Father Frank's homily on Terri Schiavo, and advice to Michael

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
Publication Date: February 24, 2005

Delivered on the EWTN Live Televised Mass

As we celebrate our Mass this morning we continue to pray for the health of our Holy Father. He again has the symptoms of flu which put him in the hospital recently and he has again had to be taken there for extra care. So let us lift him up today - our Shepherd - the Vicar of Christ on earth.

The last time I had the privilege of preaching from this pulpit was a few days before the national elections of the United States of America last November and do you remember how I concluded my remarks? I said, I know that the outcome of this election will be favorable to the cause of life, because I know you.

That's what I said, because I know you, the people of God, who always respond when there is a need. Who always respond when they are called to respond. Who always respond when the issues of the Gospel are placed clearly before them and a convincing call to action is sent forth. This is how the Church has grown from the very first day. This is how the Church continues to grow. And this is how the cause of justice in all its forms, continues to advance. Pushing back the forces of darkness and of evil that threaten to devour us. I said I know you, because I've traveled the length and breadth of this nation as I continue to do and have seen you face to face. And I've seen the conviction and the fervor in your minds and your hearts, in your lives.

Brothers and sisters, today, I ask you to do it again. In reference to the tragedy, the situation that is unfolding in the state of Florida. A situation which is today's fulfillment of the Gospel that we just heard about Lazarus. Lazarus, who was lying at the door of the rich man, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table, but no one lifted a finger to give him anything.

You've heard about this already, through the ministry of EWTN. You've heard about it presumably in one way or another on the news. There is a woman in Florida by the name of Terri Schiavo, who since 1990 has been suffering from a brain injury, but who otherwise, brothers and sisters, is living and healthy. She is not dying. She does not have any kind of a terminal illness. She is not connected to any kind of life support.

The problem that has arisen, for years now, is that her estranged husband wants her to be starved. She is fed by a simple normal feeding tube at mealtimes. Aside from that, there are no tubes or machines connected to her body. She is living on her own. But she has been kept in a hospice.

Her parents and her siblings want to take care of her for the rest of her life. She is not able to communicate easily, but she is aware, and she is alert. I've been to see her two times, I'll tell you more about that in a moment. But her parents, and her -- she has a loving family, committed and ready to take care of her for the rest of her life.

And meanwhile, this estranged husband - I'm going to have some words addressed directly to him before I'm finished with this homily - is off with another woman, with whom he has two children, and wants Terri dead.

Brothers and sisters, one would think that this was enough information to resolve this situation and to say, well then, let him go his way, and let her be in the care of her family. But because of legal technicalities - because in the eyes of the law... the husband is her quote 'legal guardian', the law has not been able to intervene here to say, well, legal guardian or not, you don't have the right to starve another individual. You don't have the right to kill an innocent person.

Our legal system is broken. The court system is broken and it is time to fix it. And when the laws, and the courts, and the system in place in this country, or in any other country, that has as its primary purpose the protection of life, the protection of its citizens, no longer achieves that goal, then it is the duty of you, the people, to rise up and to change this situation. And that's why I say to you today, as I said back in the beginning of November, you have a task to do and I know that you will do it. It will have to be done, what[ever] can be done.

Brothers and sisters, this situation is reaching a climax. It changes hour to hour. There are so many legal maneuverings, there are so many questions still on the table, there are so many angles to this, that by the time you see this broadcast later in the day, the situation may have changed from what it is now.

The point is, first of all, those of you who live in Florida, I want to make a special appeal to you, and those of you who know people in Florida... It is the people of Florida, at this point in time, who have the biggest opportunity to help Terri and her family by contacting the Governor and the state legislators of Florida, and ask them again to intervene. Because Terri's feeding tube was removed once already and thanks be to God, the legislature of the state of Florida, and the Governor did intervene, and were able to protect her from starvation.

That needs to happen again. The legislature and the Governor need to intervene yet again, to find any and every way that they can - any and every way that the law provides for them. And you the people need to let them know that you want to see that happen.

