse by self-centered or exhausted care givers and greedy relatives. this is not an alarmist assumption or fear-mongering. This is a realistic assessment in light of a weak and frail human nature. We must admit to the possibility of such abuses precisely because our human nature is prone to sin. In light of this reality, we must be watchful and cognizant of the dire consequences which can result if physician-assisted suicide becomes the norm for our society.

The United States Supreme Court previously stated "the competent terminally-ill person seeking suicide is largely fiction." This is primarily because no mental evaluation is required of those who seek assisted suicide.Again, we enter a very slippery area where it is very easy to fall victim to what appears to be a noble and reasonable act but which, in fact, is really much dangerous than it seems. The consequences and damage which physician-assisted suicide can cause to our society overall are not worth giving in to the desires of a small minority of people who simply don't want to deal with the realities of life, including dying and death.

For people of faith, of sound and strong faith, the idea of prematurely bringing about death is not a consideration. Even in the face of extreme suffering and pain, a true Christian will join his or her suffering with that of Christ and offer it back to Him as a sacrificial gift. Such a sacrifice, such a gift, is pleasing in the eyes of God because it shows great inner strength and a deep abiding faith. One who endures their suffering and pain is a true hero and example to all of something so good and so great that it surpasses all human understanding and description. 

A person who suffers and who still smiles and laughs is one who shows great courage. Suffering and pain, while despicable and horrendous as it may be to experience and watch, nonetheless brings about a greater good. It opens our eyes to what is truly important and meaningful. Love can blossom in such situations. A terminally-ill person, by enduring their suffering and pain, become teachers to us all. Yes, truly, these are the great heroes, the great unsung heroes, who, because of their illness, are great leaders and teachers. Their example, their grace and dignity in suffering, should remain branded upon our hearts and minds forever as a lasting testimony to all that is noble and good. 

What concerns me the most about the rush to accept and encourage physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia as part of American culture and way of life is that our society is adopting the attitude that some lives matter and some do not, that some are worth keeping alive and some are not. The criteria for who lives and who dies is very thin. Suffering is one of the criteria but what and who defines suffering? Does suffering include any kind of physical pain? Does it include emotional pain and duress? Does it include depression at any stage? What about physical deformities? Or morbid obesity? What about someone with a chronic illness who will suffer more or longer than the terminally ill? Don't these people deserve the "right" to die? Or will the decision be made for them by doctors, government officials and judges who believe that such people should not be allowed to live because they are a burden on society? One would be naive to believe that there are no unscrupulous doctors, government officials and judges ready to take such actions, especially if there is the prospect or promise of financial or material gain. That statement may sound extreme, but human nature is what it is and physician-assisted suicide opens the door to many dark possibilities.

In a healthcare system severely overburdened by unmanageable costs and preoccupation with the "bottom line," the cheapest form of heath care and the best way to improve financial performance is a handful, cup or syringe of lethal medications. The dignity of the human person is fast becoming a thing of the past. It is frightening to see what is happening to our society, and to societies the world over. We see what is happening in the European Union ever since they denied their Christian roots and identity. Pushing God out of society causes a people to lose its soul and direction and plunges them into darkness and confusion. Until God is brought back into the life of society, we will continue our downward spiral into barbarism and brutality.

In closing, I want to reiterate what I have said before. The Orthodox Church, and the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church in particular, stands in strong opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide as well as any other means or processes which seek to prematurely end human life. Additionally, I want to remind you all that any Italo-Greek Orthodox Christian who asks for and secures a form of euthanasia or assisted suicide will not be permitted a Church funeral or burial. Further, any Italo-Greek Orthodox Christian who facilitates, carries out, assists in or in any way supports or encourages euthanasia or assisted suicide automatically incurs the penalty and sentence of excommunication, thus cutting himself or herself off from the Holy Mysteries and the community of the faithful. Such individuals will be be readmitted to the Church unless and until they repent of their sin.

