Spiritual Care of Dying focus of Pastoral Care Assembly Day

By: By Jennifer Willems

Pastoral care ministers don’t stop reaching out to others, even when they’re at a day designed to recharge their own spiritual and theological batteries.

They proved that at last Saturday’s diocesan Pastoral Care Assembly Day when the presenter, Msgr. Michael Bliss, spoke about the sacramental ministry his own mother, Mary E. Bliss, received before her death on March 28.

The director of pastoral care at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, he told them that he found himself being more of a son than a priest to her during her final days and said they probably found that odd.

A number of the 106 people present at the Cater Inn in Peoria immediately reassured him by responding, “No,” “Not at all,” and “Good.”

It is this compassion that they extend to those who are shut-ins, residents of nursing homes, and parishioners in the hospital and hospice settings that earned his “heartfelt and sincere thanks” at the end of the day.

Noting that they are an important conduit between those who are sick and the parish staff, he praised them for their faithfulness in bringing the Eucharistic Lord to the people they visit.

“What a wonderful gift you are to the service of the church,” Msgr. Bliss said. “I commend your efforts.”

“Spiritual Care of the Dying” was the theme for the Pastoral Care Assembly Day, which is sponsored by the diocesan Office of Family Life, and Msgr. Bliss encouraged them not to shy away from the word “death.”

“Have you ever noticed how people avoid that word when they talk about suffering and death? We use other words to soften the blow or pretend they aren’t dying,” he said. “We use language to try to avoid the reality of what has taken place.”

What happens at the cemetery can reinforce this, because the coffin often isn’t lowered into the ground until everyone has left, Msgr. Bliss said.

“The first thing you learn as a hospital chaplain is to use clear, concise language so you can help people accept reality. Death is a part of life,” he explained. “We don’t do this to throw salt on the wound but so the reality can be felt and the healing and grieving process can begin.”

Msgr. Bliss said Jesus shows us how to approach death by what he did when his friend Lazarus died. He went to visit the family, asked to hear what had happened, and then he wept.

“Jesus didn’t try to hide or deny his feelings,” Msgr. Bliss said. “And then came the miracle — the miracle that foreshadowed not only Jesus’ resurrection but our own.”

In raising Lazarus from the dead and instructing his friends to “untie him and let him go,” Jesus shows that in the context of faith, death is the way we are born to eternal life, he said.

“Each of us as ministers of God’s word and sacraments need to foster an environment by our words, by our actions and by our prayers, where death can be accepted . . . with peace.”

Msgr. Bliss acknowledged that sometimes this involves answering tough questions: “Why me?” “I’m finding it hard to pray. Why can’t I pray?” “I know God has a plan for everything but I’m having a hard time accepting this (death of a child, for example).”

“For me, the only answer to their question is the cross,” he said. “That’s why we have crucifixes in hospitals. When people look at it they can have some reassurance and solace. It’s a direct reminder of God’s love.”

He said he has often seen a sense of peace come over people when they unite their suffering with Christ on the cross.

“They realize their suffering is not something that is wasted, but something that can change the world,” Msgr. Bliss told them.

Another source of comfort is the sacraments the church provides for her people, including the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick. He reminded them that anointing is no longer reserved for those in immediate danger of death, but may be administered to those who are seriously ill or facing major surgery.

He encouraged people to seek out this sacrament in their parish if they know they are facing a hospital stay because the connection with their own family and parish family can be very powerful “and the priest will want to know what’s going on.”

Priests anoint people in the hospital every day, however, Msgr. Bliss explained.

“This is a great source of grace,” he said, “and reassures them that God is with them on the journey.”

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