Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Life, Death & Catholic Medical Choices: Why Do I Need A Book Like This?

As I wrote in my Catholic Post review of Life, Death and Catholic Medical Choices, the excellent guide, virtually everyone would benefit from having this book on hand:

Some are thinking “I can go ask my parish priest, or read some encyclicals, or read some blogs about these tough issues.”  I say, yes to all of that, especially consulting your parish priest (who might have this book already).  But the well-reasoned and easy to read wisdom of centuries of Church teaching distilled in Life, Death and Catholic Medical Choices is a true treasure."

My own personal story wouldn't fit in my monthly print Post column, but I thought it would be helpful to share here.

In the last few years, both of my parents died within a few months of each other.  There were many medical moral issues that arose during the years before their death; that's pretty common, as I'm sure readers will agree who have had a loved one face death in recent years.

I feel enormously  blessed to be part of a large and trusting Catholic family.  Among parents, my siblings and spouses we had two physicians, too many lawyers to count, and a Catholic moral theologian.  The latter is my dear husband, who has a wealth of wisdom, in addition to a caring and patient personality that could explain and help us navigate through the medical care persons at the end of life. 

And yet with all of that, our family still grappled with issues of treatment and care.   I know that I  would have found this book enormously comforting and helpful to read and consult during that time.

Another factor for many families, and which helped ours tremendously, was a Catholic healthcare setting. Fortunately, after a number of less-than optimal settings, my parents at the very end lived in a Catholic nursing home staffed with caring professionals who were led by a small group of devout white-habited Carmelite sisters.  The nursing home's motto is "The difference is love," and I can't tell you what comfort those loving, well-formed professionals meant to our family.

There was a sad NY Times story over the weekend about the decline of religious sisters leading Catholic healthcare systems.  Keeping the Catholic vision in healthcare, in books like Life, Death & Catholic Medical Choices; is extremely important, I'm convinced.  In preparing my review, I read numerous other books about health care and end-of-life care, and the lack of Catholic vision can lead to some strange conclusions and muddled thinking.  

But keeping the Catholic healthcare we enjoy in our country (and especially in our local diocese, staffed with sisters and dedicated lay leaders) is another critical component to health care.    I'm not trying to say that great care can't occur in non-Catholic settings; I'm sure it does in many places.   But the Catholic history and vision of caring for the vulnerable, the sick and the dying is a treasure we must never underestimate.

What are your thoughts on this?  (Please overlook the strange font size changes, line spacing, and other "creative" things Blogger is arbitrarily applying to this post.  I can't seem to fix it.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Quote for Monday: Life, Death and Catholic Medical Choices

There's a little--okay, a lot-- of blogger guilt about how little I've written here this month about the book Life, Death and Catholic Medical Choices.  I truly believe this is a great, easy-to-read guide for people about the richness of our Catholic faith.  As I wrote about in my Catholic Post review of the book:

"Just because someone slept at a Holiday Inn Express-- or has read a lot of Church documents--doesn’t guarantee good results when one tries to charitably explain or defend Church teaching accurately, especially on complicated and critical issues of life and death.  In this area, what’s most needed is loving and well-formed professionals.  Two of these have written Life, Death & Catholic Medical Choices.  Take advantage of their wisdom and guidance, and keep this book on hand."

I hope to write more about this concept during this week, to catch up for what I've missed conveying about this excellent resource and the necessity to "trust the professionals."  In the meantime, I wanted to share with you an excerpt from the book.  The book is in a question and answer format, which makes it easy to read and reflect in short sections:

What is the difference between medical intervention and basic healthcare?

Medical interventions to restore health, alleviate pain, or prolong life usually require medical professionals.  Other activities such as ensuring cleanliness and warmth, feeding, the giving of water, and respecting the personal dignity of belong to basic healthcare, sometimes referred to as natural care.  Church statements give the impression that all forms of natural care are normally obligatory.  Of course there can come a time when it is unreasonable to force a dying person to eat or drink in the normal fashion because such as insistence is too burdensome for the patient and there is very little to be gained.  

Perhaps we should include spiritual care of the person under the heading of natural care.  Here, too, we need to be sensitive to the condition of the patient. Sometimes a faith-filled dying person may ask family members to tone down vocal prayers, as wonderful as they may be, because noise causes her pain or agitation.   There are appropriate and inappropriate times to raise spiritual matters with the sick and dying.

