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PART 2


CLEAR SIGNS OF AWARENESS

Some of the reporters did a double-take when Bob said, "You guys have been killing Terri." But during the course of the news conference, I saw comprehension dawning on some of their faces. Many of them were very attentive during the doctors' talks, and asked questions that indicated they had been paying attention.


Perhaps-just perhaps-some of them realized that simply parroting the lines given by Terri's husband and his attorney isn't sufficient, and has done real harm. The press coverage in the months following the restoration of Terri's feeding tube has improved somewhat: Reports now usually include a mention of the fact that Terri's PVS diagnosis has been questioned, and the fact that there is evidence of Terri's awareness. Bob and Mary are most passionate and eloquent when speaking of Terri's ability to interact. They speak of her smiling, laughing, and crying. "She smiled at the flowers Bob brought her the other day," Mary told me recently. Bob added that she always responds when Msgr. Malanowski comes to visit. "She always looks up and smiles when she hears his big booming voice," he said. He also told me that she always seems to focus attentively on Msgr. Malanowski whenever he puts on his stole to bless her or pray over her. "She knows he's a priest, and she knows what he's doing," he said.


One of the more poignant indications of Terri's awareness occurred a few months ago. In a bizarre incident, Michael accused the Schindlers of attempting to inject Terri with something (he never specified with what). He withdrew permission for them to visit Terri while the incident was investigated. Even after the police reached their conclusion-not only that the Schindlers had done nothing untoward, but also that the incident Michael had reported never even took place-Michael continued to refuse visitation, until a court order compelled him to relent. The result was that the Schindlers were unable to visit Terri for 50 days. "That's the longest we've ever gone without seeing her in her whole life," Mary said. When Bob and Mary finally went to see Terri after the long absence, Terri's reaction was heart wrenching: "Terri cried and cried for at least 10 minutes," Mary said. "No one can tell me that girl doesn't know I'm there, and that she doesn't know who I am."

SUPPORT AND PRAYER

I would have liked to see Terri myself, but the list of authorized visitors is limited to family, some long-time friends, and Msgr. Malanowski. Michael has complete control over who gets to visit. Given how Michael has treated Msgr. Malanowski, and his misgivings about the priest's "character," I think it's safe to assume that Michael isn't likely to let another priest visit. All visitors, even family, are only allowed to see Terri with one of the husband's designated "minders" present.


So Bob and Mary told me at the outset that it would be all but impossible for me to visit Terri. Still I certainly could pray for her, lead her supporters in prayer, and give comfort, advice, and support to Terri's family. I quickly realized that I was of real help to them, and that was enough. Msgr. Malanowski was very grateful that I came. He had all but exhausted himself in the previous two weeks, being with the family and their supporters for 14-16 hours a day-a schedule that is no joke for an 81 year-old man. He confided that he needed to "take a breather." On the day I arrived, he hadn't slept more than 4 hours in the previous two days. Because of my presence, he was able to take a break. He was able to catch up on his sleep and take care of a couple of long-postponed doctor's appointments. The supporters at the hospice were always happy to see me when I joined them: they were truly grateful to see a priest with them "on the line".

I spent most of my time with the family or supporters. Sometimes I led prayer; sometimes I answered questions or clarified points of Catholic teaching. I often took part in discussions with the family and their supporters on matters of strategy.

Once Terri's situation seized national attention, many prominent people and organizations (and some not so prominent) came forward to offer assistance and support. The Schindlers were, and still are, continually faced with questions and decisions to make about what the best course of action is, and whether a particular offer of help is something that will truly be helpful. It might seem to some observers that the Schindlers should simply accept any assistance that is offered.


But that is simply not prudent. Some well-intentioned people come forward offering suggestions and "help" that ranges from the impractical to the downright counterproductive. Sometimes our task has been politely to thank such supporters and say "right now we think we need to pursue a different strategy," or say "that's a good suggestion, but we were wondering if you'd be willing to help us with this other thing." I felt quite privileged and honored to be so trusted by the Schindlers so quickly, both in a spiritual and a more prudential sense. I was a stranger to them a week before I arrived, but they welcomed me and took me into their confidence in a touching way. In the year since then, I've become close friends with the Schindler family, and with Msgr. Malanowski. That, I have no doubt, is the power of the priesthood at work.

Because a large number of the supporters and vigil-keepers were Evangelical Protestants, there were frequent opportunities for ecumenical and apologetical work, in the best senses of those terms. I had a number of very productive conversations with Protestants concerning questions about the Catholic faith. I think these were very fruitful because the bona fides of those present was established by their very presence. No one doubted the good faith or will of those there to support Terri, so a lot of baggage was left behind at the outset. I've been told that there were a number of conversions or "re-versions" as a result of such encounters. One afternoon my day was made when I was able to convince several Protestant ladies to join me in praying the Litany of the Sacred Heart. I have a devotion to the Sacred Heart, and love the litany. I explained what it was to the ladies, and invited them to join in. At first they were skeptical, but after a little while they were joining in the responses with evident good will.

