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Homily Given at Memorial Mass for Terri Schindler-Schiavo

April 2005

By Fr. Frank Pavone

National Director, Priests for Life

Bob and Mary, Suzanne and Bobby, I know that I speak for your extended family, I know that I speak for everyone here in this Church and outside,  I know that I speak for people who, even tonight, are having memorial masses in churches throughout the nation and throughout the world.   I know that I speak for our now deceased Holy Father himself.  I know I speak for millions of people throughout the Nation and across the globe when I say to you tonight four simple words - we are with you.   

Pope John Paul II was personally informed of the death of Terri on the day before his own death.  We can be certain that he offered his own sufferings for her.  You know, brothers and sisters, we Christians are strange people because we can grieve and rejoice at the same time.  There is for the Christian joyful sorrow.  There is for the Christian hopeful grief.  That is what we experience here today.  That is what we have been experiencing with and for Terri for a long time.  We weep, and weeping is consistent - is compatible - with faith.  Jesus himself wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.  Why do we weep?  We weep because we love.  Why, at the same time, do we hope?  We hope because we know that death does not have the last word. 

St. Paul says, "Yes we grieve but not as those who have no hope"  -- not as those who think that death really is the last word of the human story.  For so many people going through this short and confusing life, the human story is birth, life and death.  Beyond that they cannot see and beyond that they dare not think and beyond that they cannot hope. But for the Christian the story is not birth, life and death.  It is life, death and resurrection.

We know, we know that the grief we have will be transformed and is being transformed into joy and this --- the words we pray, the songs we sing, the psalm we heard and the prayers we will utter as this mass continues -- speak of joy and celebration even at the same time as they speak of loss and grief and death.  This is the Christian message. 

Terri died on Easter Thursday.  For the Church, Easter is not just Easter Sunday.  It is a whole week.  If you look carefully at the Church's prayers during the Easter week you will find the liturgy refers to each and every day of that week as Easter day.  The priest is to pray at the preface of the Mass on Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Easter Tuesday, Easter Wednesday, Easter Thursday, Easter Friday and Easter Saturday - he  must say these words, "Father we praise you with greater joy than ever on this Easter day." At the very moment Terri died - somewhere in the country - somewhere in the world, a priest was standing at the altar saying, "Father we praise you with greater joy than ever on this Easter day," because Christ is risen.  

Brothers and sisters, when we say that Christ is risen, we do not simply mean that he conquered his own death.  We do not simply mean that he came out of his own tomb.  We mean that he conquered our death.  We mean he conquered Terri's death.  We mean he conquered the kingdom of death.  He overturned it.  He robbed it of its power.  He rose and lives forevermore and our celebration of Easter, including our celebration of this mass, is a celebration of the fact that we share that victory.

The Church, under the leadership especially of John Paul II, proclaims that life is a gift and that's why this is a celebration because we join with Terri's family tonight in thanking God for the gift of her life.  We see it in no other way than a gift.  

When we say that life is a gift we mean it is a pure gift.  It may not be demanded and it may not be discarded.   

When man and woman come together in a loving embrace of husband and wife they cannot demand from God the gift of a child.  They can open themselves to that gift but they can't say, "Lord you have to deliver, you give us a child right now."   Some people have that mentality that life is something they can demand.  We see it today even with reproductive technologies that try to artificially produce a child - produce and manufacture a human life.  Life is not something that we manufacture, it's a gift.  We receive it and we receive it if and only if God wants to give it.

Let me ask you a question.  Where were you one hundred years ago tonight?  You're laughing.  You probably don't remember where you were.  I've got an even better question.  Where will you be one hundred years from tonight?  Brothers and sisters, we will be together one hundred years from tonight rejoicing in the Lord. 

But I ask you, where were you one hundred years ago?  Well you weren't yet.  You didn't exist.  And so how did you come from that nothingness into being?  How did that happen?  Well you could say, “My mom and dad came together and they conceived a child and that was me.”  Well, certainly your mom and dad coming together and conceiving a child was necessary for you to be here but that doesn't really answer the question.  Because when your mom and dad came together and conceived a child it didn't have to be you.  It could have been anyone of millions of possible brothers and sisters.  It didn't have to be you.

What is the answer to the question of how you came from that nothingness in which you were one hundred years ago into that life you have tonight?  There's only one answer.  From all eternity God knew, chose and loved you.  From all eternity God knew, loved and chose Terri.  From all eternity he knew, loved and chose every human being who was ever conceived… No matter what the course of their earthly life brought…. No matter what sorrow or tragedy. …No matter whether life was long or short, healthy or disabled.  God himself brought us into being.  And life is always a good.

