TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Our Mission to Mercy

In this week’s message, I have chosen to share with you some of my readings over the past two weeks, now that the NSW legislation for Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) has come into being.

Each year the colours of the jacaranda, agapanthus and hydrangea herald the coming of summer and our liturgical season of Advent. Here we are at the beginning of December and preparing for Christmas. I know the week ahead for me is filled with many amazing opportunities to connect with people across our diocesan community. However, in this week’s message, I have chosen to share with you some of my readings over the past two weeks, now that the NSW legislation for Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) has come into being. Please don’t read on if you think this topic may distress you, or if you do, and need to talk with someone about it, please contact me or your parish priest/leader.

It was not lost on me this weekend that our readings for the First Sunday of Advent are about “staying awake because we do not know when the master of the house is coming….” (Mark 13:33-37). At the end of the First Reading from Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:1,3-8) the prophet reminds us that “we are the clay, you are the potter, we are all the work of your hand.”

Our belief that we are created from God to be returned to God, the work of God’s hands forms the foundation of our ethic for life and our understanding of what it means to be human.

The Australian Catholic bishops have released a new document, To Witness and to Accompany with Christian Hope, (ACBC Document view) to guide priests, chaplains and pastoral workers who are asked to provide pastoral support to Catholics who are considering euthanasia. I believe that this document should be read by all Catholics, as we all, at some stage, will accompany people who are ill and dying. It provides us with a good grounding in our beliefs around suffering, dying and death, around accompaniment and pastoral care and the roles and responsibilities of our priests, particularly with the Sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist received as Viaticum, as food for the final journey. In this document, the priest is seen as ‘doctor of the soul’.

The document draws heavily on the 2020 Letter Samaritanus bonus from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life. (Samaritanus bonus)

As the title suggests, it draws its inspiration from the gospel story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The quest is how to translate this story into a readiness to accompany a suffering person in the terminal stages of life in this world, and to offer this assistance in a way that promotes the intrinsic human dignity of persons who are ill, their vocation to holiness, and thus the highest worth of their existence.

Throughout this letter, reference is made to the many dimensions which need care – physical, psychological, social, familial and religious. It refers to this as the ‘Therapeutic art’ in which procedures and ongoing care are inseparably interwoven in the practice of medicine, especially in the critical and terminal stages of life. The reader is left in no doubt that we are relational beings and our life and death have an impact on all.

Concern is raised around meaning-making during suffering, and the sense of isolation, abandonment, solitude, unmanaged pain, loss of hope, and fear.

I am conscious that in our diocese we have major hospital facilities along with many aged-care providers who look after people in facilities and in their homes. Our Catholic Hospital and aged-care providers have put in place policies and procedures reflective of being the healing arm and part of the Catholic Church. They have trained and formed their staff and volunteers to be committed to the ethic of healing, to do no harm and to respect life and the dignity of every person in their care. Many of the staff in these facilities accompany people and their families at the most vulnerable stages of living, which is to let go and die.

Due to the introduction of legalised VAD, staff have been prepared to hold onto the key value of caring for others and to seek support for those who are expressing a need to seek to end their lives. This support comes from listening to their needs and escalating the conversations to those who can reassure them of the comprehensive end of life care provided by Catholic facilities.

From a clinical perspective, the factors that largely determine requests for euthanasia and assisted suicide are unmanaged pain, and the loss of human and theological hope, provoked by the often inadequate psychological and spiritual assistance provided by those who care for the sick. (Samaritanus bonus)

On the front cover of To Witness and to Accompany with Christian Hope, the following quote calls each of us to the art of accompaniment:

Christian accompaniment is a continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ, who reached out to the sick, the outcast and the sinner. He never condoned evil. He did not condemn the wayward, but he always called them to a conversion.

At the beginning of this document, we are provided with four irreducible elements of Christian accompaniment in the context of terminal illness:

  • A commitment to be the patient’s companion during this last phase of their life.
  • An understanding of the medical care that will assist the patient at this time.
  • An understanding and acceptance of the Church’s teaching about the sacred and intrinsic value of every human life and why euthanasia and suicide are wrong.
  • A readiness to provide appropriate forms of pastoral care as life nears its end.

In all our Catholic facilities, apart from the medical staff, there are pastoral care workers who are trained in the art of personal accompaniment. At the John Hunter Hospital, there are Chaplains who provide pastoral care to patients, their families and to the staff. All hospitals and aged-care facilities respond to requests for priests to be contacted to provide pastoral, spiritual and sacramental care. We are blessed in Australia to have a health system that recognises holistic care, especially when faced with end-of-life care. This care of the soul has pastoral companions entering into accompaniment, not on their own, but always with and for God, the Church and those who have entrusted their care to them.

This leads me to recall Fr Richard Shortall SJ, who spent a couple of years with us as our Missionary of Mercy. As he visited many parishes in his home on wheels, his mission was to sit with those who came and accompany them in their joys and hopes, their griefs and anxieties. Fr Richard was a blessing to us, and he is now a blessing to the people of New Zealand.

Please don’t forget that we are all God’s “missionaries of mercy”, called to be present to the other, journeying with them so they do not abandon the hope that our faith calls us to.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is Director Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.