A report published on Aug. 26 from the Associated Press tells the story of the final days of Robert Fuller, who after a battle with cancer chose to take his own life using a fatal combination of drugs. Among the things Mr. Fuller sought before his death was a blessing in the midst of his parish, St. Therese in Seattle, Wash. An AP photo captures the moment: Mr. Fuller dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and above him Quentin Dupont, S.J., arms raised in prayer. What the photo does not capture is the full story behind the capacity in which Father Dupont was present and what he knew about Mr. Fuller’s decision, both of which have been the subject of confusion since the story was published.
The Archdiocese of Seattle has issued two statements in response to Mr. Fuller’s actions, the second of which states that “neither [the pastor] nor the parish could support his plan to take his own life.” However, reports of Facebook posts allegedly by Mr. Fuller state that “a Jesuit” had given his blessing to Mr. Fuller’s decisions. Some have assumed that this is a reference to Father Dupont, an accusation he said is completely untrue. In an exclusive interview, Father Dupont told America that, although he knew Mr. Fuller was very ill, he was unaware of Mr. Fuller’s intent to die by assisted suicide until after the Mass and blessing were over. At that point he says he felt “completely stunned.” We reached Father Dupont by phone on the evening of Aug. 29 to discuss the events described in the AP report.
Editor’s note: Father Dupont has occasionally contributed to America, and several editors at America know Father Dupont and have lived with him in Jesuit community. One of those editors, Sam Sawyer, S.J., issued the invitation for this interview through the director of communications for Jesuits West, the province where Father Dupont is currently serving in ministry. Neither Father Sawyer nor any other editor with a personal relationship with Father Dupont had any further involvement in the execution or editing of this interview. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Many people were introduced to you recently through the photo and story in an AP report about the death of Robert Fuller in May. But I want to start by pulling back a little to allow you to tell us a bit about yourself. What are your full-time responsibilities?
My full-time responsibilities are as a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle studying finance and business economics. I help at St. Therese as a supply priest. That means I’m not even on the staff; I’m not part-time there. I’m just there on an ad hoc basis. On average I’m there once a month. Basically, I come in a little before Mass, I make sure things are set up and then we celebrate Mass together and then after Mass I greet people; I say hello and I go home. I don’t have the kind of pastoral relationship that one would have as a pastor or associate pastor or senior priest in residence. I’m not there all the time.
The AP photo and the story have generated a lot of discussion. Can you tell us the story behind this particular photo from your perspective?
I’d signed up for that Sunday and I arrived at church and I saw a parishioner there and I asked how he was doing. He said, “Well, this is Bob Fuller’s last Mass,” and I was puzzled and so I asked him what he meant. He said, “Well, Bob is going to die.” I didn’t know much about Mr. Fuller. I knew he was very ill and I thought that meant that his treatment had run out, that he was getting off treatment and that Mr. Fuller knew he had days to live. And I continued my way to the sacristy and I met another couple of parishioners who said likewise, that this was Bob’s last Mass. Through those conversations, I became aware that this man that I knew was very ill would like a blessing. So we talked about doing a blessing at the end of Mass. We had Mass and at the end of Mass we blessed him.
I thought the pastoral situation I was walking into was with this very ill man who knows he’s about to die. I wanted to make sure he felt cared for by the church. It’s only after Mass at the social hour that I learned of his intentions [to kill himself] from a parishioner. I had absolutely no idea what his intentions were before that. The moment I learned about his intentions, I was completely stunned. I was shocked; and I was just really really puzzled. I remain very puzzled.
Had you met him in other contexts before? How well did you know him?
I’m there once a month, so I had seen him before Mass or after Mass at the social and said hello. That’s the extent that I knew him. I don’t have an ongoing pastoral relationship or ongoing contact with the parishioners.
Can you tell me about the content of the blessing that you offered?
From what I remember—as this is almost four months ago, and this is something that came up when I walked into church—I wanted to pray for his comfort and his peace in the difficult days ahead. And so that’s what I said. I knew there were children there, and so I didn’t want to talk about death explicitly. But I prayed for his comfort and his strength in the days ahead and that he may feel the love of God as he faces a very difficult time.
The last thing I want to do is be part of a confusion, and I certainly have no desire to question the church’s teaching on the sanctity of life.
Since that time, obviously the story has come out and there has been some follow-up questions about some Facebook posts that Mr. Fuller allegedly wrote regarding his impending death. One states: “I have absolutely no reservations about what I am doing. And my pastor/sponsor has given me his blessings. And he’s a Jesuit!!!” Are you the pastor and/or sponsor referenced in this post?
Do you know who that priest is?
Did you know that the press was present at the Mass?
I knew that there was a TV crew there and they had been there before. I knew they were there because Bob was there. I didn’t probe what story they were writing. I thought they were making a story about this man who was facing great health difficulties and who had a life of faith, which I assumed was an interesting story to tell in a day and age which is heavily secularized. There was a photographer there. I do not at all remember being introduced to this photographer as a member of the press. I was never asked for an official release about images that would be taken of me or photos that would be taken of me. I thought that this photographer was there because this was [Mr. Fuller’s] last Mass and he wanted a memento, a memory, of this Mass, this community, this time, when later he would be gravely ill in bed and he wanted to feel the strength and the love of the community with him. And I thought this was a professional photographer that he had hired to take some pictures to have them as memories and souvenirs for himself.
