EDITOR’S NOTE: The following series of articles illustrate how Catholic Charities agencies throughout the 12-county Diocese of Rochester respond to the call to carry out the corporal works of mercy, especially during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. The corporal works of mercy are: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead.
Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to engage in the corporal works of mercy during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, and two of those works involve visiting with populations on the margins of society, namely the sick and the imprisoned.
Yet the pope’s encouragement doesn’t mean Catholics are called to make simple social calls on these people, according to Suzanne Stack, life-issues coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities. Rather, Catholics are called to journey with their suffering brothers and sisters in the same way Jesus journeyed with his mournful disciples on the road to Emmaus, she said.
"He came to them at the lowest point of their journey, and they came to know God’s presence in the midst of their suffering," Stack said. "This is what we are called to do for one another. We do not abandon another because of their pain and suffering, but rather we show compassion. We are called to be with a person."
Catholics are called to suffer with those who are sick or dying, and this way of thinking stands in stark contrast to legislation introduced last year in New York’s Senate and Assembly that would legalize physician-assisted suicide, Stack noted. The New York State Catholic Conference has issued a memo of opposition to this proposed legislation (A10059/S07579), and Stack and the diocesan Public Policy Committee has been working hard to encourage Catholics to speak out against physician-assisted suicide.
Most people spend very little time pondering the issue of assisted suicide until they or their loved ones receive a terminal diagnosis, Stack said. Patients who receive such diagnoses often fear losing their physical abilities and say they do not want to go on unless they can live as they’ve become accustomed to living. Such fears are understandable but misguided and harmful, she said.
"It’s saying that we’re only as good as our functions. It really devalues us, and it’s such a slap in the face to disabled people," Stack said, noting that many people live very fulfilling lives even with physical limitations.
Opponents of physician-assisted suicide worry that voluntary suicide will be just the first step down a slippery slope that could lead to involuntary suicide, Stack said. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would make patients vulnerable to pressure from those who might view them as burdens. In fact, the fear of becoming a burden is exactly what prompts many patients to consider assisted suicide, she added.
Yet caring for others is a beautiful expression of compassion and is one that Catholics in particular are called to take up, Stack said.
"That’s what (visiting the sick) is all about, caring for those who can’t care for themselves," she said. "Even if they can care for themselves, we’re still supposed to come alongside them and offer comfort, human companionship, practical help."
Catholics also are called to offer comfort, human companionship and practical help to the imprisoned, which Catholic Charities of Livingston County has been doing for the past three years for female inmates at the Livingston County Jail, according to Michelle Dourie.
Dourie, a licensed social worker, facilitates parenting classes for the jail’s female inmates, who belong to a population that frequently is stigmatized and marginalized because of their offenses, she said. Many of the women in Dourie’s classes struggle with addictions to alcohol and drugs, yet they still want to become better mothers.
"These are people that genuinely love and care about their kids, but the drug addiction is so overwhelming and powerful that it comes before everything else," she explained. "We try to meet them where they are, and they’re hoping to learn something and try something new and different."
Their periods of incarceration actually create a good opportunity to reach these women because they are looking for activities to fill their time and, for some of them, jail time may be the first time in a while that they’ve been clean and sober, Dourie said.
Some of her classes cover topics of interest to mothers of young children, while others are intended for children of adolescents, and both types of classes frequently double as a support group for the incarcerated mothers, Dourie added.
"They genuinely look forward to the groups and really engage in the discussion," she said, "and I really feel like they learn something. Even if they only pick up one tiny thing and they’re able to go home and make a small change, hopefully it impacts their kiddos in the long run."