John Paul II died only a matter of days after the tenth anniversary of one of the most important documents he ever wrote, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae).  In that document he said, "Life is always a good” - always…  No matter how frail…  No matter how injured or disabled…  No matter how weak…  No matter how, in the eyes of the world, unproductive it might be.  Life, he said, is always a good.  Why? Because it always reflects the glory of God.  Every human life is a sign of His presence, a trace of His glory.  We touch God when we touch a human life.

Brothers and Sisters, it is in touching another human life, especially one that is vulnerable, that we find God.  Why?  Because Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there."  Why two or three?  Why not just one?  Why didn't he say, "Where one is gathered in my name I am there?"  Well he is there but it is only when two or three or more are gathered that we can love one another.  That's why he said that. 

It is only when there is more than one human being gathered together that each of those human beings can give themselves away for the other one.  That's the meaning of life - we give ourselves away for each other.  The meaning of life, the meaning of happiness is never found when we throw other people out of the way, when we push them aside to try and make room for whatever plan or scheme or desire we happen to have.  No.  Human fulfillment is found when we push ourselves out of the way and make room for the other.  It is found when we pour out that love for the other person no matter who that person is.

We have seen, especially in these last few weeks, an outpouring of love for Terri from around the world.  That's the meaning of life.  God sends us people like Terri to remind us of the meaning of life. 

Mother Teresa - Terri shared her name --  Mother Teresa taught us this in a marvelous fashion.  What was her greatness?  Her greatness was that she showed us the meaning of love by giving herself away for the other person.  The night before Terri died and then again on the morning that she died when Bobby, Suzanne and I were praying over her I commended her to Mother Teresa.  I invoked Mother Teresa.  I told Terri to entrust herself to Mother Teresa who spent so many years lifting with her own hands the poor and the dying off the streets of Calcutta and embracing them and helping them to die with dignity - oh, a phrase that is so twisted and misunderstood.  Mother Teresa knew how to help people die with dignity. Do you know what that meant for her?  Show them that they're not forgotten.  Show them that they're not alone.  Show them that they have as much dignity and worth and value as any other person on the face of the earth no matter how racked their body might be with weakness, with sickness, no matter what it is. 

A story is told of one of those dying people that she caressed and affirmed and loved in Calcutta.  As he was dying he looked at Mother Teresa and said, "Mother Teresa, this Jesus that you talk about - is he like you?  And she said, "No, but I try to be like Him."

That's what we're called to do.  That's what Terri's family was called to do and they responded because they saw Jesus there.  Who is this Jesus?  We try to be like Him - giving ourselves away for the other person, not throwing the other person away.

We can reflect tonight and we heard the beautiful Gospel passage of the suffering and crucifixion of God Himself.  We reflect tonight on the fact that suffering - human suffering - has meaning.  It has value.  There is a clash of cultures and a clash of civilizations and a clash of world views going on right before our eyes between those who say suffering is meaningless -- there is no purpose to it, we have to avoid it at all costs and if a life is so enveloped in suffering and pain that they cannot be extricated from it then we just throw it away -- and we who call ourselves Christians, and listen to that Gospel of God Himself who does not simply watch human suffering from a distance but rather jumps into it.

You know the song, "God is watching us from a distance?"  Oh yes, no matter how far out in the universe you go you will find him but he doesn't watch us from a distance.  He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.  He does not just watch our pain, he jumps into it.  He shares it. 

Suffering has meaning and value for us as Christians because we unite our sufferings, we unite our death to that of Jesus.  We heard from St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, "None of us lives as his own master, none of us dies as his own master."  We do not see, we do not decide when we come into this world or when we leave.  "None of us lives as his own master.  While we live we belong to the Lord.  When we die we belong to the Lord."  And there is our hope.  We die in and with and through Jesus Christ. 

We are celebrating tonight also the meaning of the Communion of  Saints.  Can you imagine how many people prayed and are still praying for Terri and her family?  You cannot begin to imagine the number.  What happens to all of those prayers?  What happens to all that grace?  What happens to all those Masses?  They all accumulate.  Brother and sisters, the power of that accumulates and it pours itself out not only on the soul of Terri.  It pours itself out on you who were closest to her this life.  You as a family have been experiencing the grace of those prayers. 

Grace is a mysterious but a very real thing.  I might have a toothache or a headache and I can say, Jesus, I join my toothache to your pains on the cross.  Lord I join my headache to the pains in your hands when the nails went into them.  And because we make that little prayer someone on the other side of the world might be converted to the Christian faith.  You offer up a stomach ache, you offer up a financial difficulty.  You offer up some emotional distress for a particular reason and a family like the Schindlers can find extra strength in a time of sorrow.  There is a mystical communion of grace.  We all share in the benefits of it.  Imagine the grace pouring out on this family.  It is real and it continues and if you ask the Lord how and where and why did you find strength to go on through this terrible ordeal, the answer is there.