One may ask if artificial nutrition and hydration are a medical intervention or natural basic healthcare?  Interesting, John Paul II in 2004 stated:  "I should like, particularly, to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act."  The pope goes on to state that, in principle, such nutrition and hydration are morally obligatory until they have attained their proper finality, which is providing nourishment and alleviating suffering.  

So, in the case where a patient's body can no longer process such nutrition or hydration or its administration causes them more suffering, we would have a situation where what is normally natural care is causing more burden than benefit and would cease to be obligatory.  The fact that an action is termed natural care does not necessarily mean that it cannot be judged extraordinary in certain circumstances.  In fact, is it well-known that both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal John O'Connor refused nutrition and hydration when it had become an extraordinary measure for the preservation of life, when it had become an excessive burden, or when their bodies could no longer assimilate the nutrients provided.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Catholic App Spotlight: Sacred Space

Well, Sacred Space isn't an App (yet--I can still hope).  It is a unique online prayer resource produced by the Irish Jesuits. is the website.  I haven't seen anything else like it.   It leads the reader through prayer, eventually reading the Gospel of the day, and reflection on it.   The structure of it would definitely lend itself to an App--perhaps the Jesuits will produce one eventually.

I've known about Sacred Space for years, but hadn't visited recently until my husband started placing me in front of the computer to read a particular reflection from the site, I think last week (the beginning reflection changes weekly, from what I gather).  I think it's his gentle way of inviting me to incorporate more contemplative prayer into my life.  The whole prayer experience with Sacred Space is incredibly soothing, definitely worth a look, and a return visit.  Give it a try!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Catholic Author to Kick Off 40 Days for Life Campaign September 6

I learned that the local 40 Days for Life campaign in the Peoria area will feature a Catholic author who will be a powerful speaker.

Immaculee Ilibagiza is the author of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.  I read this book in 2007 and found it absolutely riveting.  I couldn't stop thinking about it for months, talking about it to everyone I met, and finding it difficult to process the mystery of evil and yet the power of forgiveness for healing.  It's been quite some time since I read it, but it brings up memories and makes me want to pick it up again.

I would highly recommend this book to adults, and older or more mature teenagers.  This book may not be for everyone, however.  Immaculee describes the genocide in great detail.  It's almost overwhelming at times, and yet so important to her story.

Immaculee has two other, more recent books out: Our Lady of Kibeho: Mary Speaks to the World from the Heart of Africa, and Led By Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide.  I have not read either of this books, but I've heard good things from other readers about these books.  Have you read either of her other books?  What do you think about them?

It turns out Immaculee spoke at Bradley University in Peoria around the same time that I first read Left to Tell, but I did not know about her speech until after it happened.    I definitely plan to attend Immaculee's talk this time, as well as have the opportunity to support a great cause in promoting life through peaceful prayer & witness.  Catholic Post readers will remember that I featured Abby Johnson's book Unplanned in February.  Abby is the Planned Parenthood clinic director who left the abortion industry, largely after the repeated witness and prayers of the original 40 Days for Life location in Bryan/College Station, Texas.  The impact of the 40 Days for Life campaign cannot be undestimated.

Following is the announcement I received about Immaculee's talk, with all the pertinent information:

Our local 40 Days for Life campaign will kick-off early this year with a rally on Tuesday, September 6th. The rally will feature internationally reknowned guest speaker Immaculée Ilibagiza.

Immaculée miraculously survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide by hiding with 7 other women for 3 months in a secret room in a pastor's house, as her relatives and neighbors perished. After the holocaust she confronted her family's killers and forgave them. She has worked with the Rwandan government to promote peace and healing, and in 2007 received the Mahatma Ghandi Peace and Reconciliation Award. Immaculée also started and directs the Left To Tell Charitable Fund to help children orphaned in Rwanda's holocaust, and orphans all over Africa.

