Catholic Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville, Australia, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2013. Plough’s Randall Gauger caught up with him a year later in Brisbane. Though chemotherapy had clearly taken a physical toll, his mind and spirit were indefatigable. We share highlights from that conversation.
The cancer is progressing, and I’ve moved beyond the stage of any medical treatment. That’s all over and so from a medical point of view the cancer will likely progress normally until my death. At the same time, because of the chemo, I’ve had an extended time of reasonable quality of life and activity – to the surprise of the doctor who told me I wouldn’t last a year. In fact, that year was up a week ago, when he said, “You look very good.” That’s where I am at the moment. One day at a time. I really am simply in the hands of God. That doesn’t trouble me.
In the Catholic tradition whatever pain you go through is offered up as a prayer – by surrendering it, accepting it and saying, “This is my prayer.” I do that for my diocese and for my family. Pope Francis wrote to me to offer it up for Christian unity, so I do that too. Therefore, if the end is tough, then it will be a greater prayer as far as I’m concerned. God will honor that. Who knows what will happen? That is my little hope.
Facing death, two things have happened to me. One of them is that my whole life came back to me, mainly through the letters and communication of people from every period and place in my life, writing to remind me of things we did together, and in many cases remembering good things that they saw me as having done.
The other thing is, of course, that all your relationships and all their ups and downs come to your mind. And all your sins and failures come to your mind. No matter how willingly we confess our sins and acknowledge our guilt there is still something in us that minimizes our sin and guilt. We kind of let ourselves off just a little. When you are facing death, that doesn’t work anymore; rather, it looms in its full reality. You think, “Oh my gosh, I really wasn’t as innocent as I was claiming to myself!” But then you have to look again at God. In him there is only forgiveness. I have nothing else to stand on except God’s forgiveness.
Work to do
When I was told I had cancer, I simply saw it as, “Oh, okay.” It was as simple as that. And then I thought of that text from Philippians 1:21 where Saint Paul says, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” I thought, “Well, if I’ve been trying to follow Christ all my life, death is a gain.” That was my initial thought; I was hoping for that.
Then I didn’t die. I had not thought of the next step until I read the rest of what Paul says, “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” I’ve got some work to do so I may as well do it! I’m not arrogant enough to think that God is saying that he needs me to do A, B, or C, but I do consider it an enormous privilege, a great gift that I’ve been allowed to do a few things. Maybe somewhere last year there was something he wanted me to do. In fact, I seem to have had a year’s work to do! And maybe I’ll have another year. Maybe I’ll have only a month. I don’t know. I don’t even bother thinking about that.
The most fruitful year of my life
I’d have to say that the past year was one of the most fruitful years of my life, and one of the happiest years of my life. It’s been an amazing, exciting year. And I’m looking forward to this new year, however brief or long it is, and whatever it brings. It doesn’t mean there isn’t an anxiety somewhere. What about when it gets really tough? But so far, I haven’t been troubled about that.
I’ve had no darkness, no despair, no depression.
I have had a great gift of freedom about it and about my cancer in the sense that I just roll along. I’ve had no darkness, no despair, no depression. I’m not denying there will be dark moments to come perhaps, but they haven’t so far. So I’ve been able to laugh a lot. In fact I embarrass the journalists when they interview me because they’re not sure whether they should laugh. So I say, “Let me die. It’s not the end of the world.”
I don’t have those anxieties that others might have as they are facing death. I’m very conscious that in some ways I’ve got an easier route, or have had. I have asked the diocese always to pray for everybody with cancer, and never just for me. I want them to know that I know that it can be tougher for them, particularly young people with cancer who are married and have families and all, anxieties about children and grieving.
I’m unmarried, which means I don’t have the sadness of dealing with a spouse and children. And secondly, I don’t have a life work, like a man who may have been building up a good, positive business, and it’s not quite yet ready to stand on its own. None of my work is dependent upon me. I mean, I work for God. And God’s grace does it all, so I’m sure God’s grace can find a way of working without me.
I have dreams of things I might get under way. I may see them finished, and I may not. But I don’t care, because there is no point in our life where we haven’t got unfinished things. There’s no point in my saying, “Put off my death until I finish the thing,” because there will always be things to finish. You’ve just got to leave it all in God’s hands and have a go.