CLERICAL INDIFFERENCE

There were many Catholics who also came out to lend prayer and support for Terri and the Schindlers. But I was surprised by what appeared to be a lack of support from the priests of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Msgr. Malanowski has told me that one of the greatest disappointments he has had is the lack of support from local clergy or the diocese. I was the only priest, besides Msgr. Malanowski, who was with the family, or at the hospice keeping vigil with Terri's supporters, during the two weeks in which the feeding tube was removed and after it was restored.

Msgr. Malanowski told me that he had had a number of Protestant clergy come to lend prayers and support at prayer vigils and rallies for Terri, but few priests. The Schindlers acknowledge that they have had some support from Catholic clergy: "We've had a few priests offer support," Mary said. "Bishop Larkin [the retired bishop of St. Petersburg] was a big support when his health was still good," she added. "And Msgr. [Laurence] Higgins has opened up his church to us for Masses and prayers for Terri." But the Schindlers, like Msgr. Malanowski, have noticed that expressions of support from Catholic clergy are noticeable because of their scarcity. Even more painful and puzzling to the Schindlers are the all-too-frequent instances when priests have expressed indifference to their efforts to save Terri's life. Terri's sister Suzanne once approached a priest and asked him if he could visit Terri. His response was, "I'll have to check my schedule." He never did visit. The Schindlers have often asked priests to have Terri included in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass, and have often been rebuffed.

Some priests go beyond indifference: Msgr. Malanowski related to me that last year, before Judge Greer ruled that Terri's feeding tube should be removed, he asked a priest at a neighboring parish if he would come with him to visit Terri. "He told me he visited Terri once and that was enough," Msgr. Malanowski said. "He said, ‘they should just let her die.'" This lack of support and even opposition from priests leaves Mary feeling "disappointed and sad," she said. Bob was more angry: "It makes me feel like we've been sold out," he said. Another priest of the St. Petersburg diocese-who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity-had also encountered priests who advocated the removal of Terri's feeding tube. "I've had hospital chaplains tell me that Terri should be allowed to die, and that the Schindlers ‘need to move on,'" he said. He explained that, in his experience, many priests are unaware of the Church's teaching that there is a "presumption in favor" of providing nutrition and hydration, and that food and water must be considered "ordinary care." He added: "Even some good pro-life priests are confused about these issues. For a lot of them the argument goes back to ‘I wouldn't want to live that way.'"

THE ROLE OF BISHOP LYNCH

The notoriety of Terri's case, the fact that Terri and the Schindlers are Catholic, and the confusion and even dissent from Catholic teaching among the clergy has prompted many Catholics to look to Bishop Robert Lynch for guidance and leadership.

In the earlier stages of Terri's case, Bishop Lynch made some helpful public pronouncements. In a column in the August 21, 2003 issue of The Florida Catholic, Bishop Lynch reiterated the Church's teaching that food and water may only be withheld when it is "doing harm" to the patient, or "is useless because the patient's death is imminent." He also urged that "Terri's family be allowed to attempt a medical protocol which they feel would improve her condition." In addition to the public witness, Bishop Lynch offered personal support to the Schindlers as well. In 2001, he visited Terri with Msgr. Malanowski, and he met with the Schindlers on one occasion as well. But it seemed to the Schindlers that, as Terri's case took on a higher public profile, Bishop Lynch became more remote and uninvolved. Before Judge Greer ruled that Terri's feeding tube should be withdrawn, Bob asked Bishop Lynch for help. "We asked him to come out [to the hospice] and show support for Terri," Bob explained. According to Bob, Bishop Lynch responded by saying that he would consult with bioethicists about Terri's case. Bishop Lynch did not contact the Schindlers again, and in fact the Schindlers have had no direct communication with Bishop Lynch since then. Nor has Bishop Lynch visited Terri since 2001.

On October 15, the day that Terri's feeding tube was removed, Bishop Lynch issued a statement. In addition to expressing his prayers for Terri, he said:

"I continue to believe that such decisions should not be made in the court system but must be made on a case-by-case basis by families and/or other responsible parties at the clear direction of each one of us well in advance of a crisis."