The rally will also include musical entertainment, an overview of the 40 Days for Life campaign and the new initiatives we're embracing for 2011, a raffle on multiple items, and an introduction to our partner agencies. It will take place in the sanctuary of Grace Presbyterian's new church building on Route 91, just passed Grand Praire Mall. The event begins at 6:30 PM.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Meet a Reader: Birgitta Sujdak Mackiewicz

This month I wanted to feature a "Reader" who had something to do with medical ethics, since my review this month discusses the need for loving, well-educated professionals in this area.  The person I know best in this area happens to be my husband, a Catholic moral theologian & ethicist; however, the prospect of nepotism accusations prevent me from featuring him.  I'm half-joking, but it is too bad, as he is a great reader, and would be an interesting subject.  In the meantime, I notice frequent mentions of books in the Facebook updates of my friend Birgitta, and thought she would be willing, despite being in the middle of completing her doctoral dissertation. Thanks, Birgitta, for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully the "Meet a Reader" questions!   My library request list is much longer after reading some of your current favorites. 

How You Know Me:

I am the Director of Ethics at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center & Children's Hospital of Illinois and volunteer at various community agencies. My husband Darin, and our son John, and I are members of St. Philomena's parish. I am an Oblate of the Community of Saint John.

Why I Love Reading:

I have been an avid reader since the beginning. I can remember bringing home stacks and stacks of books from the library and bringing home the order form for the school book fair with nearly every book checked. I would be caught reading books inside of my text books at school or at home in my room when I was supposed to be doing homework. I used to stay up until the wee small hours of the morning reading books with a flashlight.

A few weeks ago around 11 p.m. we found our three-year-old son out of bed in his recliner reading a book -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree! I've found my self collecting and re-acquiring books that I want my son to experience as he grows up, especially the classics such as Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, the Beatrix Potter stories, and The Chronicles of Narnia. There's a secret stash for him and I wait for the right moments to cuddle up on the couch together and introduce him to my old friends!

Reading is a way to explore new ideas and places without leaving the comforts of home, but a well-written book truly can transport you into another world. Reading also allows you to explore at your own pace, to carefully and even prayerfully reflect on a word, passage or idea. There are some books that present a true dilemma when you are enjoying them so much that you can't put them down, but you like the subject or characters so much you don't want them to end. Books like those I find myself savoring slowly. Books are also great conversation starters. I'm always curious when traveling to see what others are reading in different parts of the world.  I've been known to leave a book I've finished in an airport for someone else to discover.

My Favorite Book: 

Like many Catholic Post readers, I have various favorites depending on the genre, but here are a few particular books and authors that stand out to me that may be of interest to readers of the Post.

Maurice and Therese: The Story of a Love. This is a collection of letters between St. Therese of Liseux and Maurice, a young priest, that are presented intertwined with a narrative by Bishop Patrick Ahern to give the context of the letters. The book really made St. Therese come alive to me in a way that other writings by her hadn't. If you have found St. Therese to be a bit out of reach this book will bring her into your heart.

As for authors one perhaps not well known to Americans is the late Cardinal Basil Hume who was Archbishop of Westminster, England for over two decades until he died in 1999. As one who entered religious life as a Benedictine Monk and later became a cardinal his writings on spirituality and the human journey are simultaneously humble, profound, and accessible. Many of his books are less than 100 pages, but they are packed and draw you in to contemplation of Christ in a way that not many contemporary authors do. Of Hume's writing my particular favorites are The Mystery of Love and To Be A Pilgrim.

George Weigel is another favorite author of mine who has written numerous books including those about the late Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, but his book Letters to a Young Catholic (which is for Catholics of all ages!) is a walk through what it means to be Catholic via stories, visits to sacred places, by engaging our various senses and in doing so brings Catholicism alive in a way that a historical or doctrinal account does not.   For example, he explores the death of St. Peter via his letter which considers the "Grittiness of Catholicism."  The letter style allows the book to be read and shared in shorter parts.

What I'm Reading Now:

I've recently acquired an e-reader after losing a book I was reading.  Now I can pull up whatever I'm in the mood for without actually hunting for the book! It doesn't replace the joy of holding a book in hand but is more practical for me right now. 

I find myself reading a number of books at a time. I've just finished The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time by Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson. Yes, this is a book about people traveling around the USA looking for typos on signs. If you're an avid reader, a former Lit major, a teacher, or someone who wonders what's happened to the proper use of the English language chances are you'll enjoy this book. Interestingly, the book started as a blog -- a sign of how technology is changing what we read!

