PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — This time, the presiding judge in the case allowed him to give Terri Schindler-Schiavo Communion — via the feeding tube.
It wasn’t always that way for Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, who after delivering the Precious Blood, gave her the sacrament of the sick. He had not been able to give the brain-damaged woman holy Communion the previous two times her feeding tube was removed.
The 82-year-old priest has been a friend and spiritual adviser to Schindler-Schiavo’s parents and siblings for the past five years and was saddened by the latest defeat in a long battle to save her life.
But he also had a sense of joy. It was March 18, the day her feeding tube was removed on a Florida court’s order. (NB: This issue of the Register was printed early because of Easter; it only includes news developments as of Holy Thursday.)
“She’s at peace now — spiritually and sacramentally — and now she’s in God’s hands,” Msgr. Malanowski said.
While a lengthy legal battle over her fate was taken up in Congress, Msgr. Malanowski was at the center of a spiritual effort at Schindler-Schiavo’s bedside, outside the Pinellas Park hospice where she lay and in churches all over the country.
A group of 50-100 people have gathered day after day in the grassy area just outside the hospice, praying the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet. One Catholic man, Guabe Garcia Jones, from Washington, D.C., came to Pinellas Park to fast for several days in solidarity with the woman whose husband is allowing her to be starved to death.
The prayer warriors, who include people from several Christian denominations, have been resolute in their belief that God is the only one who should decide when someone dies, so God is the ultimate judge in the matter.
“As a priest for almost 58 years, my faith has become much, much more alive because of witnessing an innocent person suffering,” said Msgr. Malanowski, speaking at the beginning of Holy Week. “We mustn’t forget that Jesus himself was a suffering servant. … We must be grateful to God our lives have come in touch with the life of Terri Schiavo.”
Christopher Josten, who works for a pro-life group in Philadelphia, flew to Florida from Pennsylvania a day before the feeding tube was removed because, he said, he wanted “to take a stand for life, in general, and to take a stand against judicial tyranny, which is a big problem in America today.”
Standing next to him was Christa Carpenter, who lives 30 minutes from the hospice, and Father William Witt, a retired priest who had traveled from Ohio. Though they were strangers, they had just finished praying the rosary together.
“It’s my persuasion that the Lord Jesus saves lives and the devil, Satan, kills,” said Father Witt, who has been involved in the pro-life movement since the late 1960s. “It seems to me the Lord needs some witnesses to the culture of life because the culture of death is being promoted here — enthusiastically.”
“As Catholics, we need to see this is Terri’s Good Friday,” Carpenter said. “We need to be here and be supportive.”
The prayerful presence outside the hospice has also touched people who are not involved in the debate over Schindler-Schiavo.
The landlord of the building across the street from the hospice wanted $20,000 for supporters to hold a rally on her property. But, after the landlord, who is Catholic and whose first name is Marie, heard that a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, from the Diocese of Green Bay, was going to be there as part of the rally, one of the rally’s organizers reminded her that her first name was the same as the Blessed Mother’s.
“She began to cry,” said Debra Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life, a friend of the Schindlers who was instrumental in getting the statue to Pinellas Park. “We thought it would be a wonderful idea to keep [the statue] there [at Marie’s building] around the clock, right across the street from hospice. She was deeply moved by that.”
So moved, Marie, who did not want her last name used, decided not to charge the Catholic organizers of the rally. Meanwhile, as the saga plays out, the statue remains in Marie’s home on the second floor of the building she owns.
Terri’s family has been involved in a bitter, seven-year legal battle that has pitted them against her estranged husband, Michael Schiavo, who has two children with another woman and is Schindler-Schiavo’s legal guardian. Her family wants her to be handed over to their care because they believe that with proper care and therapy she can recover.
Although Schindler-Schiavo is not dying, has no terminal illness, is not in a coma or on life support, the courts have found her to be in a “persistent vegetative state” after she suffered brain damage in 1990. Although she has been merely receiving basic nutrition and hydration, Schiavo claims that his wife told him years ago that she would never want to be kept alive using artificial means. The courts agreed and sanctioned his request to remove her feeding tube.
Setting off a weekend of dramatic events, the March 18 tube removal went ahead despite Congressional subpoenas to try to delay it. The presiding judge in the case rejected the subpoenas, leading to intense lobbying on Capitol Hill.
After the U.S. Congress stepped in again and passed a law that President Bush signed immediately that allowed the case to be heard in federal courts, a federal judge in Tampa refused March 22 to order the reinsertion of the tube, saying the case did not have a “substantial” chance of succeeding during a trial.
The Schindlers then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on March 24. As the Register went to press, their appeal had been denied and there seemed to be no options left.
Whether Schindler-Schiavo ever expressed the sentiments her husband claims she had, food and water are basic care and not “artificial life support.” In 2004, Pope John Paul II said patients who are in a “persistent vegetative state” must be given nutrition and hydration as long as their bodies can absorb the nourishment.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, of Washington, D.C., said on March 21 that the removal of the tube was “gravely wrong” and a “form of euthanasia.”
Schindler-Schiavo has been condemned to die “an atrocious death” in a society that is “incapable of appreciating and defending the gift of life,” said the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano in its March 23 edition.
The Vatican newspaper said Schiavo’s “destiny” based on a court decision was not unlike the death sentence facing the men and women sitting on death row. However, in this case, “Terri has not committed any crime, other than that of being ‘useless’ in the eyes of a society that is incapable of appreciating and defending the gift of life,” it said.
It was the fifth time the Vatican has spoken against the removal of the tube. Earlier, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, sounded a warning.
“If the feeding tube is removed and Terri is forced to die this slow, terrible, painful death, we must ask ourselves, ‘And who will be next?’” the cardinal said in a March 7 statement. “Will this open the door for a state to decide whether this or that incapacitated person should die ... not be allowed to die a dignified death but that they should have death inflicted upon them?”
The cardinal stated, “It must stop here and now.”
Carlos Briceño writes
from Seminole, Florida.