As a seminarian, studying the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, I remember being introduced to a wonderful article by theologian David Power titled ‘Let the sick man call’. In the article, Power notes that there is a holiness—a sacredness—that is experienced in a special way during illness and fragility: something of the mystery of God is revealed in the anguish of suffering.
Such a fundamental realisation of God’s presence with us in suffering, I think, can also open a way to consolation, and to thanksgiving for the blessings of life received and celebrated. As we often pray as part of our funeral rites, in death ‘life is changed but not ended.’ This rings true when we begin to reflect on our own experience of accompanying friends and family members in their last days, or of ministry to the sick and dying.
Paradoxically, we might say, the sick person ‘calls’ us to realise God’s presence and activity among us, and the hope that this realisation gives. The sick person—in the gift of God’s incarnate presence, which heals and redeems—witnesses to God-with-us, to Christ, living and active in the world. The sick person, Power says, ‘discovers God in a particular way and reveals this to the community’ that gathers around them. The sick person calls us.
I remember reflecting on this paradox—the vocation of the sick person to help reveal God’s presence to us—with excitement. It offered a whole new perspective on the extraordinary way that the sick person evangelises the community amid the sadness associated with dying and death.
Late last year, the Australian Catholic Bishops released To Witness and to Accompany with Christian Hope, a document that assists priests, chaplains and pastoral workers in their accompaniment of those who might be considering euthanasia. Consisting of three parts (the principles of the Church’s position on euthanasia; some considerations for family members, health care professionals and pastoral workers; and the responsibilities of ministers), the document opens by highlighting the foundations on which the Church’s moral teaching rests: the immense dignity and value of each person, made in the image of God, and the fact that we live in community—in relationship—with each other and with the world around us. ‘The life and death of each of us has its influence on others,’ the document says, quoting St Paul.
While Power invites us to recognise the sick person’s vocation—to see how they call us to a deeper realisation of God’s presence—To Witness and to Accompany with Christian Hope reminds the community to reflect on their call to do the same for the dying person: to witness to the hope that lies ahead, even in tension, and to accompany others, reminding them of the God who accompanies and never abandons them. The document, in a concrete way, invites us to see the other side of the paradox: the faith community’s vocation to give hope in the face of despair and anguish, and to live out the deep mutuality and interdependence that is at the heart of our identity as ‘Church’.
The document outlines the critical elements in witnessing and accompanying with Christian hope by first taking the lead from Pope Francis, who reminds us that by witnessing to the hope that God offers, we become instruments that can transform emptiness, despair and loneliness into new possibilities and perspectives. By gently witnessing to a road that offers hope, a joy is sown that has the ability to touch and to transform us, he says.
To Witness and to Accompany with Christian Hope captures the essence of what it is to ‘accompany’ another in pastoral care. It describes accompaniment, above all, as a commitment to be with another in their last days, and thus to be a living reminder of the hope that lies before us all, especially in the face of human struggle or uncertainty. Commitment, in its Latin root, means ‘to go or send with’,evoking a missionary or outward-reaching stance for the pastoral carer, minister or family member. In particular, the document underscores the foundation of the first task of this missionary commitment: to listen carefully to the story of the other. Ministry, is says, ‘requires a listening heart formed in prudence, understanding and receptivity to the Holy Spirit.’
Listening remains one of the simplest, yet hardest, interpersonal skills to master—even for the trained pastoral carer or minister to the sick! To listen carefully and attentively to another, however, is a great gift. It reminds them that they are not forgotten and that their unique story and life are important and have deep worth. Accompaniment through listening reminds the sick or dying person of a God who takes great interest in them as a beloved daughter or son; a God who has not forgotten them, especially in pain and suffering.
In listening to others, and being empathic in this relationship, the family member, carer or minister sustains the faith of the sick person in a deeply human and tangible way.
With skill, care and empathy, active listening opens up a ‘new world’ for the other. It has the power to awaken new insights, new perspectives and a renewed appreciation that we are not alone, a burden or unloved. Being listened to, fundamentally, frees us from the fear of the ‘unknown’ (and even a fear of the ‘known’), and offers a deep human and spiritual comfort in doing so. Jesuit priest and theologian Michael Paul Gallagher, in his 2016 book Into Extra Time, talks about the gift of being listened to in the final days of his natural death from cancer: ‘Never has faith seemed so real. This is not out of fear, but out of a discovery of the quiet reality of God with me in all this.’ In listening to others, and being empathic in this relationship, the family member, carer or minister sustains the faith of the sick person in a deeply human and tangible way.
At present, the practice termed ‘voluntary assisted dying’ (VAD) is now legal in all Australian states. The topic of accompanying friends and family considering euthanasia, and opening up the possibility of the sick or dying person seeing an alternative to this, thus becomes an important pastoral and human consideration. To Witness and to Accompany with Christian Hope acknowledges the deep tensions and strong—possibly conflicting—feelings that inevitably arise in death and dying. Further, it provides a support to the family member, pastoral carer and minister called to accompany and witness to a God who is present, especially amid suffering or pain, and offers a way to help them initiate the sick into the timeless message of the Good News, shedding light on a way ahead. The document, as well as offering guidance to the minister, helps to ensure the wellbeing and care of those called to work in the challenging space of being present with others in suffering and terminal illness. Indeed, this is a space that we need to commit to and exist in: we commit to ‘go forth’ to be with others because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was first sent to us. We reach out in mission to others because God first reached out to us.
We commit to ‘go forth’ to be with others because Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was first sent to us. We reach out in mission to others because God first reached out to us.
As a community called to be living reminders to others of God’s presence, and to commit to accompany and witness to this presence in our ministry and love for others, we find in To Witness and to Accompany with Christian Hope a timely support. It does not call us to a disengaged or superficial appreciation of the complexities and human struggle associated with accompanying the dying person, but invites the community to open a way forward that promises a new knowledge and felt closeness with God, even in the most difficult and apparently ‘hopeless’ times. The document earnestly impels us to commit to others with deep concern, care and empathy, equally conscious of the healing grace of God, which is ever-abounding. In dialogue with our cultural context, it reminds us to be instruments of hope in the world. As David Power reflects, our call as a community ‘is to stay with the sick through the journey … so that they will dodge nothing of the darkness and yet be sustained by the light of Christ which beckons.’
To Witness and to Accompany with Christin Hope invites us to live this call, and to experience the transformative power of Christ who is always with us.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)27 November 2023
Melbourne Catholic29 November 2023