Praying for the terminally ill


24 Jan 2024

Pope Francis asks that in February we pray that those with a terminal illness, and their families, receive the necessary physical and spiritual care and accompaniment.

For most of us our dying lies over the horizon of our lives. We know that it will come but do not think much about it. A single visit to the doctor, however, can change our lives and those of our families forever. To learn that an incurable illness will leave us only a short time to live shakes our lives, upsets our plans, saddens and perhaps impoverishes our families, and narrows our world. It affects all our relationships and priorities.

The reality that death comes to us all is the background of Pope Francis’ prayer intention for the terminally ill for February. When we face death, we need the support of our families and friends. To die alone and uncared for is a cruel end. If we are terminally ill both we and the people who love us, especially our families, need support as we grieve and adjust to a life of increasing helplessness and impending separation.

In Australia many hospitals offer specialised care to people who are terminally ill. They attend to the spirit as well as to the body, ensuring that people receive appropriate pain relief, are accompanied in their illness and are treated as persons not simply as the objects of care. In Catholic hospitals they will also have access to spiritual care and support based in Christian faith. Their dying is not only a journey through isolation and separation, but also one of accompaniment and encouragement. These hospices are places of hope and not of despair.

In Christian faith death with all its terrors is not the end but the beginning of a new and unimaginable life. Both in its pain and the hope associated with it our death echoes the death and rising of Jesus. In the funeral liturgy we pray that angels may receive and accompany us on our journey to God through death. We rightly grieve for our family and friends who die. We accompany them with our tears in their dying, and with hope for their life with God.

Part of the background to Pope Francis’ prayer is the increasing support in the Western world for the right of people to have their lives ended. This movement recognises the pain, depression and anxiety that can accompany illness and approaching death. It also sees life as something that we can choose, as our individual possession, rather than as a gift to be accepted with the support of the community. This is a large cultural change, one that may lead to imposing the duty on doctors and nurses to end people’s lives when requested. They will no longer be seen unequivocally as the custodians and savers of life but also as the dispensers of death. Life may become a commodity to be dispensed with when no longer seen as useful.

Pope Francis’ prayer sees life as a gift in its beginnings and endings, one to be treasured by the community. To accompany people who are dying honours their life as precious and their leaving it as a central part of life’s journey.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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