People you will never meet this side of heaven pouring out their prayers - that grace overflows to you into your soul, into your body, into your mind.  It is real.  

The night before Terri died when she was suffering so much and the next morning we spent a lot of time just in silence next to her, but we also spoke to her, and one of the things I said to her over and over was, "Terri join your sufferings to Jesus.  Join your sufferings to Jesus on the cross.  Entrust yourself to him.  Give yourself to him." 

We prayed the Rosary with her and we prayed the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary.  We reflected on Jesus' agony in the garden, the fear and terror that he had as he approached his crucifixion.  Even though he was God, he experienced that fear and terror. We reflected on the scourging at the Pillar on his crowning with thorns, on his carrying of his cross, on his death.  And I said, "Terri, join yourself with Jesus."  And she did.  That's the meaning of Christian death.  It could not have been more meaningful.

Brother and sisters this mystical communion will continue to give us strength and that leads us to the next chapter.  Tonight we express in a beautiful way our solidarity with Terri and her family, our grief and also our joyful hope in the resurrection.   

But in the next chapter after this God calls us from this place to build a culture of life.  

God calls us to go forth from this place to and make sure that Terri who had such difficulty speaking will speak louder than ever to this world.

God calls us to go forth so that those who suffer like she did, those who are disabled like she was may know that they are not forgotten, that they are not alone, that we love them and we will be with them every moment of their lives.

And God calls us forth from this place to work together to preach and to proclaim and to witness together so that what happened in this tragic case will never happen again.

Pope John Paul II, for whom I had the privilege to work very closely for two years in the Vatican, loved the word "solidarity,"  not only because of the implications of what he did in Poland but in its deep Christian meaning - standing with, suffering with those who suffer in any way, shape or form, standing with the oppressed.  And isn't it an amazing show of solidarity - nothing he could have ever orchestrated - but it is an amazing solidarity what happened last week.  It was as if the Holy Father wanted to teach the world by following Terri into her suffering and into her death some 48 hours later.  It is a solidarity that the Pope is teaching us to have and the Pope leaves us with the guidance we need to build that culture of life.  He leaves us with the teaching that life is always a good.  He leaves us with the teachings in the Gospel of Life, that encyclical letter he wrote just ten years ago.  He leaves us with this teaching, he quotes the Prophet Isaiah and he says, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who exchange light for darkness and darkness for light, bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter."  The Pope says we must face things as they are and all things by their proper name.  We will not build a culture of life, we will not bring about peace and justice and reconciliation unless we first have truth.  We must speak the way things are.

And Pope John Paul leaves us another teaching so consoling to us in this difficult moment and that is that other is a judge in heaven --that that Judge and that King is higher than any court on earth -- that that Judge and that King is higher than any law on earth.

And the Holy Father makes it so clear that any human decision or decree or law that violates fundamental human rights is no law at all

So, my brothers and sisters, tonight we grieve.  Tonight we weep.  Tonight we rejoice and we celebrate.  Tonight we experience joyful sorrow.  Tonight we experience determined hope.  Tonight we resolve to go forth and to do the work that must be done.  Tonight we celebrate Easter.  Tonight we here again that Christ is risen and that all of our sorrow will be turned to joy.   

I want to share with you in conclusion one of the hymns I chanted to Terri before she died.  It is a very ancient hymn of the Church.  It is the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus.  It's called the Easter Sequence.  It says, "To the Paschal Victim let Christians raise their songs of praise.  The Lamb has bled for the sheep.  Christ the innocent one has reconciled sinners to the Father.  Life and death were engaged in an awesome struggle.  Life's captain died but now reigns victorious."

And then this beautiful hymn, which I am going to chant for you in the language of the Church, just like I did for Terri, says these words, "Tell us oh, Mary, what did you see on the way?  I saw (she said) the tomb of Christ now living and I saw angels declaring that he was alive and I saw the burial wrappings.  Jesus Christ my hope has arisen and he goes before you to Galilee.  We know that Christ is risen.  Oh, victorious King, have mercy on us.  Amen. Alleluia.”

Victimae Paschali: 

Victimae paschali laudes immolent Christiani.

Agnus redemit oves; Christus innocens Patri

reconciliavit peccatores.

Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando;

dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus.

Dic nobis Maria quid vidisti in via?

Sepulcrum Christi viventis, et gloriam vidi resurgentis.

Angelicos testes, sudarium et vestes.

Surrexit Christus, spes mea;

precedet suos in Galileam.

Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere:

Tu nobis Victor rex, miserere. Amen. Alleluia.

Terri, you do not belong to death.  You belong to Christ, and so do we.

AMEN

 

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