What a terrific quote from the Pope this week from Vatican Insider: “Those who practice mercy do not fear death.” It’s so simple, so wise and so true. Instinctively and from a purely human perspective, we fear death – “The undiscovered country” as Shakespeare, who thought about it a lot, wrote in Hamlet. Modern medicine has prolonged life and modern secular sensibilities have hidden the dying process. It’s no longer a natural – or indeed supernatural – part of life.
Now along comes the Holy Father to remind us that we must “recover the sense of Christian charity and fraternal sharing” because this kind of love is stronger than death. Even that old atheist curmudgeon, Philip Larkin, with the much quoted last line of his poem “An Arundel Tomb” knew this. Pope Francis reminds us in his general audience this week that death will only frighten us – as it did Philip Larkin – if we understand it to be “the end of everything…that destroys every dream, every future hope.” This happens, he said, “when you live as if God did not exist.”
What is the Christian meaning of death? The Pope says: “If we look at the most painful moments of our lives…we realize that even in the drama of loss, even when devastated by loss, the conviction rises from the heart that it cannot all be over, that the good given and received was not in vain.” He reassures his listeners that if we live “united to Jesus, faithful to Him, we will be able to cope with the passage of death with hope and serenity.” He emphasises that to draw closer to Jesus means to recover Christian charity, “taking care of the physical and spiritual wounds of our neighbour.”
Everything the Holy Father said in this general audience is entirely relevant to one of the most pressing debates of our time: that concerning euthanasia or “assisted dying”. It so happens that there was a debate on this subject on Monday at UCL. One of those in favour of legalising assisted dying was Lord Falconer, who has already tried to introduce a Bill in Parliament to this effect. Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship was one of those opposing the motion. In his speech he argued about how, in the countries where it is practised – most notably Belgium – there has been a rapid incremental extension of the criteria for assisted suicides. He commented, “The problem is that any law allowing assisted suicide or euthanasia will carry within it the seeds of its own extension…There will inevitably be pressure to extend the boundaries which may well not survive legal challenge once the so-called “right” is available for some.”
It strikes me that the push for euthanasia in this country is driven by a cadre of influential atheists with a fear of death for themselves and thus a sublimated death wish for others. They have an entirely pragmatic view of life; when someone feels, for whatever reason, that it no longer makes sense, why force them to go on living? There is nothing kind, compassionate or dignified in this viewpoint. Contrast it with the Holy Father’s words, “Those who practise mercy do not fear death”. This is not the false “mercy” of “mercy killing”; it is accompanying, supporting, a person approaching the end of their natural life. To watch over the dying is an act of Christian mercy that used to be practised by certain religious orders. Perhaps someone should start a new religious order for this purpose today?