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