Recently the Diocese of Parramatta co-hosted a series of online talks on Euthanasia with the Diocese of Broken Bay. Titled, “Euthanasia, Dying and the Dignity of the Human Person,” the talks focused on the theological, professional (Palliative Care), pastoral and legal aspects of the argument against the premature termination of life.
A follow up online talk is now planned for 13 September at 7.30pm. The talk will focus on a more foundational issue in the life of the Church – that of Gospel-centred care of the dying, which is threatened by a ‘euthanasia’ culture that seeks death, rather than life. The talks will be conducted by Deacon Michael Tan, a retired GP with 30 years experience, including a special interest in Palliative Care and Deacon Roderick (Rod) Pirotta, a Clinical Nurse Consultant specialising in the care of the Mental Health for the Older Person and Dementia.
Deacon Michael has written this reflection as an introduction to some of the issues that will be discussed at the talk.
The starting point – our vocation to care for the dying
The starting point for care, and foundational to our vocation to care for the sick and the dying is our baptism. Through our baptism, we are all called to care for one another, as well as for our neighbour in need. In an immediate and primary sense, this call may mean caring for sick and dying members of our own families. In this sense, we all have a role to play in caring for the sick and the dying. In another, more formal sense, we may have a vocation to care for the sick and the dying that is part of the health care ministry of the Church. While not everybody is involved formally and professionally in the health care ministry of the church, it is important to remember that there is a holistic communion of care within the totality of the health care ministry of the Church. While there are distinct dimensions of care (e.g. professional, pastoral and sacramental), these dimensions of care are not ends in themselves, but serve as means of care that is Gospel-centred, and is the expression of our vocation to care for the dying in the name of Christ.
The Health Care Ministry of the Church
In a secular sense, the Health Care Ministry of the Church is a response to broader issues related to human existence such as the nature of suffering, the fact of death and its meaning, how do we live in peace and hope in the face of death, and how do we approach being united with a community (i.e. communion of saints in a theological sense) of family and friends who have gone before us, as we too await those we love who may come after us – after our physical death. In this respect, the Catholic tradition has its particular foundational responses to these issues, which would be well known to those of us in the Catholic community.
In a formal sense, it may be useful to consider the Health Care Ministry of the Church as having Sacramental, Pastoral and Professional dimensions. While the Sacramental dimension includes the Sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick, the Pastoral dimension concerns the art and practice of accompaniment of the sick and dying. In addition, the Professional dimension concern the evidence-based skilful care of the sick and dying that is ethical, concerned for the other rather than oneself, and accountable to a wider constituency such as guardians of professional standards (e.g. professional colleges) and Government-mandated agencies (e.g. Health Care Complaints Commission). This is in contrast to the common understanding of ‘professional’ as merely technically skilful (e.g. a ‘professional’ criminal or a burglar who does a ‘professional’ job) or being paid for one’s work (e.g. an ‘amateur’ can win a professional golf tournament, but may be ineligible for the prize money).
The Sacramental, Pastoral and Professional dimensions of care
The Sacramental dimension of the Health Care ministry of the Church concerns the ways in which Jesus continues to reach out, and be present to the sick and dying with his mercy and compassionate love. In the Eucharist, the real presence of Jesus enters into communion with the recipient, whose prayer is that even though they are not worthy, they rest in the healing word and reception of Jesus. In reconciliation, Jesus forgives the sins of the penitent through the ministry of the priest, and brings about the healing of the penitent through being reconciled with God. In the Anointing of the Sick, healing comes through the anointing with the oil of the sick.
The Pastoral dimension of the Health Care Ministry of the Church concerns the art and practice of the accompaniment of the sick and the dying. It is a means by which the Pastoral carer becomes available to the Risen Christ, the stranger who accompanies the other person, as that person makes their personal journey to Emmaus. On this journey, the disciples are joined by the stranger, and finally recognise him at the breaking of bread. In joining the sick and the dying as a stranger on the road, the pastoral carer allows the risen Christ to accompany the sick and the dying on their journey, where the Risen Christ respects the decision of the disciples to invite Him in at the end of the day. If they invite him in they will recognise him at the breaking of the bread. If not invited, the risen Christ walks on into the sunset.
The Professional dimension of the Health Care Ministry of the Church is related to care that is skilful and evidence-based. Professional care is care that is ethical, accountable, not self-centred but rather centred on the needs and the good of the other person who is dying. In an institutional sense, Catholic Health Australia represents a structure that witnesses to the Professional dimension of the Church’s Health Care ministry through its hospitals, aged-care facilities and hospices. At the same time, there are other Catholic Health Care professionals who work in private practice of the profession, and still others who work within the State’s public health units (e.g. the Local Health Districts in NSW). Professionals who either work in the public system or have a private practice are also part of the Health Care ministry of the Church by virtue of their vocation to care that arises from being baptised disciples of Jesus, called to proclaim the Good News of the healing ministry of Jesus in their professional work, and through their work, to minister healing to the sick and the dying.
In this way, the vocation to care for the dying is expressed in professional life, just as professional life, in turn, gives shape, form and history to one’s vocation. To take on one’s professional role in the health care ministry of the Church is in this sense to be intentional and missionary in one’s focus on caring for one’s patients (the sick and the dying) with the healing love of Jesus for our patients.
The follow-up session on Gospel-centred care of the dying in September will focus on the issues raised in this short reflection. All health care workers, especially those caring for the dying, are invited to join us in our exploration of the health care ministry of the Church in the care of the dying. At the same time, the session will also be open to anyone interested in the issue of formation for the health care ministry of the Church. I look forward to seeing you during the follow-up session, and thank you for your consideration and engagement with the issues raised by this reflection.
Deacon Michael Tan retired in 2015 from a 30-year career in General Practice with a special interest in community Palliative Medicine and teaching medical students and junior doctors in training for General Practice. He has a double Masters in Family Medicine and Theology, in addition to a Diploma in Professional Ethics. He has contributed to the curriculum development for the new University of Notre Dame Sydney School of Medicine in 2007. He was the inaugural President of the Blacktown Medical Practitioners Association as well as serving on the board of the Western Sydney Primary Health Network from 2007 to 2012. He has also been on the New South Wales Palliative Care Network Executive from 2008 until 2014. He has a long-term interest in the formation of Health care professionals and was ordained to the permanent diaconate by Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, on 11 June 2021.
Deacon Roderick (Rod) Pirotta is a Clinical Nurse Consultant working with the Aged Care Assessment Team (ACAT) for the last 13 years in the Nepean Blue Mountain Local Health District. He specialises in the care of the Mental Health for the Older Person and Dementia and worked in this area since his arrival in Australia in 1991. Deacon Roderick also worked in Ireland and England for few years. Deacon Roderick was the Manager of several Aged Care Facilities in Sydney and Specilised Units for clients with Behaviour and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia (BPSD). His qualifications include Master of Nursing and Master of Arts in Theology. As part of his work, Deacon Roderick supervises and teaches many nurses, allied health and medical students in the care and dying of people with dementia. He was ordained to the permanent diaconate by Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, on 22 February 2019.
The free online talk Gospel-centred care of the dying – the Health Care Ministry of the Church in the care of the dying will be held at 7.30pm on 13 September 2021. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org and you will receive a Zoom link.