By Dr. Paul Fiacco and Father Charles Vavonese
Special to the Catholic Sun
Editor’s note: This is the conclusion of the series of articles that explained and explored the Church’s teachings on end-of-life and palliative care issues.
Dr. Paul Fiacco is the president and medical director of CNY AIM, a St. Joseph Health clinically integrated network (CIN), and the medical director of the Trinity Health Integrated Care ACO. He is also a full-time family physician at CNY Family Care in East Syracuse and is a parishioner at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt.
Father Charles Vavonese is a retired priest of the Diocese of Syracuse, and was the author of “I Am the Resurrection and the Life,” a resource booklet dealing with end-of-life moral issues which is no longer available. He currently serves patients receiving palliative care as the chaplain for the St. Joseph Health Mobile Integrated Services Team. In addition, he assists on weekends at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt.
St. Marianne Cope in the 1800s pioneered the combination of spiritual care and medical care as a holistic approach to the difficulties of end-of-life moral and medical issues. She modeled this comprehensive care with its emphasis on compassion, now known as palliative care, as an integral dimension of medical and spiritual care for the end of life. Palliative care is fully consistent with the Catholic moral tradition because it provides compassionate care for patients with serious illness and their families. As such, it is a powerful alternative to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
Pope Francis voiced his affirmation for palliative care when he stated, “Palliative care is an expression of the truly human attitude of taking care of one another, especially of those who suffer” (Address to participants in the Plenary of the Pontifical Academy for Life, March 2015) and “even if we know that we cannot always guarantee healing or a cure, we can and must always care for the living, without ourselves shortening their life, but also without futilely resisting their death. This approach is reflected in palliative care, which is proving most important in our culture, as it opposes what makes death most terrifying and unwelcome — pain and loneliness” (Message to participants in the European Regional Meeting of the World Medical Association, November 2017).
Further, at an international congress on palliative care in 2018, Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, reinforced this position, when he shared, “Experience has shown that people who support or request euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide focus on the fears: that of being abandoned and that of pain. Palliative care addresses these two needs by treating pain and other forms of suffering, and providing a caring environment where patients are prepared for and supported as they deal with the progression of their disease through the end of their lives. Such efforts offer a powerful alternative to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.”
As technology has advanced our medical care, it began to focus on a cure-based system. Technology has led to many advances and has given us the ability to prolong life. However, we will all be faced with inevitable death and, as we approach this, medical care needs to embrace its spiritual roots, recognizing that health care essentially began with the compassion of Christ. Palliative care involves serving the whole person — the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, who developed Commonweal Cancer Help Program retreats, writes, “Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul” (Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. New York: Riverhead Books; 1997).
The word compassion means “to suffer with”; therefore, if our health care system is to provide compassionate care it requires partnership with patients’ suffering rather than experts dictating information to them. The challenge is to help people find meaning and acceptance in the midst of chronic illness and eventual death. When a cure for an illness is not possible, healing can be experienced as acceptance of an illness and being at peace with one’s life. This healing only can be achieved by religious and spiritual care.
Providing a community-based palliative care program offers a rich opportunity for the collaboration of Church and hospital systems to improve the quality of life for patients with serious illnesses and their families. This integration of medical and spiritual care becomes the foundation needed to celebrate the dignity and worth of each human life.
We conclude with the following prayer, adapted from the Catholic Health Association:
Let us pray…
God of Life and death, you became human, accompanied us, shared our joy, and know our pain,
Be with those who suffer physically, mentally, or emotionally,
Give us the courage and grace to draw near to those who suffer,
offering our support and loving presence.
May our solidarity and witness affirm the beauty and value of each human life.