The Schindlers, and many of Terri's other supporters, found this statement disappointing and even bewildering. The statement expressed the injunction that "such decisions should not be made in the court system," but the fact was that the decision had been made in the courts. It seemed as if the bishop's statement didn't really address any relevant issue. Bob Schindler thought Bishop Lynch was treating Terri's case like "just a family dispute" that he "didn't want to get in the middle of." In the course of preparing this article, I contacted Bishop Lynch's office and requested an interview. If that were not possible, I offered an alternative: that Bishop Lynch provide answers to a set of prepared questions.


I was referred to his communications director, Mary Jo Murphy. She informed me that the bishop would not be available for comment. She said, "It is our policy to refer people to the statements Bishop Lynch has already made." I then asked her, "But what if I have questions about what the bishop said in those statements?" She answered, "All I can do is refer you to the statements on our web site. We feel that these statements cover the issues. We ask everyone to continue to pray." The statement by Bishop Lynch about which the Schindlers and many of Terri's supporters would most like to question him is the one he issued on October 21, 2003, "Concerning the Spiritual Welfare of Terri Schiavo." In it, Bishop Lynch expresses his gratitude for the outpouring of concern and compassion expressed for Terri. The statement then continues:

Terri's spiritual well being continues to be of paramount importance to Bishop Lynch and all those serving within the Diocese. The spiritual ministry to any person is a private matter. The diocese has been involved in helping to provide for Terri's spiritual needs. We assure all persons who care for Terri that the spiritual needs of her Catholic faith are being met. We ask that such private ministry be respected.

I first saw this statement the day after it was issued. I walked into the Schindlers' "headquarters" RV after going out for lunch, and Bob handed it to me. He asked, "Have you seen this yet?" I read it, and I confess that I threw up my hands in disbelief. "Where did that come from?" I asked Bob. "What prompted that?" Bob speculated that Bishop Lynch must be "feeling the heat" from people supportive of Terri, asking him what he was going to do to help. (At that time, the story that Terri had been denied the Viaticum was beginning to circulate, and had provoked widespread outrage.)

I read out loud the sentence, "The diocese has been involved in helping to provide for Terri's spiritual needs."

"How?" I asked. "Msgr. Malanowski and I have been the only priests here since they pulled Terri's feeding tube, right?" Bob answered, "That's right."

I asked Bob and Mary, "Have you heard from anyone from the diocese?" "No," Bob said. "Me neither," Mary replied. Bob then added, "You know, Monsignor isn't even a priest of the diocese [he is a priest of the diocese of Norwich, Connecticut], so I don't know who from the diocese they could be talking about."

Msgr. Malanowski came in a few minutes later, and I showed the statement to him. I asked him, somewhat sarcastically, if he knew that Terri's "spiritual needs" were "being met." He just shook his head. I then said: "I suppose that means you've been able to give Terri Communion." Msgr. Malanowski replied: "One of the hospice chaplains told me that I should make a spiritual communion for Terri-that that would be good enough. How dare she try to tell me how to minister to her? Terri is being denied her right to the sacraments." When asked about it later, Bob Schindler characterized Bishop Lynch's statement "Concerning the Spiritual Welfare of Terri Schiavo" as misleading. "It leads you to believe the whole diocese is supporting Terri," he said, "but that's totally unfounded."

The Schindlers have received no communications from Bishop Lynch or diocesan personnel since her feeding tube was restored. I recently spoke to the director of the St. Petersburg Diocese Pro-Life Office, Deacon Joe Grody. I asked him if the Pro-Life Office had plans for any activities or events to express support for the efforts to save Terri's life, or to mobilize action on her behalf. He replied, "We have no plans at this time." The Schindlers, in spite of the disappointments they have encountered, in spite of being misunderstood, remain strong and hopeful. They are grateful for, and humbled by, the outpouring of concern and support they have received from all over the nation, and indeed, the world. They continue because they love their daughter and they know who she is. They go on because of their strong faith, which tells them they have Hope. They keep going because, as Bob often says, "Every day Terri is alive is a victory." One evening a relative of Terri's asked me, as we were sitting outside around the RV:

Why is it that some people want Terri dead because she doesn't meet their standard of minimum humanity? We know who she is, and we love her. And she knows we love her, and she can receive that love. Why do they want to deprive us of the ability to give her our love? Why do they want to deprive her of receiving our love?

I didn't have a ready answer to that. After thinking a few moments, I said, "They can't, or won't, see who she is. They only see her limitations, and imagine that is all there is to her." Those who advocate removing Terri's feeding tube say that she won't recover. They say she has no "quality of life." But those who know and love her see past her limitations, and see the person Terri. And they cannot understand why any of her limitations amounts to a reason for ending her life.

Read Part 1 of "My Journey With The Schindlers" here.


Father Robert J. Johansen is a priest of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan.





   




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