How have you felt since this story has come out?
I am shocked. I feel absolutely terrible about the confusion that has arisen out of this story, and I feel that the archdiocese in both statements has done its best to let people know what actually happened and how this story came to be. It has been a difficult few days. The last thing I want to do is be part of a confusion, and I certainly have no desire to question the church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. I believe that life is a gift. I believe that it is a gift from God and an opportunity every day to learn from God and love as God is trying to teach us to love though scriptures and the examples of Christ and the saints. I feel terrible that there is an insinuation that I, or a member of the clergy or religious order or this archdiocese, would think otherwise or would make a public statement otherwise. It’s been a tough couple of days because I love the church and I feel like I tried to respond appropriately, pastorally to what I knew of the situation at hand, and it was actually an entirely different situation and it’s being made to cause confusion and I absolutely dislike that.
I believe that it is a gift from God and an opportunity every day to learn from God and love as God is trying to teach us to love though scriptures and the examples of Christ and the saints.
What responsibilities does a priest have when they learn that a parishioner with an illness might be considering taking his or her own life? It’s a difficult situation that has the potential to become increasingly frequent as states consider allowing assisted suicide.
Had I known that these were his intentions, and had I seen him in church that day knowing that these were his intentions, I would have offered to have a one-on-one conversation about the sanctity of life and the gift of life. I would have talked about the beautiful things I’ve learned and that I cherished about the Jesuits and relatives of mine that I have seen going through suffering but being witnesses to the fact that life is a gift from God.
I also am aware that I am not this man’s pastor. I do not have cura animarum over him, care for the soul. I have a responsibility to him to the extent that I am a priest and that I think that he is mistaken about his position, and I talked to the parish staff about this after I learned it. As you saw in the statements about this that came out from the archdiocese, the pastor reached out to Mr. Fuller and had a conversation with him about the sanctity of life and the gift of life, and I think this is the appropriate response.
One aspect of the story that I find fascinating is that, even though Mr. Fuller obviously disagreed with the church on this teaching regarding the sanctity of life, he still turned to the church for some comfort. Why do you think that is, and how can the church better engage those moments in which people who are in tension with the church—which really is all of us at times—still want to turn to the church for comfort or direction?
When he turned to the church, at that point this really became the pastor’s task and job and responsibility to respond to Mr. Fuller’s desire to celebrate his life and find comfort at that point in time. I wasn’t there, and the pastor didn’t tell me all of the conversations he had with Mr. Fuller, but from reading the archdiocese’s press releases I can say that he responded very pastorally and very well. Both statements from the archdiocese, the one from Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, emphasize the church’s compassion towards people who seek comfort, and this is exactly what happened here.
I think that what you see in the statements from the archdiocese is a desire to care for the members of the faithful in the archdiocese.
Which aspect of the response are you talking about?
I’m talking about the pastoral visit, [during which the archdiocesan statement states that “[t]he pastor discussed the gift of life and tried to convince [Mr. Fuller] to change his mind]," the planning of the funeral, the archdiocese being willing to let this funeral happen for this man who sought and wanted this comfort in this celebration of life in the church.
It’s a tough situation because the church wants to help people navigate these issues in a way that is pastoral, and that is true to the church teaching, but that is also clear for the people who witness it in action. As you said, you don’t want to cause or contribute to any kind of confusion for the faithful. How can we as a church, more generally, think about these very complicated situations in a way that accounts for all of these elements?
This is a wonderful question; it’s something that I’ve been trying to think about for the past three days as I was confronted with the confusion itself. This is of course something that has been on my mind ever since I heard about Mr. Fuller’s intentions after that Mass. Not being a theologian, not being a bioethicist, not being someone who is full-time in ministry—I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about a lot of other issues related to my studies—I haven’t really formulated a coherent system of answers for you. But I think that what you see in the statements from the archdiocese is a desire to care for the members of the faithful in the archdiocese. What you see is a desire to comfort those who are ill. What you see is a desire to be attentive and to walk with those who mourn. And this is the church, this is the field hospital where people carry wounds and we walk with them. And we walk with these people and these situations such as they are, trying to grow in love of God and the love of one another, rather than sowing the seeds of division and confusion. And I think you see this caring for and with one another in the responses that the bishops of Seattle have formulated. This is, I’m sure, something that we’ll continue to reflect about as a church as those situations, as you say, might continue to arise.
We need to talk to people thinking about making those voluntary end-of-life decisions, with those friends and family that they have that love them and want time with them. This is really a way in which we are community together and this is a gift that God gives us in our faith and in this life. I can’t speculate about what would be the best theological and pastoral answer, but I can tell you I certainly think the archdiocese has put its pastoral, caring, comforting attitude forward in every opportunity that they were able to do so.
Is there anything else about this story or series of events that you want people to know?
I simply want to emphasize that [my involvement in these events] is a much more simple story than whatever was construed in the press. I was absolutely, unequivocally unaware of Mr. Fuller’s intention [to kill himself]. I’m not part of the conversations that happen in [the St. Therese] community all the time. I was given very limited information, and I had very limited knowledge about Mr. Fuller’s situation. I did what I thought was pastorally expedient with the knowledge that I had. And it turns out I did not have key pieces of the story, otherwise I would have reacted completely differently.