July 1, 2018: The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. 45,000 anonymous. All lives ended by suicide this past year. Within days of these high-profile suicides, the Center for Disease Control published a startling and troubling report that has flown under most social radars: suicide has become one of the top ten causes for death. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides, and the percentage increase of suicide has risen almost 30% in the last 20 years. This percentage increase is more than heart disease, cancer or any other of the leading causes for death. Suicide is on the rise and its social and spiritual effects are devastating.
In the recent weeks, I have been engaged in many conversations and pastoral moments with folks trying to grapple with the reality of suicide, and so this week, I’ll reflect on suicide in the light of our faith. Three key points come to mind.
First, the faith gives us a balanced view on how to think about suicide. On the one hand, we name suicide for what it is: the extinguishing of human life. Suicide ought not to be glorified, romanticized or condoned in any way. Life is a gift and to choose to destroy that gift is a serious offense against the gift giver. Suicide is always wrong. At the same time, we are in no position to judge or condemn the person who commits suicide. God alone judges our heart. For our part, we entrust the care of their soul to his mercy. I often reflect with those who have family or friends who have ended their lives, that as much as we love our departed, God loves them infinitely more than we do. God’s mercy is unconditional and so the Church, in her funeral rites and prayers, highlights the hope that we have in merciful judgement of our loving God. As Catholics, we can condemn the act, but not the person. We can name, and even feel the anger of the act but entrust their future to our Father’s love.
Second, our Catholic tradition teaches us that despair is not just a physical disease or emotional depression but has spiritual dimensions. So, it was disturbing to see some Catholic commentators suggest that if only Spade or Bourdain had embraced a life of faith, they wouldn't have killed themselves. When you have faith, you should be filled with the joy of the Lord and so suicide shouldn’t be a possibility. This sentiment is false. It’s right up there with saying that if only one had enough faith, one would never become ill. In fact, Jesus condemns the leaders of his time who conflate physical and emotional illness with moral failings. You might as well say that if only one had enough faith, one would never sin. This is simply not true. What is true is that, in our culture, there is a stress on achieving happiness without recognizing that there is no happiness without meaning. As human beings we can endure much pain and suffering, if there is an underlying significance or meaning which keeps us going. Faith is the horizon which gives us a frame of reference to understand and endure times of grief, depression and suffering. It is interesting to note that the greatest increase in suicides comes from those who are ages 45-60 and are affluent, without any diagnosed mental health illness and from all outward appearances are leading successful and happy lives. This points to a cultural loss of the structure of meaning faith gives, while highlighting the fundamental mystery of suicide itself. Faith is not a psychic bandage or an easy cure for the causes of suicide. But our faith can help to remain connected to the author of life, as it has given many saints who have undergone grievous suffering,
Third, the virtue of hope is the theological virtue by which we connect to God, particularly in moments of darkness and loss. In the midst of her global ministry of love, Mother Theresa famously suffered from a loss of all sensible connection with God. She experienced feelings of isolation, abandonment and loss of God’s loving presence. In her private letters, she speaks of the hope that helped her to endure. The only way to fail is to give up. We all fall. Yet, there is only one way to fail: to not get back up again. In his way of the cross, Christ knows that he is headed towards his death and so when he falls three times on the road to Calvary, we wonder why does he keep getting up? This is the mystery of hope. Christ rises three times because he loves us and wants us to show that we can always hope in his love. There is no suffering, abandonment or grief that he has not already experienced, so that when we experience the same, we can live in the hope that, in the end, his love will be victorious. In the face of the rise of suicide, we do well to reach out to those who are in need, accompany those who are struggling and, at every turn, live the hope that is the love of the author of all life. Lord, help us to hope! Amen!
~ Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P., Pastor