Living with cancer
As a bishop you’re dealing with a hundred things at once and sometimes you wisely put some of them off. Sometimes it is, “let’s wait and see,” and sometimes it is a flight from the difficult that makes you put it off. But you intend to get to it someday. Now I’m not putting things off anymore. And things I have had dreams about doing, I’m now pushing buttons to see if I can make them happen.
My secretary says that even though I haven’t been flying because of my immune system all year, we’ve never had a busier year. My staff says the same. They used to get a relief when I’d go overseas, but there’s no relief anymore! But I also wonder whether other people aren’t doing the same thing and saying to themselves, “While he’s still here, we better get on and do that job.” Things are moving, and many of them have been fruitful.
I sometimes preach, in the words of the song, “Put your hand in the hand of the man who stills the water.” I actually hold my hand up and say, “Take his hand. Take his hand and you’ll get through.” I invite people to discover the presence of God in their lives. And then I always say, “God is love.” If you let God in, you’ll discover that you’re enveloped, surrounded, washed over, filled with love the whole time, and that there is a way therefore through anything and everything. That’s what I try to share with anyone battling with cancer: you’ll find a way through it all.
The other thing I say is, “Don’t let what is going to happen govern how you live now.” Don’t be saying, “I’m dying.” Say, “I’m living. I’m living and by God’s grace, what wonderful things are happening.” And if you do that, the time of dying will take care of itself because it will be the last stage of your life. But if you let it take over now, then you’ll destroy what you’ve got left.
Living with someone with cancer
I sometimes say, “For goodness sake, if you’ve got someone with cancer that you know, don’t stay away because you don’t know how to handle it, nor get so close that you take over and ‘know’ what’s ‘best’ for them.” We prefer to do our own living and dying. Thank you. Just be a friend! And let them have a friend. That’s all you need to do.
There are these two extremes, the ones who kind of flee because they don’t know how to cope, or the ones who move in on you. We don’t like that either, that is, the people who know best and think ahead for us and all. You want to live it and die with your own integrity, your own joy and all. You don’t need to be closeted and saved from experiencing your own life, you know! Thank you very much.
I’m only dying. Don’t be silly!
People need to talk about cancer. I keep saying, “It’s only cancer. Stop going funny. It’s only cancer. I’m only dying. Don’t be silly!” Just to free people up to talk about it. Let’s live it. Let’s not kind of run from it, or try and control it so that it’s not really there or something.
I laugh a lot, too, particularly when it comes to the crunch. I hope that people will wonder why I’m so cheerful. I simply can’t help myself. For goodness sakes, it’s only death! But then I immediately come in and say that I do understand that’s harder for other people. I don’t want to sound cavalier about it, trampling on other people’s pain. It’s just easier in my case. I’m also not denying that physically it’s quite demanding at times: lack of energy and tiredness is constant. Sometimes discomfort and pain, but so far not enough to stop me doing things.
Praying for a miracle?
People are praying for a miracle for me. Lots of people. I don’t know what I’d do with that, but should that happen I will accept that as the next great gift, and the next great witness, and the next great challenge. I don’t actually ask for anything at the moment. I trust absolutely. I’d much rather do what God wants to do at the moment with me. I must say that I’d rather be used for something fruitful than to actually have any say in it.
People get kind of cross with me; they think I should be on my knees all the time begging for a miracle. I just can’t do it. I think God knows best. I’d rather trust what God’s up to, and let it come. I just keep going. See what happens; it may take a long time. That’s my journey at the moment.
The peace I’ve found
For me, the peace I’ve found is absolutely connected to a personal relationship with Jesus. That’s where it comes from. I don’t have any natural propensity to take cancer in my stride. Left to my own devices I’d be a wimp. But by God’s grace I’ve had this great gift of faith all my life. Always no matter what’s been going on, or what I’ve done, I’ve always believed. And that gift of faith is flourishing now. Therefore, no matter what I think about, I always see it in terms of Jesus. I just trust him in all of this. I wish that gift for everyone, because it can take you through anything.
Photo courtesy of Catholic Diocese of Townsville.