We've just returned from Paris where we climbed up to the top of Notre Dame and were wandering about amongst the gargoyles and in the dimly lit bell tower and I realized I'd never read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so I've just started that. I was also recently inspired to read another classic I've somehow missed, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, after watching a documentary about the train. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is also in progress. This fascinating book is about a woman who died young of cancer.  Her cells which were taken for medical research without her knowledge and consent (as was the custom at the time), her family, and the medical advances and knowledge gained from those cells and the impact this seemingly small action has had on generations of her family and on medicine.

As for spiritual reading I'm slowly working my way through Light Of The World, Peter Seewald's interview of Pope Benedict XVI. I find that I have to dose myself on it to give it the time it needs and to grasp all the Holy Father is trying to impart. Finally, I'm reading Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris (who also wrote The Cloister Walk) which explores the spiritual sloth, apathy and indifference that is experienced by many at some point along their spiritual journey. I am fascinated by this concept which I have not often explored in contemporary spiritual literature, but I think plagues us all to greater or lesser degrees as we are faced with the demands of everyday life.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"Life, Death & Catholic Medical Choices" a True Treasure

Here is my column that appears in this weekend's Catholic Post.   I invite your feedback.

As Catholics, we are neither vitalists who believe in aggressive treatment “no matter what” nor utilitarians who believe in “life unless and until it’s convenient for me and mine.” 

We have a good and almost immediate understanding that our life is a gift from God.  We know that we are called to be stewards, not owners, of life.   Even so, medical decision-making in today’s environment can be a challenge.

That’s where a book like Life, Death and Catholic Medical Choices (50 Questions from the Pews) becomes indispensable.  Written by two moral theologians, Redemptorist Fr. Kevin O’Neil, and Australian diocesan priest Fr. Peter Black, this book provides sound, reasoned guidance on medical moral issues for anyone, Catholic or not.  The book is helpfully divided into three sections:  questions about the beginning of life (such as abortion, assisted reproductive technologies, adoption), life “in between” (questions relating to organ donation, cancer, and various other topics), and end of life care (such as palliative/hospice care, euthanasia, and  cremation).

I can just see half of my readers’ eyes glazing over and hear the other half saying, “What’s so different or great about that?”  With all due respect, listen up!

 The first half is thinking, “too technical,” to which I respond: Life, Death & Catholic Medical Choices is clear information about so many delicate moral questions, you will find yourself painlessly enlightened and educated.  The authors of this book make it look effortless, but be assured this kind of writing is difficult to get right.   Read casually or deeply, and find much food for thought and discussion.

To the second half, who is thinking, “I can go ask my parish priest, or read some encyclicals, or read some blogs about these tough issues.”  I say, yes to all of that, especially consulting your parish priest (who might have this book already).  But the well-reasoned and easy to read wisdom of centuries of Church teaching distilled in Life, Death and Catholic Medical Choices is a true treasure.   And while I love blogs, I write blogs, and some of my best friends are bloggers, one simply cannot replicate the beautifully written clear help this book provides through a blog or other Internet source, however well-intention or faithful to Church teaching.

I struggled with how to convey this last point, because I am so grateful for the Internet.  In particular, blogs and web articles that share people’s personal stories of conversion or struggling with Church issues are a terrific source for spiritual growth and learning.

But there’s a certain kind of blogger or Internet source (who shall remain nameless here) that, however well-intentioned, can be guilty of practicing theology without proper training, and this should be avoided just as much as we would avoid a non-medical person attempting triple-bypass surgery.  Just because someone slept at a Holiday Inn Express-- or has read a lot of Church documents--doesn’t guarantee good results when one tries to charitably explain or defend Church teaching accurately, especially on complicated and critical issues of life and death.  In this area, what’s most needed is loving and well-formed professionals.  Two of these have written Life, Death & Catholic Medical Choices.  Take advantage of their wisdom and guidance, and keep this book on hand.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Catholic Post Book Group Receives the Papal Seal of Approval

Well, not exactly, but this article from Vatican Radio does relate how the Holy Father "recommends summer reading for the faithful."   Many thanks to my husband for alerting me to this nice little article (and indirect endorsement from the Holy Father for reading good books, the main reason for this blog).

