Waltzing With the Pope

Holy Week of 2005 was filled with sadness. On Good Friday, forty-one year old Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo was in the seventh day of her agony, forced to starve to death by supremacist judicial fiat in America, the land of the free. At the same time it appeared that Polish born Karol Wojtyla, the Holy Father, might be unable to appear at the liturgical celebrations for Easter due to declining health. Over Easter, the simultaneous drama of these two individual lives played out hour by hour.

World-wide media attention focused on the agonizing death watch of the hitherto unknown brain-damaged Florida woman whose husband demanded her life’s end. “Terri” Schiavo, the girl with the infectious giggle who once attempted to revive her pet dog and who deplored the removal of life support from young Karen Quinlan, became a multi-national poster image in the culture of life.

Frantic and furious attempts were made to save her from death, to save the country from the “rule of law” that was accelerating the establishment of euthanasia for the elderly, the disabled, the imperfect, and those unwilling to die to accommodate the state. As options dwindled and all attempts proved futile, a continent away, the life and sufferings of Pope John Paul II took on a curious resemblance to those of Terri Schiavo. Media attention fluctuated between the two like a recurring pas de deux.

A mysterious collapse at age twenty-six left gentle Terri with the inability to speak for over fifteen years. For even more years Pope John Paul II spoke to the world about the culture of life and what it meant for the family of the world. “America, defend Life” proclaimed the pope on his initial trip to the United States. Now, breathing difficulties called for the Holy Father to undergo a tracheotomy. The eloquent and loquacious Pope John Paul II became unable to speak. It is small wonder that Terri became the personification and instrument of the pope’s teaching, his beloved icon.

News reports moved rhythmically back and forth from Pinellas Park, Florida to the Vatican in Rome. After Terri’s abdominal feeding tube was removed depriving her of sustenance, the pope’s inability to take in sufficient calories made a naso-gastric feeding tube necessary.

As Terri hovered in a minimally conscious state (an insensitive populace called “vegetative”) people secretly began to wonder what if the Pope ended up in the same unflattering situation? The Pope however had settled that question long ago. One year prior to the beginning of Terri’s starvation, ironically almost to the very day, on March 20, 2004 John Paul II, dismissed the wrong-headed philosophy of the “right-to-die” crowd and called the deliberate removal of food and water from patients, “true and proper euthanasia by omission.”

Affirming the dignity of all peoples, the Pope said, “The value of a man’s life cannot be made subordinate to any judgment of its quality expressed by other men.” Those who are “prisoners of their condition ... retain their human dignity in all its fullness."

Only twelve days apart, Terri Schiavo and John Paul II gave the world their last sermons. Just prior to the removal of Terri’s feeding tube, she cried out in garbled but unmistakable syllables, “AW….Wann…” attempting to repeat the sentence “I want to live.” At the window of his Vatican apartment on Wednesday March 30th, the Holy Father attempting to bless the crowd below in St. Peter’s square “managed only a rasp.”

After a valiant thirteen day struggle to survive, Terri’s grasp on life began to slip away. Her breathing became shallow and labored; her heart began to race, her blood pressure dropped and kidney failure set in. Terri Schiavo was dying.

Three thousand miles away the Holy Father contracted a urinary tract infection, suffered heart failure and septic shock. There was a precipitous drop in his blood pressure. The Holy Father was dying.

People across the world had watched little Terri Schiavo suffer her own Holy Week passion as courts, crowds and leaders alike cried for her emulation on the sacrificial altar of choice, privacy and convenience.

Now they began to watch the world’s most honored and revered religious leader in his agony. Terri Schiavo died at 9:05 a.m. Thursday, March 31st at Woodside Hospice. Her death was a prelude to the coming demise of the Holy Father. In some strange and beautiful way, their lives dovetailed into one another, a matched pair of icons moving together in time to silent music as the end of their earthly journeys approached.

Two and a half days after Terri’s death, Pope John Paul II died on Saturday evening. It almost seemed he arranged a respectful and gracious interval for people to mourn for Terri before the world became fixed upon his own passing.

When I think of them taking leave of us, I inhale the fragrance of a thousand ascending prayers and mark the falling of a thousand sorrowful tears. And yet, amid the darkness and grief, rapturous sounds fill the air. The virile and handsome young pope asks for the hand of the blushing and lovely young woman with the sparkling smile. Crossing the borders of paradise together, Terri is waltzing with the pope.

Nancy Cecilia Murray © April 10, 2005

Note: Nancy is a guest author from Catholic Media Coalition.



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