‘How great a lie … to make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living!’ – Pope Francis
Kathleen, a much-loved grandmother, collapsed at home one Saturday morning and was rushed to hospital. Early signs pointed towards a stroke. The doctors talked about the next twenty-four hours being critical; it seemed like Kathleen might not even survive. The priest was called and Kathleen received the anointing of the sick. Doctors were talking about brain damage and whether interventions might be possible. Suddenly the family was faced with big questions. What would Kathleen have wanted and how could the Church help guide any decisions? How do we accept death when it comes and cherish life while we can?
There have been remarkable medical and technological advances so that the chronically ill can receive life-saving treatments. We can be truly thankful for such advances. And yet at some time or other we will all die. These same advances have led to more complex decision-making about appropriate treatment for those who are gravely ill.
At the end of life, there are two thoughts that can help guide us all.
The first is that we love life. Every person is loved by God and every life is a precious gift never to be destroyed or neglected. It is wrong to hasten or bring about death. God will call us in his own good time.
The second is that we accept death. This means there is no obligation to pursue medical treatment when it no longer serves its purpose – that is when treatment is having no effect or indeed harming the patient.
We need to prepare to face life-threatening crises. Ideally these difficult and important decisions need to be faced with others – our spouse, our siblings, our extended family members. The family, after all, should be the privileged place where mutual support and understanding occurs.
Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made and the views of family and experts should be taken into account. In such situations these two basic questions can guide our decisions:
- is this decision loving life?
- is this decision accepting the inevitability of death?
Depending on the situation we should seek ways to answer yes to both, as life itself is a gift from God, and death but the gateway to new life with him.
- Click here to read the Day for Life 2015 Irish text
- Click here to read the Day for Life 2015 Polish text
Click here to read an article by Bishop Brendan Leahy on Day for Life 2015 from this month’s Intercom magazine.
Prayer for a good death, the intercession of St Joseph:
O blessed Joseph,
who breathed your last in the arms of Jesus and Mary,
obtain for me this grace:
that I may breathe forth my soul in praise,
saying in spirit, if I am unable to do so in words:
‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give Thee my heart and my soul.’
Day for Life Prayer
Holy Mary, Mother of Love,
holding in your arms, the fruit of your womb,
graciously look upon our earth and remove from it
all that hardens our hearts and dims our eyes
to the preciousness of human life,
from the moment of conception to natural death.
Through the example of your tenderness
teach us the ways of compassion and love
that we may build up the civilisation of love among us
and a society that is truly worthy of the human person.
Help us to reject all that contributes to a culture of death,
and to work with others of goodwill
in promoting the culture of life.
Bring us ever closer to your Son,
so that we may know the fullness of life that he offers us
and come to know that life more perfectly,
with you, and all the angels and saints,
in the eternal life of Heaven.
- Prayer of the Faithful
The psalmist sings praise for the providence of God who gives us food in due season and who grants our desires. Confident that he hears our prayers, let us turn to him for our needs and the needs of all of us created in his image and likeness:
For the Church, the Body of Christ. That through our words and deeds, and by a ‘preferential love for the sick’ (i) , we may proclaim the compassion of God, who is always close to those who suffer. Lord in your mercy…
For those who are exiled by conflict or by poverty. That they may be restored to a homeland and that we, who ourselves have no abiding city, may recognise them as our brothers and sisters. (ii) Lord in your mercy…
For the healing of those who are sick in mind or in body. That they might be restored to health and give God thanks in the midst of his people. (iii) Lord in your mercy…
For those who care for our brothers and sisters who are dying. That they may alleviate their pain and strengthen them in hope, and so enable them to both cherish life and to accept death. Lord in your mercy…
For the faithful departed. That, having laid down their burdens and washed clean in the blood of the lamb, they may be led by Christ the Good Shepherd into pastures eternal. Lord in your mercy… Lord God, whose days are without end and whose mercies beyond counting, keep us mindful that life is short and the hour of death unknown. Let your Spirit guide our days on earth in the ways of holiness and justice, that we may serve you in union with the whole Church, sure in faith, strong in hope, perfected in love. And when our earthly journey is ended, lead us rejoicing into your kingdom, where you live for ever and ever. (iv)
(References: i CC1503 ii cf Mass for Refugees and Exiles, RM1364 iii cf. Collect, Mass for the Sick, RM1378 iv Concluding Prayer for Committal at a Crematorium, Order of Christian Funerals)
- A reflection on Cherishing Life, Accepting Death
Throughout his life Dave was an active member of his local church, their caravan club and the Scouts. Supported by his family and by his friends he died last year after a long and disfiguring struggle with mouth cancer. He was one of those remarkable people who, through their lives, teach us about the power and depth of God’s love. He was not afraid of death: he had a gift of faith such that he saw clearly that God had loved and chosen him and had prepared a place for him in heaven. As much as he desired to be with the Lord, he loved and cherished every day that was given to him to be with his family and friends and to continue to help others through his voluntary work in the church and the Scouts.
Dave and his family showed remarkable courage in the way he faced his illness. He reminds me that to be a disciple is called to accept the paradox of loving life and accepting death. During his illness he had to face difficult decisions about whether or not to accept various treatments and finally, when they could sustain him no longer to prepare for his death. His example reminds me that Jesus walks with us in illness and that whatever the circumstances we are called to pray and place our trust in God. Sometimes this is difficult and God seems very distant. Faith is about holding on in the darkness. Although the journey may be stormy, we can hope in the promise of God that he waits to welcome us into the joy of heaven.
Those people who cherish life and accept death in their final weeks or months on earth have a special place in God’s plan and in communicating his love to us. As our brothers and sisters in need they call us to a ministry of compassion and friendship in their suffering. Through our presence the compassionate God is revealed to them and our faith and hope are strengthened by their witness. Through their presence among us, through their faith and hope, God draws our attention to the great blessing of the life to come. Their example offers us hope as they look forward to the resurrection whilst living through the cross.
Fr Jonathan How, Director of Studies, St John’s Seminary, Wonersh.