A Fitting Death

Some deaths can rightly be called "fitting." That is, in dying, the person embodied what his life stood for. John Paul II's death was fitting. For those of us who believe that God is always speaking to those who have ears to hear, Karol Wojtyla's dying two days after Terri Schiavo wasn't a coincidence: It was Providence. It seems unfair to remember a towering figure like Pope John Paul II mostly in terms of the last few weeks of his life. After all, this was the man who, along with Reagan and Thatcher, brought down the Iron Curtain. It's difficult to remember the Catholic world without John Paul II. Under his care, the Church opposed, both in word and deed, the false idols at whose altar so many of our contemporaries worship. Articulating a thoroughly Christian alternative to ideologies like the sexual revolution earned John Paul II the barely disguised hatred of many. But in the last weeks and months of his life, the Pope sent a message, even when he couldn't speak, about his greatest contribution: that is, advancing the "Gospel of Life." In his encyclical by that same name, he described the way that "cultural, economic and political currents . . . encourage an [excessive concern] with efficiency." This "culture of death," as he called it, wages war against those among us who "require greater acceptance, love and care." It regards their existence as "useless," a "terrible burden," or an unacceptable "lifestyle compromise" to those who are "more favored." In time, the "culture of death" persuades people that taking the lives of the defenseless is morally justifiable. The pope was a prophet. Just look at the recent FOX poll that found a majority of Americans regarded the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube as an "act of mercy." That's how Americans viewed the deliberate killing of an innocent woman in Florida. In this, as in so many other things, John Paul II saw the handwriting on the wall and was able to tell us what it said. But he didn't settle for words. Just as he demonstrated the power of forgiveness by personally forgiving his would-be assassin, he bore witness to the "Gospel of Life" in his own body. While we will never know exactly what Terri Schiavo did or didn't feel, we can be certain that the pope felt everything. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way. He wrote that "when . . . the person is almost incapable of living and acting," this suffering constitutes "a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal." That's why the timing of his death also was "fitting." When Mother Teresa died the same week as Princess Diana, it was a lesson on the difference between true greatness and mere celebrity. Now, Schiavo's and the Pope's deaths provide us with a lesson in what "compassion in dying" really means. It's now up to us to help others learn that lesson. The beliefs on display in that FOX poll can be overcome. Indeed, they must be overcome. In his death as in life, John Paul has gotten our attention and passed on to us -- to all Christians -- a charge to keep: to defend the culture of life against the counterfeit and seductively dangerous ideas now so fashionable in modern life.


Chuck Colson


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