REGINA — The Catholic bishops of Saskatchewan have released three documents offering insights, reflections and guidelines about death, dying and pastoral care in an era of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Sent to pastors and parishes and posted on diocesan and eparchial websites, the documents include a pastoral letter (Living Through Our Dying), a reflection (Jesus: the Word Who is Life), and a set of guidelines for priests, deacons and laity providing pastoral care to the sick and dying.
The three texts were released Feb. 6, 2017 — exactly two years after the Supreme Court decision that struck down the ban on physician assisted suicide and euthanasia. The new reality came into effect across the country when Bill C-14 received royal assent in June 2016.
“Priests and chaplains now face the possibility that they will be called to offer pastoral care in complex and painful situations where people are considering or have chosen euthanasia or physician assisted suicide,” said Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina. “There is a need and a desire to have resources and clarity. The guidelines and the pastoral letter are meant to serve as tools to help navigate those situations.”
In addition to Bolen, the texts were signed by Archbishop Murray Chatlain of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, Bishop Bryan Bayda of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon, Bishop Albert Thévenot of the Diocese of Prince Albert, and Diocesan Administrator Kevin McGee of Saskatoon. The documents were released in time for the World Day of the Sick, marked on Feb. 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Within the pastoral guidelines the Saskatchewan bishops have introduced a process whereby priests and lay chaplains faced with complex pastoral situations related to assisted suicide and euthanasia can get assistance in discerning how best to respond.
Priests and those working for the Catholic Church in pastoral care are asked to contact their bishop for designated resource persons to support discernment “around the pastoral approach to those who have raised the possibility of physician assisted suicide, or regarding funeral requests for those who have died in this way,” state the pastoral guidelines.
“We will have resource people in our respective dioceses and our eparchy for priests and chaplains to consult,” explained Bolen. “This will help us to capture the dual challenge of responding pastorally to any given situation, while also holding firm to the framework of church teaching. Rather than issuing a set of very precise directives and attempting to give answers to many possible circumstances, we put a process in place to assist in discerning the best response to each unique situation.”
The pastoral guidelines begin by affirming Catholic teaching about respecting and protecting human life from conception to natural death, stating: “we cannot and will not participate in or support euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, to which we are morally opposed.” The document from the Saskatchewan bishops goes on to say, “We offer these guidelines to help our parishes to cultivate a healthy and positive attitude toward life, even amidst trials, and to assist our pastoral ministers and caregivers in walking compassionately and faithfully amidst painful and complex end-of-life situations.”
In addition to articulating the Christian call to accompany those who are dying, the bishops call on priests, deacons and the Catholic faithful to join “in doing formative work in your parishes and communities to change the conversation about dying so that fewer people will feel that ending their lives is an appropriate option ... that witness is especially needed in a context where many have lost sight of the dignity of human life even amidst suffering and dying.”
In their two other texts, the bishops themselves offer such formation: the pastoral letter articulates the challenge of placing trust in God and explores the invitation to hope offered by Christian faith, while the pastoral reflection situates the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the foundation for understanding the meaning of human dying.
The pastoral letter states: “The world is in desperate need of our witness of living through our dying. So many have forgotten, or never knew, that death could be gift. With God’s grace, and the prayers and support of others, we can live through this dying as a gift even as we face difficulties we would never have chosen. And God, who knows the pain and struggle of death (cf. Hebrews 5:8), will use our courage to witness to the value of this work to the people and the world we leave behind.”
In the letter on Living Through Our Dying, the bishops call on Christians to transform conversations about death and dying. “By sharing our perspectives, beliefs and actions, we can become authentic witnesses to the gift of living through dying in a world that is often afraid of death and desperate to control it,” states the letter. “God has called us to walk through this life together, and this includes journeying with people to the end of their days on earth. Now more than ever, our world needs to know that we will not leave them to face their dying alone.”
Bolen is hopeful that the pastoral letter and the pastoral reflection will bring greater understanding and engagement around the issues of death and dying.
“There are those who do not understand the church’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia. We are inviting them from the depths of our tradition, from the very heart of it, to consider attitudes towards living and towards dying,” said Bolen. “We hope to initiate a dialogue with our culture.”
“I would hope that our parishioners and people working in our Catholic facilities and perhaps other Christian communities would grapple with this idea of living through our dying and give serious consideration to the idea that dying is a part of living, and God does not abandon us in our dying,” said Bolen.
“We hope that the word that is heard throughout these texts is a strong word about the dignity of that last phase of human life, and the possibility of living it in a hope-filled way in spite of darkness and the suffering.”
The release of the three texts is the third time that the Catholic bishops of Saskatchewan have written to the faithful on this issue — they also issued a pastoral letter in July 2015 on the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia, the importance of conscience rights and the need for palliative care, as well as addressing the issues again in March 2016.