November 2015 Print

A Retirement Home

by Fr. Pierre Buron

The chaplain of Bremien-Notre-Dame, a retirement home, draws upon the daily experiences of his ministry to reflect upon the life of persons in their twilight years.

Those who rule over us could, in the next few months or years, speed up the movement toward the legalization of euthanasia. Leaving aside their intentions, which may well be reprehensible, let’s consider the argument they generally make; it purports to allow elderly persons to “die with dignity.” Indeed, when someone suffers debility, either physical or mental, they readily consider that such a person has lost his or her dignity, and consequently he or she should be allowed the option to choose death, at his or her own request or at that of the family. This concerns not only the elderly, as the case of Terry Schiavo in the U.S., or that of Vincent Lambert in France, has shown.

Dignity Despite Suffering

Proponents of euthanasia talk first about the dignity of the body. They explain that there is a degree of physical debility that takes away a person’s human dignity. When someone is bed-ridden, incontinent, needs a bib while eating because he has been reduced in some respects to the level of a little child, he is judged to be impaired, degraded. In our establishment there are individuals who are extremely diminished physically, yet who stay very active. Here’s an example. Bremien is organized by floors: on the ground floor are the common living rooms. On the second story reside those able to take care of themselves. The third story has the rooms of our residents who require more assistance. On this floor, they have their own dining room. It was on this floor that a retired soldier lived. He had enjoyed good health for a long time. Even after he turned 90, he kept up his daily jogging! But one day he had a bad fall in our establishment. He should have been hospitalized because he broke his femur. But it could not be operated on, and so he came back in that condition. He had to keep his leg stretched permanently, with a weight suspended from this extremity. For an active military man like him, this was one of the worst crosses that could have happened to him. How did he take it? Did he consider that he had lost his dignity? Indeed not. Deprived of the use of his legs, he evinced an overflowing vitality of mind and spirit. This is a good example, I believe, to show that dependence is not something unbearable nor contrary to human dignity; this officer had the habit of commanding!

When Mental Faculties Decline

Then they talk about the dignity of the mind. Someone who loses the use of his mental faculties would forthwith lose his dignity, and thus one might consider making him disappear. But if lacking mental faculties were tantamount to losing one’s dignity, then Down’s syndrome children would lack human dignity! We have a resident here who has a Down’s syndrome child. His religious sense is more developed than that of many Catholics possessing all their faculties. He was baptized; he undoubtedly has sanctifying grace. Is his life worthy, in the eyes of the French Republic? When St. Leo the Great exhorts, “Recognize, O Christian, your dignity,” he reminds us of the immense dignity conferred on us by the baptismal character and our status as children of God.

Moreover, when someone no longer has brain power, that situation may help others advance in charity. I am thinking of a lady, a resident in our establishment for the last five years. Before coming here, she and her husband lived in an assisted living facility that was not Catholic. As soon as they learned of the existence of Bremien, they took steps to move here. They were overwhelmed by the atmosphere that reigns between our walls, even if, of course, everything is not perfect. This lady’s husband, before dying two years ago, had been very dependent; he lived on the third floor while his wife resided on the second. She showed such warm love and affection for him. More than once a day, she went upstairs to be with him and would spend a long time in his company, helping him with everything, for example, helping him to eat, for he had difficulty swallowing. She fed him like an infant. Isn’t that charity?

We also have at Bremien a resident afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She is completely dependent and suffers from parrotry. If one were to listen to the partisans of euthanasia, one would believe that one might reasonably assume that her relatives would like to get rid of her. But I can testify that the husband of this lady displays heroic devotion. He comes and visits her several times a week, spending a long time with her with loving affection. He talks to her, accompanies her, helps her eat, takes her out for a walk, and plays indoor games with her like dominoes. She is like a little child. Everyone is in admiration of her husband. Together, they sanctify each other, don’t they?

