Feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 2008

Recommended for August 15

Homily for the Assumption

By Most Rev. Joseph M. Sullivan
Diocese of Brooklyn

Recently U.S. bishops were invited to a seminar on preaching, "Eloquence of Teaching: Doctrine, Scripture and Preaching in the Life of the Church" sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine and the Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame. William Cardinal Levada, the keynote speaker, contended that there should be no real opposition between the scriptural/liturgical homily and the doctrinal homily. Rather than dichotomize the two they should be integrated.

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, her singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the Resurrection of other Christians. Mary is our prototype and model. She is a preeminent and wholly unique member of the Church. She, by an entirely unique privilege completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body.

It is not so with us. Christ will raise us up on the last day; but it is also true that, in a certain way, we have already risen with Christ. By virtue of the Holy Spirit, Christian life is already now on earth a participation in the death and Resurrection of Christ. In the eleventh article of the Apostles' Creed, we pray, "I believe in the Resurrection of the body" the "Resurrection of the flesh" (the original formulation of the Apostles' Creed) means not only the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our "mortal body" will come to life again. (Rom 8:11) How the dead are raised exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith. United by Christ by Baptism, believers already truly participate in the heavenly life of the Risen Christ. Our participation in the Eucharist already gives us a foretaste of Christ's transfiguration of our bodies.

Elizabeth praises Mary, "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." Mary in turn praises God, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Mary draws a portrait of a merciful God, who overturns present worldly arrangements and lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry, a God who is faithful to his people Israel and to his promises. Mary reveals a loving God, a God who has given her a Son, who will pay the price of our redemption. She will be a faithful witness to the end. In the shadow of the cross her own soul will be pierced by unimaginable sorrow.

The feast prompts us to reflect on the end of life in the context of eternal life. In death we believe life is changed not ended. We believe we are created in the image and likeness of God. We value life as a precious gift of God. We struggle to live life in imitation of Jesus adhering to the will of our creator. We live in a time when life is devalued by war, violence, abortion, poverty, racism, sexism, behavior. We face the challenges of end of life issues, euthanasia, assisted suicide, appropriate medical treatment, advance directives and surrogate decision makers.

Briefly, let us reflect on a moral issue, the provision of nutrition and hydration for a person in persistent vegetative state (PVS). There have been a number of cases that gained national attention. Let's recall the Terri Schiavo case. Ms. Schiavo, a 41year old married woman suffered severe brain damage after a collapse in 1990 and was sustained by a feeding tube until her death in March 2005. Her husband sought the removal of the life-sustaining equipment. Her parents opposed removal and the issue was litigated for seven years.

In response to questions from the USCCB regarding the treatment of PVS patients, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) ruled that, in such cases, feeding tubes must be considered, in principle, an ordinary means of preserving life. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith used the occasion to make a solemn pronouncement that a human being in PVS is a person with full human dignity and rights. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document is helpful in several ways:

  • It refers to patients in the very rare condition called PVS
  • It distinguishes the stable situation of a patient in PVS
  • The CDF explicitly denied any intention to deviate from the long tradition of allowing people to forego extraordinary means of care

The CDF informed the USCCB that it need not revise the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERD) for Catholic Health Care Services over this issue. Those directives state that there is a presumption in favor of artificial hydration and nutrition in these circumstances.

Some define artificial nutrition and hydration as basic care and providing this care is always morally obligatory. They contend that foregoing these means ultimately results in starvation, dehydration and death.

Traditional moralists hold that the decisive moral consideration was whether the means used offered a proportionate hope of benefit without imposing excessive burdens relative to the person's overall situation. The US Bishops' Pro-Life Committee commented in 1992, "Nutrition and hydration must not be withdrawn in order to cause death, but may be withdrawn if they offer no reasonable hope of sustaining life or pose excessive risks or burdens." Directive 58 of the ERD states, "There should be a presumption in favor of providing nutrition and hydration to all patients, including patients who refuse medically assisted nutrition and hydration, as long as this is of sufficient benefit to outweigh the burdens involved to the patient."

In the final analysis of the papal allocution in 2004 and subsequent statements by CDF, the moral criteria for discontinuing tube feeding for PVS patients must meet a very high, but not absolute, standard. The Catholic Church over centuries has developed a sophisticated methodology of moral analysis of complex ethical questions. We Catholics are indebted to the theologians and the magisterium of the Church for equipping us to deal with the complex moral questions passed by medical and scientific advancements on the treatment of patients. The Church proclaims that sanctity of human life and through her teaching safeguards the dignity of every human being. On the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation and hope of our own joining with Mary and Jesus on the last day.


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