By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published June 22, 2018 | En Español
Father Charles T. Rubey is a cherished priest friend of mine with nearly 50 years of distinguished service to Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Chicago. During a recent telephone conversation Father Rubey mentioned that he was aware of several shameful incidents of people, grieving the loss of loved ones who had tragically taken their own lives, who were insensitively treated by priests rather than being comforted. Some had actually been told that their loved one was in hell because of their suicide.
The sorrow that every person feels as they lament the loss of a loved one in death is universal, and the Church is in an irreplaceable position of comforting people in the name of Christ at that moment—not shaming them with cruel comments that only intensify their grief.
During his five decades at Catholic Charities, Father Rubey has dealt with countless suicides, murders and violent deaths of all types. He founded the Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) Program at Catholic Charities of Chicago to help support and comfort people facing the unimaginable pain of a tragic self-inflicted death of a loved one or friend.
During the past few days, our news has been filled with sad reports of prominent people who have taken their own lives, notably, designer Kate Spade and chef-author Anthony Bourdain. Such high profile tragedies drive home the fact that we are all subject to personal and professional trials, no matter our public personas or status in life. We know that mental health is a serious societal concern that does not discriminate based on wealth or influence, yet those of us of more moderate means are often puzzled when affluent people succumb to their despondency. We wrongly assume that success and riches alleviate sadness and suffering, or at the very least guarantee the privileged access to the finest professional care to address feelings of despair. That is clearly not the case. Hopelessness is an equal opportunity destroyer of souls.
Human life is precious and inviolable, as our Church consistently teaches. It is always appalling when human life is destroyed through abortion, war, capital punishment, euthanasia or the blatant disregard of the human rights and dignity of the poor. Those who are severely depressed or mentally imbalanced cannot always make sound judgments and therefore may not be culpable in destroying their own lives.
Only God can know and judge the heart of someone who takes his or her own life. Only God can know the state of the soul of a person who has reached the end of their emotional limits. While the Church’s teaching on suicide underscores its gravity, our compassion must always be extended to those who lose a loved one to suicide (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2283).
Life offers all of us many painful moments, and occasionally these may seem insurmountable. The importance of family, faith and friends cannot be overemphasized when confronting the difficulties that inevitably come our way. We probably all know of a family—perhaps even our own—that has faced a violent loss of a loved one. They need our compassionate outreach. The Church, above all, must be the community that seeks to comfort, console and support people in those moments of tragedy. We violate the very image of Christ when we dare to make judgments that belong only to the merciful heart of the Father.
My conversation with Father Rubey reminded me of how we clergy are offered the immense privilege of healing and comforting the grieving in the very figure of Christ as we console those who have lost a loved one—no matter what the circumstances. Our words and attitudes must reflect those of the Lord who came as the reflection of the Father’s mercy. With humble hearts, we must leave the final judgment of such drastic actions to God alone, “for his love endures forever” (Ps 136).