by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The month of November begins with the solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day).
These feasts invite us to remember in prayer those who have died. On All Saints Day we give thanks for the legions of saints who have gone before us, providing us with an inspiring example of living our Catholic faith with fidelity and heroism.
On All Souls Day, we remember the many true disciples of Jesus who have died and are destined for heaven, but in God’s merciful love are in the process of being purified of imperfections so that they will be capable of enjoying the fullness of life that Our Lord has gained for them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the following succinct description of this ancient belief: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (no. 1030)
Purgatory is a beautiful element of our Catholic faith. It is an acknowledgment that God’s mercy for us reaches beyond the grave. God desires to purify our hearts — not to punish us, but to prepare us to be able to experience the abundant life he desires for us. Purgatory is an expression of the mercy of God, removing from us our lingering vices and, at the same time, increasing the capacity of our hearts to enjoy heaven.
In our prayers for the dead, God allows us to love, in a meaningful way, those who have died. In prayer we can accompany them during this process of purification and, in God’s economy, somehow we are able to lighten their burden.
Both All Saints Day and All Souls Day remind us of our own mortality. They remind us — whether we are given 10 years of life in this world or 100 — in comparison to eternity, it is a very brief portion of our existence. Life in this world is to prepare us for eternal life. We are foolish, indeed, if we live in such a way that we ignore the inevitability of our death. We need to recognize that the choices we make in this world are important because they have eternal consequences.
It is only natural that at some level we “fear death,” in that it requires us to leave behind friends and family as well as all else that is familiar. Yet, if we believe in the resurrection of Jesus and that through the waters of baptism we have been given a share in his life — eternal life — we no longer view death as an enemy robbing us of existence, but rather the doorway admitting us to the fullness of life with God. If we have spent our life in this world cultivating our friendship with Jesus, then, as sad as it is to leave behind those we love and cherish in this world, we will have developed a genuine longing to be with Our Lord and the saints.
The advances in medicine in the last 50 years have extended both life expectancy and enhanced the quality of life for Americans. Still, death is inevitable. Many will reach a moment when medicine can no longer heal them.
Last week, I wrote about the moral obligation to provide everyone, even if they are seriously debilitated, with the basic necessities of life — e.g., food and water. This is part of basic comfort care.
On the other hand, there is no moral obligation to continue medical therapies that have little or no hope of benefiting us. There comes a time, for many of us, when we must face the reality that no medication, no surgery and no therapy are able to heal us. Our final months or weeks in this world are best spent not continuing medical treatments that are futile, because their side effects can actually impede us from spending our final days fully present as possible to God and the people we love.
The term “hospice” and the word “hospitality” both are derived from
the same Latin root. During medieval times, a hospice was a place of shelter and rest, usually provided by a religious community, for weary travelers. Even today there are “hospices” in Europe and the Holy Land that provide lodging for pilgrims.
In recent years, hospice has taken on a new meaning. It is the holistic (physi- cal, emotional, and spiritual) care for an individual who is approaching death.
Hospice care provides a “place” of shelter, comfort and rest for a person who is near the end of life’s journey in this world. Hospice provides care not only to the dying patient, but also spiritual and emotional support to family members who are struggling with the imminent death of a loved one.
The purpose of authentic hospice care is not to hasten death. In fact, there are studies that indicate hospice patients live longer than those with comparable conditions who choose other care options. Hospice care attempts to preserve the dignity of the dying by providing them with care that surrounds the patient with love, manages pain, provides the maximum physical comfort, calms fears, fosters communication with loved ones, and integrates faith and prayer into every dimension of the person’s environment.
However, it is important for Catholics to be assured that hospice providers respect and adhere to Catholic moral principles. For families living in the Kansas City metro area, the option for Catholic hospice is available through Catholic Community Hospice, a ministry of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. As an archdiocesan ministry, the staff embraces the church’s ethical teachings and works in close collaboration with the patient’s physician and parish priest.
Catholic Community Hospice serves people of all faiths and provides each person and his or her family with a team of professionals that support them through the joys and sorrows experienced at the end of life. The staff of Catholic Community Hospice is made up of professionally competent men and women of great faith and compassion who see their work as a ministry. There is no better way to leave this world than in an environment where all the comforts of our Catholic faith are available to us and we are surrounded by the people we love.