Now if you don't live in Florida and you don't know anybody in Florida, then by all means, let your own representatives on the federal level, at least know your concern. So that perhaps in some way, something can be discovered, that can be done even on a federal level.

But let your lawmakers know that you are deeply troubled and concerned about this problem. And then there's another angle; there's another dimension to this. I told you that I saw Terri. I was in to see her twice. I saw her once in September and I saw her once just a couple of weeks ago.

And she communicates. She's alert. We prayed. She follows everything that's happening in the room with her eyes, turning her head, smiling. She - when I was in there with her parents, her dad leaned over to kiss her, and she made the motion to kiss him back...

She's not able as I said, to articulate her words, but she attempts to speak. And if she had the benefit of some physical therapy and some speech therapy, she would be in a lot better condition, but guess what? She has been denied that treatment. She has been denied that simple physical and speech therapy by the same person who wants her to be starved.

I told her, when I visited with her, and laid hands on her and prayed with her, that she has a lot of friends around the country. That she has a lot of people who know about her, and love her, that's you. And she knows that.

Brothers and sisters, there is another dimension besides entreating and imploring our lawmakers to do something about this problem. And that is what the Holy Father speaks about in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) - which by the way this year is the 10th anniversary of this marvelous document, the Gospel of Life. It was issued on March 25th of 1995. And he mentions among other things, the duty of conscientious objection.

When laws or court decrees such as a decree to starve someone to death by not feeding them. When such decrees and decisions are issued the Pope points out, as saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out, as scripture points out, as has been the teachings from even before Christ, that we can read about it in the Old Testament, we see the same theme, right along, that nobody has to obey an unjust law because an unjust law is not a law at all.

So a court decree that says don't feed this woman, has no authority! Now a lawyer will tell you, well, you know, it has authority, because, that's the way that the system is setup, and this judge has this particular authority to pass this decree, and this legal guardian has the authority to decide this and decide that... Nonsense!

I don't care what the system says! There is a law higher than any court. There is a law higher than any decree. And a decree to let a person be starved has no authority.

Now we're at a crossroads here. Because either the people of God are going to say... well, we can only pray about this, we can't do anything about it, because that's the law... Or, we're going to take matters into our own hands, in an appropriate way, and exercise what the Pope calls conscientious objection. Because this can't happen by itself.

You see, when a judge issues a decree, somebody has to photocopy it, somebody has to transmit it, somebody has to carry it from point A to point B. And the people who are entrusted with that task must refuse to do it. There are people who actually have to have to transport Terri or anybody else who might be subject to this kind of a decree, to the place where they're going to be starved. They have a duty to refuse. Don't bring her there. Don't do it! Somebody has a duty to disconnect the feeding tube, and to take it into another room, to make sure nobody else comes by and reconnects it. You've got to refuse.

How much longer are we going to go along making believe that what's right, and what's wrong is just a matter of the abstract, or somewhere in the recesses of our minds or hearts and it doesn't really get translated into concrete reality? No, brothers and sisters.

Let me read from the Holy Father's words, he says "When a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law", here he is quoting Thomas Aquinas, "but in this case it ceases to be a law. It becomes instead, an act of violence."

A court decree, with all the respectability that that should have... is in fact, an act of violence... if it is authorizing the killing of an innocent person. And then he goes on to say... these laws and decrees quote "are completely lacking in authentic juridic validity. Consequently, a civil law of that kind, ceases to be a true morally binding civil law."

And then he goes on and quotes from Exodus. Remember when the King of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborn? And Exodus says, "They did not do as the King of Egypt command them, but let the male children live. And then the Pope says, "The ultimate reason for their actions should be noted, quote, the mid-wives feared God."

They realized that someone higher was in charge here. They realized that ultimately this was a question of obeying Him. The same thing with today's gospel. The rich man went to hell, not because he was rich, but because he ignored the other man. Lazarus was begging at his door. Lazarus was helpless. Lazarus was depending on the fact that the rich man might understand that there was a higher law at work here. That this man, because he was in need, had a claim on the rich man's attention, and on his help. He had a claim on it. Maybe not a legal claim technically speaking; maybe a lawyer at that time would have said, well you don't have any responsibility toward this beggar at your doorstep. Legally, you've have a clean bill of health, you don't have to worry about it.

