When St Maximilian Kolbe was canonised as a martyr, I was rather dubious. It seemed to me that the pope (St John Paul II) was stretching the traditional definition of martyrdom too far. St Maximilian was, by all accounts, a martyr of charity, but did he die in defence of Catholic truth? Then again, although I shared his enthusiasm for the latest and best printing equipment, I was not drawn to the Friars of the Immaculate and their particular forms of devotion, nor did I share their particular conception of mission. Wasn’t St Maximilian just a little too alien to be my kind of saint? What a horribly officious little prig I was (and maybe still am)!
I realise now that the witness Maximilian Kolbe gave to the truth of the Cross was immense. He gave his life for another and, in so doing, taught us something important about life itself and the nature of priesthood. He died because he cherished life, not because he saw it as of no consequence, and he fulfilled his priesthood by sacrificing himself as our Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed himself.
I was thinking about this when I heard on the radio that a fellow cancer-sufferer intends to take his own life today at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. I am praying that he may have a change of heart, not because I want him to experience more pain and suffering — I don’t — but because the gift of life is the most beautiful gift any of us ever receives; and it is given us on trust. To choose to end it strikes me as inutterably sad and is symptomatic of the throwaway culture we have embraced so heartily in the West. If life isn’t perfect, scrap it.
In September Parliament will have another Assisted Dying (Suicide) Bill before it*. If passed, those of us with terminal illnesses may well feel pressure to ‘do the decent thing’ and lift a burden from our family/community and the State. Then what of the old, the disabled, the not-very-bright, the socially inept, the criminal, all the imperfect beings that go to make up the definitely perfect world in which we live? We all have a tendency to argue from our own experience and do not always see the wider implications of choices made from a particular perspective. Most of us have probably experienced times when we felt that life was not worth living — when pain, grief and despair sucked everything human from us and left us an empty shell. Most of us will have seen someone we love suffer great pain and anguish. But is choosing to end life the best way of dealing with pain and suffering, or even imperfection as society views it? In his bunker, St Maximilian Kolbe experienced the torment of starvation, thirst and unbearable heat, but he went on, encouraging others, praising God and, yes, cherishing the gift of life. May we think very seriously about how we ourselves do the same.
* A Private Member’s Bill proposed by the Labour MP Rob Marris.