There is a need to promote policies which create conditions where human beings can bear even incurable illnesses and death in a dignified manner. Here it is necessary to stress once again the need for more palliative care centers which provide integral care, offering the sick the human assistance and spiritual accompaniment they need. This is a right belonging to every human being, one which all must be committed to defend. (Pope Benedict XVI)
The Church is deeply committed to ensuring that those who are terminally ill receive loving and proper physical and spiritual assistance. Our terminally ill never lose their goodness, dignity and worth as human beings. They are to be equally respected and esteemed as those who are physically and mentally well. Indeed, along with “indispensable clinical cures it is necessary to offer the sick concrete gestures of love, of nearness and of Christian solidarity to fulfill their need of comprehension, of comfort and of constant encouragement.”1
Our focus in this issue is Hospice Care. Hospice Care is that which “helps provide comfort and dignity through the natural process of dying. It really is a healthy concept and focuses on the family and helping them grieve as well as keeping the client comfortable. Hospice services allow a dying person to be comfortable during his or her last days or hours, and support the family of a dying person before, during, and after the person’s death.”2
Unfortunately many who are terminally ill “die unnecessarily bad deaths—deaths with inadequate palliative support, inadequate compassion, and inadequate human presence and witness.”3 Our terminally ill are often marginalized from family, friends, and society. They are considered to be an expensive burden and problem for communities. Consequently for many death is “preceded by fear and loneliness, and isolation.”4 Unfortunately in these cases, the value of and respect for human worth and dignity is forgotten or intentionally abandoned. Furthermore, society’s perceptions of health care justice “account inadequately for hospice. They tend to regard death as an external force rather than as something to be integrated into an overall theory of care. They tend to be very individualistic. And they tend to assume relationships of equal power among independent agents whose conception of justice is the delineation of fair rules.”5 It is important to remember that the “nature of the care that dying patients and their families and loved ones receive is fundamentally a question of values and ends, not of technical details and means. It is fundamentally a statement about who we are. . .as a community, for our moral identity is nowhere better tested and tempered than in the respect and care we show to those in their twilight years.”6
Jesus said, “I was sick and you visited me.”7 These words convey a powerful message for the pastoral care of our terminally ill. They invite us to see Christ’s image in our suffering brothers and sisters and to see them through the eyes of love and compassion.8 Pope Benedict XVI counsels, “Whoever has a sense of human dignity knows ... that they should be respected and sustained while they face the difficulties and the suffering tied to their health conditions”.9
All Christians must take responsibility for the welfare of those who are in their later stages of life in whatever capacity they can. Not to do so would violate the moral principle that health care is a basic human right for all persons, from conception to natural death. Certainly, “Beyond justice, when individuals who are dying or who are in the later stages of an incurable illness do not attain access to hospice care services, fundamental social values are not fulfilled.”10
Hospice care does not normally include the use of extraordinary means of medical attention; however, ordinary means of care must be employed. The patient must be comfortable in his/her process of dying with proper food, clothing, and shelter.
The vocation of hospice caregivers is truly heroic. It requires much love, patience, concern, and compassion. These caregivers affirm respect for human life in its final stages. They provide for the dying a dignified and peaceful end to life. They imitate Christ, who reached out to those who suffer. Hospice caregivers provide a service of love for the weak and vulnerable and see them as family members.
For the perspective of the terminally ill, this last stage of life is a moment of grace, an opportunity to unite his/her sufferings with the Passion of Christ. The Holy Father notes that, “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering, but rather our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it, and finding meaning through union with Christ who suffered with intimate love.”11 Here is also our faith and hope in the reality that through Christ’s redemptive victory over sin and death, death is not the end. Indeed, “The certainty of future immortality and hope in the promised resurrection cast new light on the mystery of suffering and death, and fill the believer with an extraordinary capacity to trust fully in the plan of God.”12
Thus, hospice care enables the dying person to more readily accept suffering and death with faith in our loving God. Through the compassionate care that hospice personnel provide, the sick person experiences the compassion and love of Christ, is enabled to become one with Christ in His suffering, and is made ready for the loving embrace of God that we believe is in store for us after our bodily death. The Church affirms hospice care as a special ministry and fully supports those who are involved in giving this special care. May they be richly blessed by our loving and compassionate God.
Br. Warren Perrotto, MSC
- Address Of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Visit to Hospice Sacre Cure (Rome), December 14, 2009
- What is the Definition of Hospice, http://dying.lovetoknow.com/What_Is_the_Definition_of_Hospice
- Bruce Jennings et al, Access to Hospice Care: Expanding Boundaries Overcoming Barriers, National Hospice Work Group, NY: The Hasting Center, May-April Hastings Center Report, 2003, p. S3
- Ibid. p. S14.
- Ibid, p. S13
- Cf. Matthew 25:35, Jerusalem Bible.
- Cf. Deus Est Caritas, no. 18
- December 14, 2009 Address
- Jennings, S5
- Saved In Hope (Spe Salvi), no. 37
- Evangelium Vitae, no. 67