My dear children, all of us will eventually die. None of us want to die. Certainly, God did not create us to die but to live with Him forever in perfect communion and blessedness. Death is a consequence of the sin of our first ancestors as is sickness and suffering and pain. But we must remember that Christ died and rose so that we may live. For the Christian believer whose faith is firm and unshakable, death is not the end, but the beginning. For us, life is not ended at death but merely changed. Christ trampled down death by His death and in doing so, opened up the gates of Paradise to us once again. Our earthly suffering and pain in illness and sickness is fleeting and will, if we have lived a good, righteous and holy life, be replaced with eternal joy and happiness. This promise of Our Lord should be our hope and consolation in the face of illness and death and give us the strength to endure whatever pain and suffering out sicknesses and illnesses will bring upon us.

Do not give in to the Culture of Death, my children. Choose to live in the Light of Christ and not the shades and clouds of darkness which are fast enveloping our country and American society. Put your faith and trust in God and not in princes and the sons of men.

God bless you all! Christ is risen!

Paternally yours,

+Archbishop Stephen

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Our Lenten Journey

As many Christians are now intensely immersed in the observances of Holy Week and in a few days will be celebrating the great Feast of the Resurrection, we in the Orthodox Church are in the second week of our Lenten journey. Regardless of when we celebrate the Resurrection, it is important for us to remember one very important. In the Resurrection our Lord God removes from our eyes every tear and from our hearts all sorrow and pain and sighing. 

By His suffering, death and Resurrection, Christ prepares an eternal Sabbath for us where we shall live in in joy and happiness with God our Father, Who is waiting for us to be ready, so that he may call us to Himself. Great Lent give us an opportunity to prepare ourselves for that great event. Though it may be scary to think about, we should not fear death, especially if we have tried to live good, righteous Christian lives.

The time will certainly come, my children, and none of us will be able to escape it, that we will face death. The hour will strike and the moment will arrive that our eyes will close in death and our soul will depart the body from which it dwelled for so many years. In an instant we shall see a new world, new beings, a new creation, a new life without end, but only if we have earned it.

Merely accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior does not guarantee that we are saved and will be counted among the blessed in Heaven. No, we must work out our salvation every day. Salvation is a work in progress. It is a continual effort; a work we must strive every day to perfect. Great Lent is a reminder that we must want to be saved; that we must work to be called one of the blessed sheep who will stand at the right hand of the Throne of Glory on the Day of Judgment.

Who can express in words the exultation and joy of those blessed souls who are called to dwell with the Lord? Our wildest imaginings cannot even begin to describe the experience! Oh that we could all be found worthy to be called “sons of the Most High, children of God, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.”

One of the most beautiful and poignant services of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is the Passion Service, which the Italo-Greek Church offers on Good Friday from noon to 3:00pm, during which the twelve Passion Gospels are read. Of the twelve, the reading from the Gospel of St. John (John 13:31 – 18:1), which is the first and the longest of the twelve, is my personal favorite. In the Italo-Greek Orthodox tradition, this Gospel is also read at the Divine Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, on Holy Thursday evening. In this reading, which can properly be called Jesus’ farewell discourse, our Lord entreated His heavenly Father on behalf of His disciples and those who would believe through them: “Father, I desire that they also whom You have given Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You did love Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

How great is Jesus’ love for us! He took on human nature, suffered unimaginable torture and suffering, and was hanged and died upon the Cross, freeing us from bondage to Satan and making us worthy of jointly inheriting the infinite wealth of His heavenly Father. Would you do that for someone you loved? Would you willingly subject yourself to torture and beating and scourging to save the ones you loved? How greatly he loves us but how cold and indifferent we are to Him today! We see Him in the homeless person living in a box on the street and we turn our heads and keep walking. We see Him in the hungry and starving and we give Him maybe a mere token meal. We see Him in those who are alone and hurting, who have no one to love them or hold them or tell them they are loved but we do not give them the slightest thought or consideration, except maybe indifferent pity. God forgive our indifference and negligence!

Great Lent is a time for us to reflect on where we are as human beings and, more importantly, as Christians. Are we truly faithful disciples of Christ or are we just His followers in name only? O Lord our God, enlighten the darkness of our hearts that we may see You, the true light that illumines all, that we may be true disciples of You and be worthy of the promises of Christ, Your Son.

