In my last blog post, I described my own faith journey and how I came to view the faith dimensions of ministering to the sick and dying, and by extension the crucial importance of good advance care planning as one of the most practical and important missions of the faith community and its leaders. Let’s resume with reasons 3-5.
Reason 3: Ministering to the “least among us”
Many faith traditions privilege preferential love and compassion for the “least among us,” those made vulnerable by difficult life circumstances. The human experience of death and dying certainly confronts faith communities with what I would argue is the most dramatic (and universal) encounter with human suffering and vulnerability. This places on people of faith a moral obligation to reach out and attend to those at life’s end with a special solicitude, and as compassion and love truly exist only inasmuch as they find practical and concrete expression in action, any response must involve an organized and thought-out “strategy of compassion” that anticipates as well as possible the complex and sometimes fearful choices modern medicine confronts us with at the end of life. Such hands-on, concrete expressions of love flowing from within a living faith community serve powerfully to humanize and spiritualize what otherwise can become a depersonalized, bureaucratic and heartless process.
Reason 4: Faith communities are “families of families”
Faith traditions place strong emphasis on the essential role of community, and especially of family, as the privileged context within which each man and woman is to give and receive loving support and care. Faith communities, because of their unique appreciation and support of the value of family life, can offer a strong impetus for helping to gather, counsel, strengthen and walk with families through the experience of death and dying. In particular, because every faith community is really a “family of families,” they offer an already-existing and powerful support matrix for individual families at the very time they need it most. Additionally, as many families face painful situations of internal strife and dysfunction – realities often made more evident in times of crisis – a faith community’s insistent invitation to reconciliation and forgiveness can offer a welcome “balm of healing” that frequently can be found nowhere else. And inasmuch as faith leaders – using a tool like Five Wishes – can help people in very practical ways to identify their own hopes, fears and desires in regard to how they wish to address such realities at life’s end, they offer a gift of inestimable and lasting value.
Reason 5: Enabling a “good death”
Faith traditions have the capacity to profoundly inform the way the faithful judge the personal meaning of ethical choices that medical science frequently presents us with at the end of life. These traditions offer more or less coherent accounts of ethical values that, if brought to bear, can bring needed clarity and a sense of peace in navigating questions such as the use of life sustaining treatments, food and hydration, or palliative care. The proactive and practical involvement of faith leaders in encouraging advance planning, as well as careful ethical reflections on the many “what ifs” that medical technology, often without warning, present us with, is undoubtedly crucial. Such thought-out planning helps the faithful apply their own beliefs to the end of life, and makes it more likely that they will experience death as an event of faith, as a “good death” lived to the end with fitting dignity.
In my experience at Gift of Peace, all five of these dimensions of faith’s intersection with death and dying came into play. That man with HIV-AIDS rediscovered faith at the end of his life, with that faith a renewed sense of meaning, dignity, love and compassion. He discovered there the power of a “faith family” with an ethical vision of medical care that honored his right to be loved and cared for in life and in death. Without that community of faith, without the Missionaries of Charity, I suspect he would have died on the streets without the hope that God desires for all His children, especially the most vulnerable. Our communities of faith, armed with Five Wishes, can offer the faithful a practical, faith-friendly and dignified approach to life’s end, putting divine compassion into action.
Tom Neal, PhD is Academic Dean and professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and author of the popular blog Neal Obstat.