By Leon Suprenant
Special to the Catholic Key
Last Saturday, St. James Academy, located in Lenexa, Kansas, hosted an event billed as a “Conference for the Sick and Suffering.” Well over 300 people were on hand for the event, which was also co-sponsored by School of Faith, the catechetical arm of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
A recurring theme of the conference was the life and teaching of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (better known simply as “Padre Pio”), a 20th-century Capuchin priest and wonder worker whom Pope John Paul II canonized in 2002. In attendance throughout the day was Anthony D’ Andrea, an American relative of Padre Pio (see interview).
The first speaker in the morning was Steve Wisdom, the father of Brooks Wisdom, a St. James student who died in 2008. Mr. Wisdom spoke on the topic of redemptive suffering, as he made the journey with his son, who from birth suffered from a serious heart condition.
Despite his suffering, Brooks was able to maintain a positive attitude, as he understood that his suffering and pain could be offered for the good of others. Not surprisingly, Brooks took “Pio” as his Confirmation saint, as Padre Pio for the last 50 years of his life bore the five wounds of Christ visibly in his flesh.
The message of this talk was to keep our eyes open for opportunities to serve others who suffer. We must not allow ourselves to become so self-absorbed that we are unwilling to go out of our way to help others. The speaker also encouraged the crowd to recall that God wants to use our own suffering for good, but we must do so with a cheerful, Christ-like heart.
Fr. Gary Pennings, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, gave the second talk, on end-of-life issues and hospice care.
Prior to serving as a priest, Fr. Pennings worked as an EMT/paramedic. This experience gave him a particular insight into what he called our “rescue culture.” We want to keep death at bay at all costs. His job, then, was to go to war against death.
He also pointed out the strange phenomenon that at the same time we live in a “culture of death,” which promotes the hastening of death as an easy end to suffering. We have largely lost a sense of the redemptive value of suffering, so instead of focusing on the sick person’s dignity and eternal good, we instead consider his or her utility to society and “quality of life.”
Against that backdrop, Fr. Pennings gave an excellent power point overview of Catholic teaching on end-of-life issues. He stressed that every human life has value, such that euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide can never be a legitimate option.
He also noted that while we “do not cling to life at all costs,” a patient has the right to decide a course of treatment and to expect that ordinary measures, such as nutrition, hydration, and pain relief, will ordinarily not be withheld from them. For more specific questions on this topic, Fr. Pennings recommended the website of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (http://www.ncbcenter.org/NetCommunity//).
He concluded his informative talk by offering a “hospice paradigm” as an alternative to the rescue paradigm. The end of life should entail palliative care, respecting personal choices, healing, making amends, and receiving the sacraments as one prepares for eternity. The goal is to keep our baptismal light burning until the Lord comes to take us home.
Following the talks was a votive Mass for the sick with Archbishop Joseph Naumann as the principal celebrant and homilist.
Archbishop Naumann held up Padre Pio as a special patron saint for those dealing with stress and anxiety in their lives. One of Padre Pio’s favorite expressions was “pray, hope, and don’t worry.” According to Archbishop Naumann, we live this expression only when we surrender our hearts fully to God and trust in His goodness.
In the midst of suffering, we acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, and turning to the crucifix, we ask for relief or healing for others or ourselves. Yet, Archbishop Naumann continued, not all suffering is taken away. Rather, Christ leads us through it to eternal, abundant life.
Immediately after Mass there was an enthronement of a first-class relic of Padre Pio—blood taken from the stigmata, or five wounds of Christ. While veneration of the relic continued into the afternoon, Archbishop Naumann concluded the liturgy with a special blessing for all the sick.