Since Christmas, there has been an almost daily focus in the media on those who wish to see the introduction of legislation for assisted suicide, euphemistically called ‘assisted dying’. Esther Rantzen is probably the best-known celebrity whose campaign has been widely received.
In contrast, Pope Francis’ prayer intention for February focuses on the care of those who are terminally ill and the importance of presence, care and prayer for those who are dying. He writes that we must distinguish between ‘incurable’ and ‘un-carable’ – there comes a point when illness is incurable but care is always needed and families must be supported in this: ‘families should not be left alone in these difficult moments… Their role is decisive… They need access to adequate means so as to provide appropriate physical, spiritual, and social support.’
Jesus was always close to the sick and healed them. The life of Jesus has led the hearts of countless Catholic healthcare professionals to be close to the sick, to treat, and care for them. Women and men religious have followed this vocation and founded Catholic hospitals around the world, nursing homes, and motivated many Christians to dedicate themselves to the care of the sick. A change in legislation about the end of life would threaten their work. Those doctors not wishing to participate in prescribing death would need to be able to object in conscience. The threat to the poor, the weak, those who may feel a burden, and those living with disability has been argued but seems unheard by many. Recently Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson was interviewed on Sky News (21/1/24) and argued that such legislation would increase the vulnerability of those living with disability and fundamentally alter the relationship between the individual and society.
Some of the news stories have described the fear of the terrible pain of a terminal illness. Palliative care is always developing to deal with new forms of pain and new variations of an illness. No one should die in pain and this form of medicine is constantly seeking new scientific advances to improve its art.
The suffering associated with being ill and the fear of dying are tangible realities. Relationships of pastoral and spiritual care can provide consolation and the support of Christ. Talking through one’s soul pain is an important step. The sacrament of the sick brings consolation, peace and healing to many people. It should not be delayed until death is imminent. It is a sacrament for the living. The preparation for death is a precious time when relationships can be healed and peace is found. Writing a will helps those who are left behind.
The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes brings us close to St Bernadette. This year’s papal message focuses on the importance of healing relationships. Pope Francis writes, ‘Brothers and sisters, the first form of care needed in any illness is compassionate and loving closeness. To care for the sick thus means above all to care for their relationships, all of them: with God, with others – family members, friends, healthcare workers – with creation and with themselves. Can this be done? Yes, it can be done and all of us are called to ensure that it happens. Let us look to the icon of the Good Samaritan (cf Lk 10:25-37), to his ability to slow down and draw near to another person, to the tender love with which he cares for the wounds of a suffering brother.’
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who carries the broken and wounded sheep on his shoulders. He offers consolation, compassion and hope. He is alternative to the choice to end one’s life with assisted suicide. He is present to the dying as they are accompanied by others on this journey. Just as Our Lady stood at the foot of the cross, we are called to stand close to the dying in prayer and closeness and ask Our Lady’s help.
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.
St Bernadette, pray for us.