In the month of November, we pray in a particular way for the dead. It is also the perfect time for us to reflect on the end of life and some questions that many may have-- questions such as: when should we have a person anointed? does the Church allow the use of nursing homes? what are the best ways to help someone grieve? is cremation allowed? and so on.
During the next three weeks, I am going to offer a three-part series of homilies that will touch on these very topics.
As we and the people we love grow older, we find that we are faced with many difficult decisions. About hospitals, about nursing homes, about how we are to best care for our loved ones.
So, for example, it is often the case that want our parents at home-- whether with us or independently on their own. Sometimes, however, this seems like it just isn't possible. So, first, know that the Church is with you as you make this very difficult decision. You're not alone in this.
The principles that guide us here are two-fold: first, is my loved safe at their/my home? Are they falling more often? Are things going into the microwave that shouldn't be? If safety is an issue, then it is ok to pursue the nursing home option. Do not feel guilty about this-- there are some circumstances where we ourselves cannot provide the safety our loved ones need. Another principle is that of medical care: is my loved one able to receive adequate medical care at my/their home? Sometimes this medical care is impossible to give at your or their house. In such a case, it is ok to pursue the nursing home option-- and maybe even advisable.
If we must bring our loved one to such a home, yes, there will need to be a change in the relationship: we will need to make more of an effort to visit. We want to honor our father and mother as the commandment requires.
Sometimes, as our loved ones grow older, they may be quicker to anger, impatience, childish ways and so on. Some of us can sympathize: when our bodies break down, it's painful. And when we are in pain, it's harder to be joyful and patient. So, too, when we get older, our brains-- which are an organ just like the heart-- starts to break down and we do things that we didn't use to do. If we see any of these in our parents, it is very tough to see. It is tough especially to be patient with someone who is angry. To all of this, we come to our Lord and ask for a greater generosity-- for our parents once took care of us when we were childish, impatient, and a struggle.
So, to repeat: we must lovingly care for others even and especially when it seems inconvenient. But if it is a safety issue or a matter of being able to get adequate medical treatment, our care must be assisted by others and this may include the nursing home.
Along those lines, I hear many people-- old and young alike-- say something like: "I don't want to be an inconvenience on anybody." Ok, I get that. You love them and so you don't want to burden others.
But here's the thing: sometimes you need to be an inconvenience. What mean by that is: our culture needs to be inconvenienced. It's how God breaks others free from selfishness and it's how he trains them to love. I know we don't want to be an inconvenience, but sometimes God turns us into an inconvenience-- when we were younger, we were told to carry the Cross; when we are older, sometimes God turns us into the Cross that other people are being called to carry. So, it's ok to be an inconvenience-- so in it that God is using you to train others how to love.
I mention all of that because our culture often uses that line as a reason to euthanize the elderly and vulnerable.
So, for example, I spend a lot of time at hospitals visiting patients. I've spoken with a lot of doctors and nurses. (My siblings are in the medical field and I have a great love for doctors and nurses). Some docs will play on that "I don't want to be a burden" line when an illness is particularly difficult. The doctor will say: "Your [relative/friend] will not have a good quality of life."
Beware of that line. The doctor may be good intentioned here, trying to save your relative or friend from pain-- and the doctor may be trying to save you from "being inconvenienced" at having to care for a person that needs caring. But here's the thing: the line "your friend will not have a good quality of life" is not actually an ethical reason to withhold medical treatment.
If you hear that line, a red flag should immediately go up in your brain. And you should ask to see a priest immediately before any more medical decisions are made.
Whether or not medical treatment is withheld is not based on whether something becomes a "burden." (Christians carry Crosses for love all the time, after all). The ethical question is whether a medical treatment is "ordinary medical care" or "extraordinary medical care." That's what you need to be listening for: such and such is ordinary medical care or extraordinary medical care. If you don't hear that, ask for a priest.
As an aside: it is important to know the difference between ordinary and extraordinary care. That's what's going to determine whether or not, for example, a ventilator can be removed. Such a discussion would require more time than this homily allows. So, for now, I point you to our bulletin. There, you will see that there is a very important seminar coming up on this very topic. The seminar will be held close by and I highly, highly encourage all here to attend.
When death is much closer-- and whether we are at the hospital or at home with hospice-- we will probably here the line: "We're doing everything we can to make [her] comfortable." When you hear this line, ask what it means: how are you making her comfortable?