What I loved in the Holy Father's endorsement of reading good books was his suggestion to pick a book of the Bible to read through during the summer for reflection and spiritual enrichment.

I've decided to choose Ecclesiastes, one of the ones specifically suggested.  Care to join me, and share what you discover new in reading Scripture along with your regular reading?

Monday, August 1, 2011

First, What are You Reading? Volume 12, August 2011 UPDATED

Here are my answers to the four questions I ask on the first of each month:
first, what are you reading?
what do you like best about it?
what do you like least?
what's next on your list to read? 

As always, I hope you'll consider your current reads on your blog and/or sharing here in the comments or on Facebook.  Happy reading!

What are you reading?

I’m reading many, many books, which makes me happy.  Summer, especially with the hot days we’ve been having, is a great time for staying inside and reading .  Just a few of my recent favorites:

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. 

We’ve discovered a “new to us” children/young adult book author at our house:  Wendy Mass. We’ve been reading quite a few of her books, but my hands-down favorite has been Every Soul a Star.

What do you like best about them?

A Jane Austen Education is subtitled, How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter, and it is so enjoyable.  Deresiewicz is a professor and Austen scholar, who at first thinks Austen has nothing to teach him, arrogant graduate student that he was.  Over time, each of the Jane Austen novels teaches his something central and beautiful about life & maturity.  I especially loved his take on Emma, which teaches him to “pay attention to everyday things.”

I read an article about a older Franciscan friar who considered Jane Austen one of his favorite authors, and he said something like, “Reading Jane Austen makes you a better person.”  I hope that’s true for me, since I’ve read and re-read Jane Austen so much, and perhaps that’s why I like it.  There is something ennobling about reading Austen, and Deresiewicz distills that nicely in his own memoir.

Every Soul a Star is a beautifully written and emotionally insightful novel about the lives of three young teens and their summer growing-up, interwoven with an eclipse of the sun. 

I loved Every Soul a Star at “hello,” because a title like that is just wonderful, and the book does not disappoint.    The three teens mature in unexpected and sweet ways.  A bonus is that the book is not wrapped up perfectly, with everything resolved tidily; I’d love to read a sequel to this book to see how the characters lived out their next year.  A postscript of the book lists numerous books and websites about eclipses and other astronomy.   Our family has had fun exploring some of these resources and learning more about astronomy, which makes my stars-loving husband happy.

What do you like least?

Deresiewicz does fairly well with writing about Jane Austen novels and what they teach him, but the memoir part woven through doesn't always seem consistent.  I think I would find a memoir difficult to write, deciding what to share and what not to share, but it seemed to me Deresiewicz was holding some things back that might have helped us understand him and his transformation better.

UPDATE:  I take back nearly everything I said in the previous paragraph.  When I write "What Are You Reading?" I usually have finished the books I mini-review, but in this case I had not yet finished A Jane Austen Education.  Perhaps then my title is more accurate, because the book was actually what I was reading, but it didn't give me the chance to see the whole of Education up to the end.  I finished the book yesterday and now believe the narrative held together well.  The last two chapters, on true friends (Persuasion) and falling in love (Sense & Sensibility)  were especially insightful. I closed the book nearly as happy & refreshed as when I read a Jane Austen novel.  Well done.

There’s really nothing I don’t like about Every Soul a Star, and I’ve very much enjoyed the other books I’ve read by her, like 11 Birthdays (kind of like the movie "Groundhog Day" in book form for tweens, and just as fun as it sounds).  I didn’t care at all for Mass' Heaven Is A Lot Like the Mall, partially because of its content, which is a little more grown-up than her other work, but because the book is written in first-person poem form.  Unfortunately, that just doesn’t work in this context.

UPDATE:  Treasure Chest for Tweens has an interesting caution of some new-age content in Every Soul a Star here.  I'm grateful for the information and will definitely bring it up with my teen & tween who have read this book. 

What’s next on your list to read?

I’m reading and re-reading a number of 9/11 themed books for next month’s column.  

On my Kindle App, in addition to the very funny Felon Blames 1970s Church Architecture for Life of Crime (that I reviewed here). I’ve also been reading on my Kindle App some Lucy Maud Montgomery, including Anne of the Island and Anne’s House of Dreams.

What are you reading?  I’d love to hear all about it!