Speaking in his homily at a Mass for the Sick at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday, Archbishop Vincent Nichols reflected on death and suffering in health care. He advocated a culture of “true compassion and healing” that does not fear death but prepares for it with prayer, the sacraments, and “daily abandonment to God.”
Attendees at the Mass included people with various medical conditions, their caregivers, hospital chaplains and health care workers.
The Archbishop of Westminster began by thanking God for “the gifts of life and faith.”
Noting that the Mass honored Our Lady of Lourdes, he said pilgrimages to Lourdes and elsewhere are occasions when faith is strengthened and the sense of the true value of life is enhanced.
He praised the “splendid sentiments” of the January 2009 Constitution of the National Health Service, which said the organization “respond[s] with humanity and kindness to each person’s pain, distress, anxiety or need” and searches for ways to give comfort and to relieve suffering.
Archbishop Nichols said these aims are often fulfilled in NHS hospitals. However, at times they are not because of individual attitudes and the “prevailing culture” of institutions that impairs proper care.
“A culture of true compassion and healing fosters a deep respect and attentive care of the whole person, it promotes genuine care characterized by a sense of humility, a profound respect for others, and a refusal to see them as no more than a medical or behavioral problem to be tackled and resolved. To care in this way is a gift of oneself to another. And, as with all true giving, the giver also receives.”
Rejoicing in Christian faith, the archbishop said, makes clear the “very fundamental truth” that each person has a God-given dignity and “a quality of life in relationship to God that can never be reduced to its external human behaviors.
“From the outside a life might seem restricted, reduced or burdensome,” the archbishop noted. “But from within, where the love and comfort of God is experienced, that same life might well be rich in both experience and promise.”
Archbishop Nichols spoke of Christ’s miracle at the Wedding of Cana and his words at the Last Supper: “I shall not drink wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in the kingdom of my Father.” (Mt 26:29)
The archbishop described this as the promise of life after death and the fullness of life which “flows from the death of Christ.”
It is from this perspective that death must be viewed, he commented, noting controversies over assisted suicide; fears of unrelieved suffering and loss of control; fears of overly aggressive medical treatment; and fears of under-treatment or neglect.
“We do not know how to deal with death. But fear cannot be our guide,” Archbishop Nichols stated.
He cited the Bishops of England and Wales’ recent document which said that respecting life and accepting death must be priorities in end-of-life care.
“We should never try to bring about death,” they wrote, but accepting death means that we should prepare properly and not “flee from the inevitable.”
“A religious person will see both life and death as coming from God,” the bishops added, describing each human being as “more than a bundle of genes and actions.”
The bishops said a “reductionist” mode of operating health care is a “hidden violence” in the system, stressing that death cannot be reduced to a “clinical event.”
Instead, Archbishop Nichols added, the “spiritual being of every person” must be central to health care, especially at the time of death.
“This moment is central to our pilgrim journey. We practice for it, day by day, rehearsing our final act of trust with smaller daily acts of abandonment to God, in prayer, in kindness towards others, and in our sacramental life.”
In the face of illness, he said, we are confident that the prayer of the Church is “the prayer of Christ himself who carries to the ear of his attentive Father the sincere prayers of each one of us today.”