I say this because, yes, I want people to be comfortable, but we have to be very careful: it is becoming more prevalent in end-of-life care that people are using morphine to make patients comfortable-- and I've seen it happen where too much morphine is given. If morphine is the cause of death (and it is happening that such is the case), then the patient has been euthanized! We can't do that.
And I also want to see a patient before morphine is administered-- because, often, the morphine renders the patient nearly comatose and I need to speak with the patient. You see, as a priest, I am keenly aware that there are two kinds of comfort: physical and spiritual. And I can tell you, from seeing hundreds of people at the hour of their death, that spiritual pain can be much more agonizing. It has many times happened where a patient is very agitated about something and everyone thinks it's bodily pain. But I come in and I talk with them and we do reconciliation and suddenly they are much calmer. You see: the soul knows when it is dying, when it's near the end of life-- and he knows, too, when he is not right with God.
If a doc or nurse says "we're doing everything to make them comfortable," you should immediately ask: "So you have called the priest, then?"
Call me! This is why we exist: to bring peace to the soul before they die.
This brings us to Anointing of the Sick. Anointing is a Sacrament and sacraments are for the living. I can't anoint someone when they are dead. At that point, I can only pray for them as we do in this month of the dead.
So, if you can, call me-- do not wait until something is "very grave" before you call the priest. Call him before that. And if you can't reach him at the rectory, there are always priests on call through the Catholic hospital-- the information desk or the chaplain there will be able to track one down.
People often ask when they can be anointed. Simply: it is when you are dying or in danger of death. So, it is not for when you have a cold or if you have been moody for a month. The illness must be graver than that. However, it is true that if you are going in for surgery and "going under," then, yes, you can be anointed.
This sacrament will strengthen you and bring you healing. It really does help. More can be said here, but I wish to spend my last minutes telling you a story.
I was once called into a hospital room for an emergency anointing-- the person was going to die. She was an older woman with children and grandchildren. When she checked into the hospital, she was lucid enough to respond to the question about what religion and said "Catholic." When the nurses knew she wasn't going to make it, the hospital called me. It was very late at night.
I entered the hospital room where she was and there were her children and grandchildren. I received a cold reception. I had a hunch that no one was Catholic here (a shepered can tell his sheep). The woman had slipped into a coma, so I asked the family if she was Catholic. They thought so.
I walked over to her and spoke to her (oftentimes, hearing is the last sense to go). I told her I was a Catholic priest and I took her hand. I asked her if she was sorry for her sins and, if she was, to squeeze my hand if she could. I felt a little-- very, very little-- but nevertheless a little squeeze.
I anointed her and gave her the last rites of the Church, giving her all of the graces that Jesus wants for the soul before she meets him. It was very beautiful. Some of the children and grandchildren perceived this and were weepy.
I turned to them and asked if any of them were Catholic. None were. I told them that what I just did was an incredible grace that not every person receives. To have a priest at one's bedside-- and therefore to have Jesus and Mary-- it's a great gift.
One of the children interrupted me: "Her mom was Catholic. She used to pray the Rosary all the time for her children."
"Ah. There it is" I said to myself. What the children and grandchildren didn't realize was that their dying mom/grandma was receiving this grace because her mom had prayed for her.
This has happened so many times that I am totally convinced: if you pray the Rosary for your children, even if they are away from the Church, God and Mary will give them every chance at the hour of their death to receive everything needed to get to heaven. After all, what do we say in the Hail Mary?
"Pray for us sinners now ... and at the hour of our death."
Yes, it is so important to pray the Rosary for our children!
We've covered a lot this morning. The Church knows we face difficult decisions in these times. But she is with us. It is really beautiful and it really makes me proud to be a Catholic to see our Mother Church bring great comfort and wisdom in these times and to stand up for the dignity of the elderly and infirm.
If you are facing any of these difficult decisions, know that we are with you and are praying for you.
For ourselves and our families, let us pray for a happy death-- that is, that when we die, we may be right with God and enter into His heavenly kingdom. To that end, I point you to St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death-- he is the patron because he died in the arms of Jesus and Mary.
What more could any of us want? That is the greatest comfort, isn't it?
Ok, then. St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us! Mary Our Mother, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.