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Archive for February, 2015

img_0019-edit-4Set in Ireland in the early twentieth century, Frank O’Connor’s story “An Act of Charity” revolves around the effort to conceal a parish priest’s suicide.

“The worst thing a priest could do was to commit suicide,” O’Connor writes, “since it seemed to deny everything that gave his vocation meaning–Divine Providence and Mercy, forgiveness, Heaven, Hell. That one of God’s anointed could come to such a state of despair was something the Church could not admit. It would give too much scandal. It was simply an unacceptable act.”

Because the “unfortunate occurrence” of a shotgun blast to a priest’s head carried “consequences” affecting the entire parish in this story, the man’s death certificate was falsified, his casket closed, and his body brought at last before the altar of the church–all performed as acts of Christian charity (Collected Stories, New York: Vintage Books, 1982, 638, 639).

What exactly is the state of despair into which the priest was judged to have fallen?

Described in one Catholic encyclopedia as the “deliberate and willful abandonment of hope in God and rejection of trust in his power, mercy, and love,” despair is the “most serious sin against the theological virtue of hope” (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing division, 1991, 301).

In reality, was it the kind of despair that ended the fictional priest’s life? All too often in the Roman Catholic Church up to the late 20th century, death by suicide was wrongly connected with the sinful abandonment of hope in God.

For a while, I also made that erroneous connection after my daughter Mary died by intentional overdose in 1995. Because her father and I were away for a day of prayer on the Sunday of her death, I asked myself repeatedly whether Mary had timed her suicide as a deliberate rejection of her faith and ours.

But that question eventually faded. I finally gained some small understanding of my daughter’s psychological state on the day of her death, and it had nothing to do with willful abandonment of hope. If anything, her hope had been robbed by suicidal depression, “paraylzing all the otherwise vital forces that make us human, leaving instead a bleak, despairing, desperate, and deadened state . . .” (Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast:Understanding Suicide, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999, 104).

I’d like to believe that, written today, an “An Act of Charity” would tell the story of priests reaching out to their suicidally depressed brother, getting him into treatment, and helping to save an entirely savable life.

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