Q: My 93-year-old grandmother is
in a nursing home. Her 90+-year-old
cousin is in a different nursing
home. Their letters to each other often
include the questions: “What am I still
doing here? Why does God still want me
I could answer that they are still here
so that they can pray for the rest of us
and offer their sufferings to Christ. Both
of them, however, would have been
dead long ago if medicine had not
advanced so much in the last half century.
Each of them has survived medical conditions
that 20 years ago would have been
fatal. Is it God or medicine that is prolonging
I know that life is always precious, but
how can I answer the “Why am I still here?”
question other than to say: “Modern medicine
has increased your life span. Though
you would rather be in heaven, God isn’t
so much an interventionist as to alter the
natural order, which includes us”?
A: Over the centuries, medicine
has advanced because human
beings have used their God-given intelligence
to develop and refine new
drugs, new surgeries and new therapies.
God should be credited for their
length of days—at least, indirectly.
God has also given us the ability to
ask, “Just because something is technically
possible, does that guarantee
that it is morally good?” No, that is
not automatically true.
It’s wonderful that your grandmother
and her cousin have energy
enough to write letters to one another.
Do they have enough energy
to write letters to affirm relatives,
soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan or
other people who would appreciate
Could they contribute to a family
oral-history project or use some
other talent for the benefit of others?
Does God have something else in mind
for them to contribute?
Some of their fellow residents or
staff members in those nursing homes
would probably be grateful for an
extra smile or a kind word. I have two
friends who are in their 90s, and they
are still a very positive influence for
Not every possible medical treatment
must be accepted by a person
who is sick. This has caused the Catholic
Church to speak of “ordinary” (required)
and “extraordinary” (optional)
means of preserving life. See "Are Feeding Tubes Morally Obligatory?" for a good article
on this subject. Such decisions are perhaps
not imminent for your grandmother
and her cousin, but they and
your relatives need to prepare for them.
Could They Be Saved?
Q: After I accepted Jesus as my Lord
and Savior, I began to ask myself:
“What happened to the men, women and
children who lived and died before Jesus
was born? Did they have a chance to be
A: The Catholic Church teaches
that good people who lived and
died before Jesus, in fact, entered
heaven immediately after his Resurrection.
Hence, the Apostles’ Creed
speaks of Jesus as “descending into
hell,” a bad translation of “descending
ad inferos [into the underworld].”
In the Middle Ages, there were many
paintings and drawings of this event— with Adam and Eve in the forefront.
Three years ago at the Chora Church in
Istanbul, I saw a beautiful fresco depicting
this event. Similar artwork can be
found in many churches in other parts
of the world.
Your question raises at least two others: Could good people who lived and
died after Jesus—but who never had a
chance to hear the Good News of Jesus
Christ—be saved? Is accepting Jesus as
your Lord and Savior a one-time event
that guarantees salvation, no matter
what future decisions that person
The Catholic Church answers yes to
the first question and no to the second
one. Only God knows a person’s
heart well enough to make a judgment
about salvation. On the other hand,
no human decision can force God into
a corner, so to speak, and compel a certain
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “There is not, never has been,
and never will be a single human being
for whom Christ did not suffer” (#605,
quoting the Council of Quiercy, held in
853). That does not guarantee that
every human being will be saved, but
that is clearly God’s intention.
Q: I keep falling into temptation for
the same sin. I thought that by now
it would have gone away. Will it ever? If not,
how can I be better prepared the next
A: This side of death, you will
never reach a point where all
temptation to every sin fades away.
Will this particular sin ever lose its ability
to ensnare you? I hope so.
We can always ask for God’s help in
advance so that we do what we know
is right. If you think about it, every sin
is some form of the lie, some type of
shortcut, “Do this and your life will be
wonderful.” In fact, every sin is a dead
end and never yields the promised
reward. God helps us to remember this
if we call on God’s help.
At the Easter Vigil, the celebrant asks
the congregation three questions: “Do
you reject Satan? And all his works?
And all his empty promises?” Indeed,
Satan’s promises are “empty.”
The Sacramentary provides this alternate
set of questions: “Do you reject
sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s
children? Do you reject the glamour
of evil, and refuse to be mastered by
sin? Do you reject Satan, father of sin
and prince of darkness?” For good reason,
Satan has long been described as
“the father of lies.”
Our notions of sin, freedom and
glamour frequently become twisted.
Sin presents itself as the path to freedom
and glamour but, in fact, offers
only a form of slavery. Although sin
claims that it will lead us to glamour, it
yields only the boring selfishness of a
world increasingly centered on the person
who is sinning.
Even though this description of sin
is accurate, we still sin, we continue to
accept “shortcuts” that frequently turn
out to be dead ends. One way to resist
temptation is to remember those dead
ends, to recall that what was presented
as bringing greater freedom has, in fact,
often brought greater slavery.
Moral theologians have spoken
about the need to avoid the “near
occasions of sin,” those situations or
circumstances that we know from experience
make a particular sin more
Discouragement is one of Satan’s
strongest weapons. I invite you to find
your courage in God—and confess your
sins as needed.
12-Step Programs Helpful
found my answer to “Adult Daughter
Seems Uninterested in the God of the
because it seemed not to respect
12-step programs. In fact, I respect
them highly and know people who
have been greatly helped by them.
Although God can indeed be called
a “Higher Power,” the Bible prefers
much more intimate language for God.
My point was simply that “Higher
Power” can be understood as aloof; the
biblical God is definitely not aloof.
Conceived in Evil?
Q: Some friends and I were having a discussion recently about two
questions: “Is any child conceived evil? Or is evil strictly a matter
of environment?” I promised to write and see if you could shed
some light on these issues.
The conception of a child is never evil—even if the child is
conceived through rape or incest. He or she is a separate
person created by God and has a right to life.
Some children are born into very difficult situations, but that is not
because their conception was evil. The people who ought to be nurturing
them are simply incapable of doing that or refuse to accept those
responsibilities. Family members and others try to soften the blow to a
child who has been victimized in this way.
If evil were simply a matter of environment, wouldn’t the notion of
personal responsibility totally vanish? In fact, we would never accept as
a rapist’s defense, “That action was determined by my environment.”
Environment is a strong influence in anyone’s life, but it is never the
total explanation of a person. Identical twins raised in virtually the
same environment usually turn out quite differently.
God’s gift of human freedom is both wondrous and awesome. We use
it in ways that reinforce or deny our dignity as people made in God’s
image and likeness.
If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here.
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