AVE MARIA — A picture of a radiant Terri Schiavo dressed in a snow-white wedding dress and accompanied by a depiction of Jesus Christ superimposed at her side sat on the steps leading up to the altar at the Ave Maria Oratory.
“The National Mass for Terri’s Day” on Tuesday marked the 4th anniversary of the Florida woman’s death.
Schiavo became the center of a global controversy when her feeding tube was removed and she died of dehydration at the age of 41 following a seven-year legal battle on behalf of her husband, Michael, who said that his wife would not want to continue living in the state she was in. Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, who were present at Tuesday’s Mass, argued that their daughter was conscious, and fought vigorously to keep the feeding tube in place, eventually receiving help from former President George W. Bush, who in March 2005 signed legislation designed to keep Terri alive.
The Supreme Court of the United States four times declined to hear the Schiavo case. On March 18, 2005, a local court’s decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube was carried out. Schiavo died of dehydration 13 days later in a Pinellas Park hospital.
In February 1990, Schiavo collapsed in her St. Petersburg apartment after experiencing cardiac arrest and was eventually determined to be in a “permanent vegetative state.”
Schiavo’s brother, Bobby Schindler, who was also present at Tuesday’s Mass along with his sister, Suzanne Vitadamo, said the weeks leading up to the anniversary of Terri’s death are always difficult for his family.
“It’s always hard in the two weeks before (the anniversary), especially for my parents,” Schindler said on the pristine steps of the ornate oratory shortly before Mass began. “I still can’t explain how it felt to see Terri go through what she went through. I just can’t make sense of a decision that denied hydration to a person with a cognitive disability.”
On the previous three anniversaries of his sister’s death, Schindler and his family held memorial masses near their St. Petersburg-area home. This year, he said the family wanted to do something on a larger scale.
“I couldn’t be any more honored or delighted that Ave Maria agreed to hold the Mass here,” he said. “I’m extremely pleased with everything, especially with the great turnout on such short notice.”
In an impassioned homily during which his voice often quaked with anger, Rev. Frank Pavone railed against what he termed “the culture of death.”
Pavone became a figure of national interest when he was the only person other than family members allowed into Schiavo’s hospital room.
Addressing the Schindler family, he said, “Countless people in the United States and around the world followed Terri’s struggle, from the Vatican to our own back yards. We hoped when you hoped, suffered when you suffered, and prayed when you prayed. I want you to know that we are with you. We were with you then, and we continue to be with you now, because Terri’s fight continues through this culture of death.”
Pavone said that, contrary to Michael Schiavo’s claims, Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to have her feeding tube removed.
“We live in a society where, if you’re vulnerable, you’re disposable,” Pavone said. “But people of faith are called to have trust. We can endure. ... It wasn’t Terri who asked for death – it was someone else, and it was carried out on the authority of a government that imposed this death.”
Pacing frenetically, Pavone also raged against the legal battle the Schindler family underwent.
“How were they subjected to these legal matters?” Pavone asked. “How? It was simply because they loved their daughter and they loved their sister, that’s how.”
Expressing disgust with the legal decision that prompted the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube, Pavone said the Catholic Church and its followers are subject to a higher power than that of human courts.
“Any human decree of law that denies the sanctity of life has no authority, it has no validity,” he said. “These self-styled pro-choice politicians, including our President (Barack Obama) have yet to learn the purpose of public service. It is our responsibility to make sure that no one like that gets into office in the first place.”
Recalling Schiavo’s final days, Pavone said the circumstances in her hospital room underscored the “absurdity of the culture of death.” “There were policemen around her bed making sure that she got no water when flowers in vases full of water were just inches away from her parched lips,” he said. “That’s the absurdity of the culture of death.”
Schindler family friend Patricia Bucalo of Naples said the act of removing Schiavo’s feeding tube constituted murder.
“It’s hard to use such strong language, but I’m afraid that’s exactly what happened,” she said. “It was the worst government crime ever, and it was committed by many people in many different parts of the government. It’s terrible that the state of Florida succeeded in murdering her.”
The Rev. Paul O’Donnel, also a Schindler family friend, said Tuesday’s Mass was an important step in keeping Terri Schiavo’s memory alive.
“I think it’s important to remember Terri, because there are others in her condition who are also in danger of being killed,” he said. “Just as we remember our brothers and sisters who died during the Holocaust, we say, ‘Never again.’ We have a moral and ethical obligation to provide food and hydration, even if it is by artificial means.”
Staff writer Liam Dillon contributed to this report.