On the Front Line

These examples go a long way to expose the vacuity of the arguments of those promoting euthanasia, but also to show the utility of this retirement home. When Fr. Christian Bouchacourt had assumed his duties as District Superior in France, he came almost at once to visit our establishment and said in essence: “Bremien is on the front line of the apostolate. For missionary works have to be sustained by prayer, by the offering of suffering, and the accomplishment of duty.” Our residents and those who take care of them are invited to pray, to offer, to work, so that this house has somewhat the same role as a monastery and as a lightning rod. By the way, when Tradition settled in this region to take in the elderly, it was followed by a convent of Sisters of Mary Reparatrix!

In short, the notion of “dying with dignity” is draped in compassion, but compassion by lethal injection is not compassion. Four religious, Sisters of the SSPX, live here, visit the residents, help them, keep them company, comfort them. The patron of their congregation is Our Lady of Compassion. The Sisters know what compassion is.

These considerations lead to another reflection. Compassion leads us to relieve bodily sufferings. But often by caring for the body, especially for that of the faithful, good is done to the soul: vigor of spirit is restored or sustained. It is the direct opposite of the idea that the only solution to mental debility is to destroy the body. All of this bothers the Freemasons. Besides, make no mistake about it, it is the Masonic lodges that are pushing for the legalization of euthanasia; the notion of “dying with dignity” is Masonic in origin.

We Are “One”

We are up against the plans of the “initiated,” but we are also up against some ideologies that dominate the field of medicine. In effect, nowadays, medicine is influenced by theories and practices stemming from Descartes, who invented a philosophy that divorces body and soul. Now, Descartes had not thought about a simple reality that frequents the world of the sick: wounds. When someone is wounded, it’s the body that’s wounded. The physical lesion causes pain and often wounds of a psychic nature (and vice versa, moreover). This demonstrates the very close union between body and soul. Our residents, often nonagenarians, bear in their bodies and in their souls wounds inherited from the great conflicts of the 20th century. They suffer in their bodies and in their souls; their lives show that Descartes was wrong. We try to do good at one and the same time to bodies and to souls.

Doing good to souls in a house like Bremien is our daily business. As for me, I arrived at Bremien in 1991; so it has been 24 years that I have been chaplain here, chaplain for the residents, but also for priests, religious, and nuns, for a certain number of them have finished between these walls the course of their consecrated existence. I recall in particular two occasions I had to see souls expand upon reflection on the last things and divine grace.

The Sacraments of the Great Passage

The first story took place near the beginning of my tenure. I was beginning this kind of ministry, as were the Sisters of the SSPX. When a sick person was entering their last moments we would go and pray for him, and I would offer him the Last Rites. It was a bit new, we had experienced some great moments of emotion and grace. Now, there was a very ill lady, and for that reason she did not want anyone to see her. Consequently, for months she had refused any visit from the priest or Sisters. Then, during a doctor’s visit, she learned that she had cancer; we were praying for her. She felt that she was nearing her end, and so she accepted, after a long resistance, to receive us. Her reconciliation with her Creator was a great moment for all.

A person’s decline, then, is often the occasion for him to open to God’s call. I also remember a man who was also suffering from cancer but of the stomach. He was 90 years old and was fed intravenously. He was Catholic, but of the current stripe, and subscribed to La Vie. Nevertheless, he was happy to have found a Catholic retirement home like ours. His three children, two sons and a daughter, loved him well. One fine day, the daughter was at his bedside reading aloud a novel. I went to the room. I knew that this gentleman did not have much longer. We had, together with this man, a talk of about a half an hour about death that was tremendous; I don’t remember having heard anything extraordinary, but for many years after, I remember it and it still affects me.

This ministry is not like others. Here, we help people live and prepare for death; life serves as a preparation for death. We are in the antechamber of eternity. So we live time in a different manner than others do. We realize, by experience, that what matters is not to have, but to be. So we help our residents to be—to be Christian. Here we live a bit differently, time passes in another way, one awaits eternity, and all of that imparts to life in this house of Bremien, truly, a marvelous aspect.

Translation of “L’expérience éloquente d’une maison de retraite,” Fideliter, March-April, 2015, pp. 31-35. Translated by A. M. Stinnett.