The month of November, which begins with the celebration of the companion feasts of the Solemnity of All Saints and All Souls Day, offers a time for our community of faith to pray in a special way for those who have passed to eternal life. As we remember the saints in heaven, and the souls of all those who have gone before us, this time of year also offers us an opportunity to consider important questions we might face at the hour of our own or a loved one’s death.
On a spiritual level, we pray that our journey of faith each day will lead us to a deeper awareness that this life on earth is transitory, and that our true selves will not be fully revealed until we have passed through death into eternity with God. As we more fully grasp this essential reality, we see more clearly the truth of Pope Francis’ words: “Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
Whether death comes unexpectedly or at the end of a long and full life, it is important for us to consider not only the spiritual dimension of death, but to think in a very practical way about how we would want the circumstances of our death to reflect our deepest beliefs. Given the extraordinary advances in modern medicine, not only do we live longer, but even at the end stages of life, we often have available the means to prolong life far beyond what would have been possible in past generations.
Increasingly, these advances also present the challenge of making difficult and nuanced decisions about the provision or withdrawal of medical treatments. These decisions are best made when we have taken the time beforehand to think through our end-of-life directives, to allow the principles of our faith to guide these decisions, and to share and even document our directives with our loved ones.
Church teaching is clear that no one should suffer needlessly during a prolonged illness or at the end of life. All patients deserve proper pain management and palliative care. But there are certain choices that can never be morally acceptable, most notably practices such as euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, that involve deliberately administering or providing the means to end a patient’s life. Such actions, even when motivated by a desire to end suffering, are a direct affront to one of the most basic tenets of our faith – that the gift of life comes from God, and that no one can, in any circumstance, claim the right to destroy directly an innocent human being (Evangelium Vitae 53).
As a means of encouraging and assisting Catholics in Maryland in addressing these important considerations, we are pleased to announce several documents prepared by the Maryland Catholic Conference about the church’s rich teaching regarding end-of-life issues.
These include a recently revised version of our 2007 document “Comfort and Consolation,” which outlines the foundational principles of the church’s approach to the care of the sick and dying, and can be found at www.mdcathcon.org/publications. The website also offers a summary Question and Answer brochure outlining the main points of “Comfort and Consolation,” and a brochure providing practical advice for completing an advance directive that properly reflects Catholic principles. “Comfort and Consolation” and the advance directive brochure both include a Catholic Declaration for Health Care Decision-Making form that Catholics may use for documenting their end-of-life directives.
Illness and death – whether our own or that of a loved one – are issues many of us avoid thinking and talking about until they are immediately confronting us. Too often, we are unprepared for the questions that arise, and find ourselves making difficult decisions in the midst of a crisis, without the benefit of time and reflection. The purpose of these materials is to encourage Catholics to take that time now, before facing a crisis, so that when illness and death inevitably come, we can face them with the comfort and peace of understanding our faith, and knowing our Lord is there to embrace us in our hour of need.
Death, and through it, eternal life, await every human being. As Jesus often reminds us in the Gospels, we must “stay awake,” for we “know neither the day nor the hour.” [Matthew 26:13] Through the sacraments, prayer, and prudent judgments, we pray that we and our loved ones will be ready for the Lord to call us home at his appointed time.
Most Rev. William E. Lori
Archbishop of Baltimore
Donald Cardinal Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington
Most. Rev. W. Francis Malooly
Bishop of Wilmington