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Schiavo service participants asked to ‘build a culture of life’


GULFPORT, Fla. (BP)–Though the simple human story encompasses birth, life and death, it is the Christian belief of the resurrection which declares “death does not have the last word” that comforted family members and friends of Terri Schiavo, a woman whose life tragically ended March 31.

Celebrating a funeral Mass for Schiavo, more than 800 were uninhibited in their support of Terri’s family April 5 at the Most Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Gulfport, Fla., where Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri’s parents, and her siblings, Bobby Jr. and Suzanne Vitadamo quietly occupied the front row of the church.

An emotionally charged service paid homage to Terri’s life on earth while also lamenting the manner in which the 41-year-old disabled woman — whose court-ordered death captivated the world for 13 days — was starved and dehydrated.

“We believe the grief we have will be transformed into joy,” Frank Pavone, the director of Priests for Life, told the audience in his message. “When we live, we belong to the Lord; when we die, we belong to the Lord.”

Suzanne Vitadamo said she has spent “almost every waking minute” in the past few weeks thinking about Terri and the impact she made on her family and the millions who were sensitive to her plight. Expressing love to her parents and to her brother, Bobby, Suzanne said she has been “inspired” by their steadfastness.

“Dad, I could only love you more and more each day,” Suzanne told her father. “You have shown the world” how to be a parent.

To Mary Schindler, Suzanne said: “You are an amazing mom.”

Wistfully, Vitadamo spoke to the big sister who had been incapacitated for most of her adult life.

“I am sorry, though, that pure love alone was not enough to keep you from harm,” Suzanne said. “You didn’t want to give up, but God called you home and He loves you more than we could.”

She added: “Your smile brought us great joy. You have shown the world what perseverance and determination are all about.

“I miss you,” Suzanne said. “We will forever be grateful to you.”

Bobby Schindler Jr. paused tearfully to gather his emotions before speaking near the end of the two-hour service, holding up a Purple Heart medal he said the family received in the mail for Terri a few days earlier from a Vietnam veteran.

Bobby said the soldier, who said he had been shot in the head, compared Terri to those killed Sept. 11, 2001 — saying she, too, was a “victim of national terrorism.”

“We believe God is testing the U.S.A. and its people,” Bobby quoted the letter’s author, who also said his heart was “shattered” by the manner in which Terri died.

The Schindler family, along with Suzanne’s husband, Michael Vitadamo, and her 11-year-old daughter, Alex, left the sanctuary briefly before communion was administered, to return in a procession down the center aisle, carrying the elements of the sacrament to the altar in a traditional service blended with the more contemporary sound of the guitar and violin.

Easter lilies adorned the foot of the altar and a photo of Terri from the 1980s was placed near a small table at the front on which stood a photo and gold bust of Pope John Paul II, a bouquet of flowers and a reflective candle.

Participants were given a purple prayer card featuring Terri’s photo and her family’s mantra, “Where there is Life, there is Hope,” and her birth date, Dec. 3, 1963.

Wooden pews with padded kneeling benches accommodated family and friends — and many of those who kept vigil outside the Woodside Hospice in recent weeks. The overflow extended into the church’s vestibule and beyond the softly lit structure where a large group of television and print photographers — who were not allowed inside the church — craned to catch a glimpse of the service through open doors.

Pavone, who was with Terri and her siblings just hours before she died, stirred the crowd to cheers and a standing ovation when he reminded celebrants, “death does not have the last word” and that Terri’s death will not be forgotten.

“God calls us to go forward from this place and build a culture of life,” Pavone said, urging people to work together “so that what happened in this tragic place will never happen again.”

Terri Schiavo collapsed in her home in 1990 and was severely brain damaged. Her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo -– who has fathered two children with his live-in girlfriend –- told the court about seven years after her collapse, and after he received a medical malpractice settlement, that Terri had said she would not want to live in what some doctors have termed a persistent vegetative state.

No written directive existed, but a judge ruled in 2000 there was sufficient evidence to discontinue Terri’s nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube. Since that time, Terri’s feeding tube had been removed and reinserted twice. It was removed for the last time March 18 per order of Florida Judge George Greer and never reinserted, despite numerous legal and political maneuvers involving the Florida legislature, the Congress, various state and federal appeals courts, the U.S. Supreme Court, President Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Terri died 13 days later.

Terri’s parents said she did not receive the care and rehabilitation she required and that Michael Schiavo should have been relieved as her guardian, citing a number of potential conflicts dealing with her diagnosis and care, her religious beliefs and Michael Schiavo’s adulterous affair.

Pavone said Terri’s death was a result of “a clash of worldviews” between “those who say suffering is meaningless” and those “who do not watch human suffering from a distance, but, instead, jump into it.”

Referring to the failed efforts to save Terri through the country’s legal system, Pavone said the highest leader of the Catholic Church, the Pope, had previously made it clear “that any human decree … or law that violates fundamental human rights is no law at all.”

Eight priests and three deacons participated in the service, led by Thaddeus Malanowski, a retired Army chaplain and priest who visited Terri every week for five years before her death and also administered last rites to her.

“Terri Schindler showed us how to live. She showed us the gift of life and how we should share it,” Malanowski said.

Joining other mourners were two Florida lawmakers and Florida Baptist laymen — state Sen. Daniel Webster and state Rep. Dennis Baxley — who have worked the past several years in initiating legislation aimed at saving Terri’s life.

Webster, a member of First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando, told the Florida Baptist Witness he was saddened by Terri’s death and cried upon hearing the news while the Florida legislature was in session. At the service, he said he was comforted by the tremendous show of support for the Schindlers. Terri’s “memory lives on,” he said.

“There’s hope in life and hope in death,” Webster said. “This has definitely grown to be a cause people will rally around. I don’t think anybody wants it to happen again.”

Comforting Bobby Schindler with a hug, Baxley, a member of First Baptist Church in Ocala, told the Witness he knows the members of the Florida House overcame many obstacles to put forward a bill that the Florida Senate did not end up passing. The fight’s not over yet, he said.

“In many ways, it’s an end, and in many more ways it’s a beginning,” Baxley said of the interest in end-of-life decisions prompted by Schiavo’s life and death. “The conscience of a nation has been touched and a new respect for life has been born.”

The question is whether the “culture of life” or the “culture of death” will prevail, Baxley said. He believes it will be the “culture of life.”
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Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan