How to die well: Talking to Jesuit, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel omits a key question

I've been hearing and thinking about end-of-life and death issues a lot lately.

In recent weeks, my 90-year-old father has been in the hospital twice and while he's (thank God) coming home tomorrow, the prognosis we got on Wednesday is not good. My brother Steve wrote an amazing column for the Oregonian on my father's journey to Minnesota in July to see his 100-year-old sister, possibly for the last time. And of course there's friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher's posts on the death of his father on Tuesday. There's a sadness that never goes away and death arrives in the midst of our lives.

We don't talk about it much, but to the people in my parents' retirement home, the imminent end of one's life is a reality they face all the time. This is true for us all.

Man knows not his time. Which is why I was intrigued by a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story on John Schlegel, a Catholic priest who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Dying well seems harder to do than ever, and here's one person taking the not-so-easy way out. 

The Rev. John Schlegel, pastor of the Church of the Gesu, has pancreatic cancer. He is foregoing medical treatment because he does not believe it would increase his quality of life. He has been visiting friends and carrying on his duties while he awaits the inevitable.
Since being diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in late January, the Rev. John Schlegel has given away most of his books, artwork and clothes.
He has visited friends in Dallas; Denver; Chicago; Omaha, Neb.; New York; London; Oxford, England; and Dubuque, Iowa; and met with Pope Francis in Rome.
And he has planned his funeral right down to the songs that will be sung and the obituary that will appear in the program.

The article goes on to how the 72-year-old former president of Creighton University and the University of San Francisco has decided to forego chemotherapy because of the ruin it'd wreak on his body. Better to not prolong the process, he says.

Now that my family is in the midst of this process, I do wonder why not taking chemo is seen as heroic while taking it is not. I had always assumed -- as this article does -- that forgoing treatment was far nobler. Now I'm wondering why we assume this.

The article goes on to describe how he continues to work, how he got to meet Pope Francis in March and take trips to a few places he's always wanted to visit. The story quotes several friends who will miss the Jesuit priest, then gives a brief bio of his very accomplished life. There are some uses of the word "faith" and how friends are helping him to deal with his passing. 

It ends by mentioning the increasing pain he's weathering and how he hopes to get a new carpet for the church before he dies. However, there's one thing I don't see. Can you take a guess?

Yes, the word "God" isn't even mentioned in this article. What must a priest, who has hopefully spent a lifetime thinking about eternal life, be thinking about what he shall soon experience? What does he think death will entail? Feel like? Does he have any hopes for what he hopes the next life will be like? Would readers like answers to some of these questions? I think so.

I see from the newspaper site that the reporter specializes in profiles and politics, which may explain the omission. Did the priest talk about God and the reporter just leave it out? Or did the priest not want to talk about his faith? Listening to a video from the Gesu church web site on his impending death,  the priest says nothing about God. He does, however, say he is not afraid of death.

 Or did the reporter not even know to ask the question? If you are writing about a dying priest, wouldn't it be appropriate to ask about about heaven, hell, judgment and so on? Or are those topics one must not bring up? I'm from the school where it's the reporter's job to bring such topics up. Is it rude? No. These are the questions everyone silently asks. 

And so I go to the next level of journalism: Did any editor notice a ghost here? Milwaukee is a heavily Lutheran and Catholic place. Didn't anyone read this and say, "There's a hole in this story"?

It isn't hard to research some of this. I listened to one of Schlegel's sermons, as they're online and the priest definitely waxes eloquent on the life of Jesus. I wish the reporter had stopped the narrative about not fearing death just a bit to ask what Schlegel believes will happen in the afterlife. 

These are questions, though, that aren't brought up in the typical feature story. Look at all the coverage on Bethany Maynard's assisted death last fall. Was something ever said about what she did or did not believe would happen after her death? If anyone wrote about this, I never saw it. And perhaps the Bethanys of this world aren't going to give us that answer. But the John Schlegels of this world can. But we need to have the guts to ask them.

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