Resigned to Serve the Poor

Fr. Al with child wheelchair

On a startling autumn morning in 1989, a doctor asked Fr. Aloysius Schwartz (founder of World Villages for Children) to sit down, looked him in the eye, and shared the hard news: the 59-year-old American missionary, in the prime of his astonishing ministry for the poor, had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurological disease known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Soon thereafter, realizing he had three or so years to live, the Washington D.C. native resigned himself to using his remaining days to serve the poor until his body collapsed in on itself. The result of his decision was the eventual resurrection of tens of thousands of once-battered souls expanding the work of the Sisters of Mary and World Villages to Central and South America and Tanzania. 

In October of 2021, Martha Sepúlveda was of good cheer while dining at a restaurant in Bogota, Columbia. The lifelong Catholic, who for almost three years had been living with ALS, was smiling and chatty in front of flashing cameras – which seemed strange considering she was scheduled within a few days to end her own life with the help of others. 

Sepúlveda, 51, had become quite the sensation in Columbia for signing up to become the first person in her native land without a terminal prognosis to die by legally authorized euthanasia. However, an 11th-hour decision by health officials last week, stunningly for Sepúlveda and her family, halted her bid to end her life this past Sunday. Sepúlveda, her family, and close friends were incensed over a medical committee’s last-minute decision to salvage her life. 

In essence, she and her family are angry she isn’t dead right now.

Sepúlveda was awakened by her lawyers last Friday with news of a letter announcing that her euthanasia procedure had been erased after a medical committee determined she no longer met the conditions because her health apparently had improved.

According to a report in the Washington Post: “The decision came as a surprise, her lawyers said. She had no idea health officials were meeting to review her case. She had been quietly living out what she thought were her final hours, and had tuned out media coverage of her case.”

The Fight of/for Thousands of People

Catholic Church officials have described euthanasia as a “serious offense” to the dignity of human life; a member of Columbia’s national bishops’ conference urged Sepúlveda to “calmly reflect” on her decision and invited all Catholics to pray that God would grant her mercy.

It is a providential time to beg Fr. Al to intercede for a miracle of spiritual and physical healing for Sepúlveda, who apparently is uncomprehending of the good that can be gained during her trying days of battling ALS. Without diving too deeply into the Catholic understanding of redemptive suffering and the efficacious work of offering pain as a penance for poor souls, Sepúlveda needs a groundswell of prayerful support right now. 

She reportedly told family and close friends she had grown despondent over not being able to “go to bed or to the bathroom by herself.” Her 22-year-old son Federico said to a reporter after the last-minute judgment to overrule her mother’s requested suicide: “This circumstance brought my mom back to her previous state of desperation and sadness, and there’s nothing that can change that … we’re open to having this fight [for her authorized euthanasia] for the dignity of my mother. My mom’s fight is the fight of thousands of people.”

Ironically, a declining Fr. Al also fought for thousands of people – just in exactly the opposite way. As his body withered from the ravages of ALS, he daily celebrated Mass, heard as many as one hundred confessions a day, pushed contractors to complete Girlstown in Chalco, Mexico, and wrote two books. He whispered spiritual direction into the ears of the Sisters of Mary community and spent many hours alone in prayer.

But his most vital role during “his crucifixion to his wheelchair” was his share in the participation of Christ’s humiliation on the cross. Near the end of his life, Fr. Al wrote of his torturous final days.

“My role, now, is more and more similar to that of Jesus on the cross. My productive hour is over. I can hardly talk. I can no longer preach. I have difficulty in doing anything. So my role is simply to offer my prayer and my pain with Jesus to the Father. And this, I think, will be of more benefit to my children, my sisters, and my brothers than all of my planning and projects and programs. …

“I believe God has sent me ALS as a sign of his love and special favor. … I believe suffering is redemptive, pain is salvific, and earth and humiliation are fruitful and productive.”

Let us offer a rosary for Martha’s immediate spiritual and physical healing. And let us beg Fr. Al to be her unique intercessor during this time when this ailing woman is still very much alive — and well.