My dear children, everything of this world will pass away and end in due course, as if it had never existed, but works done in the name of Christ will remain with the soul that did them so that the worker may reap eternal benefits from them. Blessed are those who do not pursue the material things of this world but seek and store up the eternal things, so that when they die and depart this world, they will find their treasures in God’s treasury multiplied in value seventy times seven and more. Blessed are you who clean your hearts of the weeds of sin and cultivate good fruit, for the time will come when the angels of the Lord will come to gather His due. Blessed are you also who, during this Great Lent, sow tears of repentance with spiritual and physical fasting, that is, always hungering and thirsting for the eternal things of God.

Nothing in this world, my children, can compare to the riches and treasures that await us in heaven. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that these are ours by right; for they are not. They belong to those who are faithful servants of Christ; those who do not fail in their lives to do the works of the Lord because their hearts belong to Him and to Him alone.

The Lord desires us to be with Him. How tenderly and paternally He put it when He spoke to His Father before entering into His Passion. My beloved children, do not forget that we are in this world only for a short time and that the life of each of us dangles by a mere thread. At any moment, any one of us can be called before the dread judgment seat of Christ. What will we do then? What will we say to the Lord when we are confronted with all that we have done and all that we have failed to do while on this earth? It is frightening and terrifying to think about.

Having the knowledge of this truth, let us turn from our selfish and evil ways and turn back to the Lord. It is not yet too late. For those of you who are now in Holy Week, place yourself firmly in the events of the next four days and let not your hearts be troubled. What the Lord is doing for us should give you hope. For those of us who have just started our Lenten journey, let us not take it for granted but enter fully into the life and works of Christ. Let us all glorify the Lord, Who suffered, died, was buried and rose on the third day for our salvation and the life of the world. By our faithful Lenten observance, may we all be counted worthy of the Lord’s holy and glorious Resurrection. Let us pray also that Jesus will count us worthy to celebrate the eternal Sabbath in the heavens, in the New Jerusalem, in eternal joy.

My children, run with humility to reach the Lord, Who humbled Himself for our sake, our sweetest, beloved Christ, the light of our poor souls and the Savior and Redeemer of all.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

No One in the Church is Perfect

It saddens me a greatly when I hear people speak negatively or judgmentally about someone who has fallen into trouble or done something wrong. Though we should never condone sin, we should never condemn the sinner or speak about them in such a way as to infer that we ourselves are without sin. No one in the Church is without sin; no patriarch, bishop, priest or lay person is without sin. We are a Church made up of sinners.

We are all called by God to live a life of holiness; to be saints that revel and live in the Light of His glory. But, we all fall short of our calling. Those who are truly in tune with God strive hard and honestly each and every day to achieve that holiness which restores the relationship with God that was lost because of the sin of our ancestors Adan and Eve.

Many of those whom we revere and honor as saints were also sinners. Men and women are not proclaimed saints because they are without sin. No, we honor them as saints exactly because they were sinners; precisely because they overcame their sin and responded to the call to holiness. We hold them up as examples to follow because they did not give up the struggle and continued fighting the good fight, despite its many difficulties and obstacles.

When a person falls or fails in some way, we should not be quick to condemn or judge him. No one makes the right decision all the time and sometimes there are mitigating circumstances which cause a person to make a decision that is outside the norm of acceptable behavior. That is not to say that someone who makes a conscious decision to do wrong should be given a pass. There are certainly, and sadly, people who have chosen to live an evil life, individuals who have set aside the path of righteousness to do the work of the evil one. Nor should we look the other way when a good person makes the wrong decision and does something wrong. On the contrary, we have an obligation, in charity, to bring the matter to the person's attention and, if necessary, admonish, even chastise, such a person. In every case, we should offer guidance and Christian counsel with the intent to correct and change behavior that goes against the Gospel and the common good.

To be a model Christian we must first acknowledge our sinfulness; we must admit that we are not perfect. When we do this, we take the first step in truly turning our lives around and becoming what God created us to be in the first place: saints. Becoming a saint is not as difficult as one may think. All it takes is an understanding that we must continually fight against the temptations thrown at us by the world to live against the Gospel. It is easy to succumb to those temptations but it is not hard to withstand against them. We only need to recognize that we are not alone in our struggles; that God is with us and that He gives us the power by His grace to overcome all difficulties, obstacles and struggles put in our way.