But there's a higher law. This is a brother. This is a sister. This is someone in need. And so the Pope goes on to say, about the midwives, who disobeyed the decree of the King, he says... "It is precisely from obedience to God, to whom alone is due that fear, which is acknowledgment of his absolute sovereignty, that the strength and courage to resist unjust human laws are born. It is the strength and courage of those prepared even to be in prison."

Jesus Christ was in prison. St. Paul was in prison. St. Peter was in prison. The Apostles were in prison for preaching in the name of Jesus. Suppose a law was issued today that said you can't preach in the name of Jesus anymore? Are you going to say, oh gee that's too bad, I was looking forward to doing more of that? Or, are you going to do it anyway? Or, are you going to do it... anyway?

And that's the question I have for leaders in the church. I have the greatest respect for leaders in the church. And we owe our pastors and Bishops obedience and loyalty. We have to preserve the 'communio', the communion, the unity within the church, the unity of discipline. But that doesn't mean that if somebody is a coward, we have to be a coward too. It just doesn't mean that.

And I have a question. In regard for example to cases like Terri Schiavo - some people are - they're not doing anything. They're not speaking out. I have a question. What are you waiting for? Whose permission are you waiting for?

In a case like this, my friends just like with the slaughter of the unborn that goes on every day we don't need anybody's permission, to stand up and defend human life, or to take actions that we can to preserve human life. We don't need anybody's permission. We already have a commandment from almighty God to help your brothers and sisters. You don't need any legal permission, you don't need any church permission, you don't need any permission from anybody. Its because you're a human being. And that's a human being, that the law of almighty God, demands that you act.

Now, let me conclude here, first of all, to be updated on what the situation is, there are a number of websites that have been set up, including by Terri's family. If you go to www.priestsforlife.org, our website, we have an action center there that links you to all these other things... keep you up to date. Besides contacting legislators as I mentioned before, be prepared go to Florida. There are certain activities taking place. There are going to be prayer vigils. There is going to be public witness. There is going to be effort to put public pressure to stop this disaster. Go if you can. But again, at www.priestsforlife.org on the internet - go there, you will see the updates. You will be kept informed, and as I say, the situation changes from hour-to-hour. Go there and you will see the necessary information that you need.

And finally, I want to appeal to Michael Schiavo directly, the estranged husband of Terri:

We don't hate you. There is no reason to hate you or anybody else. You're not our enemy. But you are captive to the enemy right now. He has deceived you into thinking that you have an authority that you don't have, Michael. You don't have it. You don't have any authority to starve Terri. You don't have any authority to abandon her like the rich man in today's gospel abandoned Lazarus. You don't have that authority. And I urge you, even at this late hour, to repent. We are not against you. We are for life. Your life, Terri's life, everybody's life.

And if you continue down this path of error that you've been on for a long time, you're not ultimately going to win anything. You're not ultimately going to benefit yourself or anybody else. In fact, what you're doing at this moment is posing as a threat to civilization itself. And you can't knock against that wall without ultimately destroying yourself. There's still time to change your mind and to change your heart and to be at peace. A peace which you so need and which ultimately you so desire. And we are praying, not only for Terri but for you. And we trust in the power of God's grace to change your mind and heart, even today.

Brothers and sisters, Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them." Because ultimately the rich man thought that if someone came back from the dead to warn his brothers, they would behave differently. They wouldn't. The problem was not that they didn't know what was right. The problem was that they had closed their hearts. And even if someone today came back from the dead to tell us what to do, unless our hearts are ready and open, we wouldn't do it either. Either our hearts are ready and open to respond right now, or they wouldn't be, even if there were a miraculous sign. We need no miraculous sign, we need no permission, we already have the Word of God, the teachings of Christ and the Church. Let's act on them today.


Priests for Life
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