Palliative care speaks a universal language

Editor’s Note: Kathy Schmugge, director of the Office of Family Life for the Diocese of Charleston, attended a workshop in Rome about palliative care and how it applies to every region, and every religion or belief.

Titled “Palliative Care: Everywhere & by Everyone”, it was held in Rome Feb. 28 through March 1. She interviewed Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, in Vatican City.

What created the increased interest in the discussion of palliative care?

It is more urgent now because the Western landscape is chang­ing very fast. Human life span is longer, and the end of life period is longer too, with many health problems and more needs for this growing population. Sometimes there is loneliness, and with tech­nology increasing, there is less focus on the person.

Palliative care needs to be seen as a vocation and a specialized discipline of study. We need to go deeper into the understanding of this vocation, so we can develop a culture of accompaniment. It would involve physicians, health­care providers, families, friends and pastors working together in order to fight loneliness, solitude, and pain during one’s end of life. It will take everyone working to­gether to fight against the loneli­ness and pain that can come with dying.

If we accompany the person who is sick, then the suicide rate for this population should go down. For the person who is seriously ill, they may feel that the pain and loneliness are worse than death, which makes them vulnerable. That is why the acad­emy wants to promote the pallia­tive care to society, so euthanasia will be unthinkable and unac­ceptable.

What is the difference between euthanasia and palliative care?

It is clear that euthanasia is wrong because it intentionally ends life, whereas palliative care accompanies life to the end. With palliative care, there is a team of people who are attentive to the needs of the person who is sick and the needs of his or her family. Palliative care cannot necessarily cure the terminal illness, but it can cure loneliness and pain.

What is the church’s role in palliative care?

We must promote a culture of accompaniment to all believers and the church should have a special involvement with those who are sick. We must attend to their needs, but especially their spiritual needs through friend­ship and tenderness.

When I visit hospitals, many pa­tients are by themselves because their family, for various reasons, are unable to be present. What is the church’s responsibility?

It is important to emphasize the responsibility of the family, friends, the community of believ­ers, and anyone who is associated with the sick to do their part. We are to promote the fraternity, the closeness and participation of everyone. We, the people of the church, must rediscover the min­istry of consolation at the end of life. Because the end of life is per­haps the most delicate moment and it is difficult to deal with it alone. We need to be there and to be awake to the needs of others.

To use a scriptural example, the church must try to convince Peter, James and John to stay awake with Jesus during his ago­ny in the Garden of Gethsemane. In order to reach this goal, we have to learn how to take the sick person by the hand in love.

How do we achieve a common vocabulary with diverse cultures and religions?

We have a common humanity and when we speak about this humanity, we can rediscover our brotherhood. We must look for the little light, the spark that draws us together. Our fraternity has a universal language in acts of love.

Even with different ideologies, different theologies, different sci­ence, we can immediately under­stand friendship, kindness and our common fraternity. If we can globalize the market and global­ize many other things, we should be able to globalize fraternity. Disease finds a way out of our difference and moves us out of indifferences calling us to true compassion.

What is your hope for this conference?

My dream is to multiply meet­ings like this one on palliative care all around the world. It is important to promote these meetings right now so to increase awareness about the importance of the end of life and to promote the culture of accompaniment for people who are dying. We also must be clear in our definitions. We must avoid confusion and be clear on the goals of palliative care which is never about stop­ping life. With palliative care we accompany life into the natural end. Pallio in Latin means to cloak. We are to cloak the people who are sick with our love and our friendship.