The key to living a holy life is obedience. We must all be obedient to the will of God and the commandments of the Lord. Those who practice obedience live the life of the Spirit. There is no better way to live in this life than to walk the path of obedience, for it gives to the one who faithfully observes it happiness, rest, freedom, forgiveness, and a host of many other good things. Obedience to the will of God and His commandments is an impenetrable armor against the slings and arrows of temptation and the work of the devil. It also enhances humility, which allows us to see things about ourselves and others that keep us from entering into a more intimate communion with God. 

Humility allows us to hold our tongues, especially a those times when it would be easy to condemn, ridicule or criticize our brothers and sisters for something they said or did that does not agree with or please us. It is easy to point out the sins and failures of others and ignore our own failings and shortcomings. 

The chief cause of criticism, slander and condemnation of others is pride and egotism, because one considers himself or herself better than others. For this reason, it is always better to think of oneself as being inferior to everyone else. This is what the saints have always done. They put everyone else first and themselves last. They focus in on their own unworthiness rather than that of their brothers and sisters. In this way, the saints, by turning inward in prayer and meditation on the things of God, have found a spiritual treasure.

We must be very attentive that we do not judge any soul. For God permits the one who judges his neighbor to fall, so that he learns to have sympathy for his weak brother. The mercy of God supports us all, but if we become proud, God will remove His grace and we will become worse than the others.

Do not be so quick, my friends, to expel someone out of the Body of Christ, out of the Church, who has fallen or sinned. Repentance is a gift that all of us can use to its fullness. A person who is truly repentant has responded to the cleansing breath of the Holy Spirit and has the grace of the Spirit within him. Every one of us must bear the weaknesses and faults of others.

Who is perfect? Is your patriarch, archbishop, metropolitan, bishop, priest, or deacon perfect? Shall we cast them out of office or from the Church because they are not perfect or because they have sinned in some way? Is your wife or husband perfect? Shall you seek a divorce because someone left the dishes undone, or didn't take the garbage out, or forgot to pickup the clothes at the dry cleaners? Are our children perfect? Should we disown them because they walk around with purple hair, or because they like rock music and not classical, or because they don;t want to be a lawyer or a doctor? 

The Church is a spiritual hospital. What physician would turn away someone who is sick? And what physician would not provide and continue care for someone who has been healed? Preventive medicine is just as important as emergent care. And preventive medicine is the Church's area of specialization. We not only treat the disease, but we treat the symptoms and the causes. Yes, there are times we must cut out the cancer, but we must be very careful not to see individuals in the Church as the cancer; rather it is the cancer and disease within them that we must eliminate. Even if, after a period of time, the case is proven to be terminal and death is imminent, we are still obliged to care for the individual and to do all in our power to relieve his or her pain and suffering until death occurs.

Certainly there is behavior which cannot be tolerated and which requires censure, but let us not be quick to go to the extreme. Justice must be measured according to the offense, and there can no true justice without mercy. And in every case we must refrain from condemnation or injecting our personal agenda or beliefs into our evaluation of a particular matter or subject. Justice must be measured out according to the tenets of the Gospel and not by the standards of the world.

Forgiveness is very much a part of our Christian Tradition and life. A person who is truly repentant is to be forgiven without condition. This is the manifestation of true Christian love; a person who acts in such fashion will receive abundant blessings from God. But the person who judges and does not forgive brings condemnation upon himself and will learn the lesson of humility through suffering.

Human experience has proven time and time again that it is wrong to accuse and condemn someone without letting him defend himself. We must always be willing to listen to the "other side of the story." A good Christian will listen to everything and then prayerfully discern the truth. A Christian must be like the many-eyed Cherubim, who sees everything from every different perspective. 

Do not let the sun go down with anger against your brother still in your heart. Doing so will make the Holy Spirit flee from you and God's grace will be withdrawn from you. Remember always that the standards by which you judge others will be the standards by which you will be judged. If you set your standards too high, others will expect the same from you and if you fall, your fall will be greater than if you set the bar a bit more realistically. Remember, we are all sinners and no one is without sin. None of us is perfect. Only God is perfect. And we have not yet received our deification, though hopefully we all will, by God's grace and our cooperation with it.