Canada Sept. 11, 2017

Priests for Life Canada conference addresses legal euthanasia challenges

By Deborah Gyapong

Father Stefano Penna of Newman College in Edmonton (left), and Father Tom Lynch, President of Priests for Life Canada, along with Dr. Jose Pereira (background) spoke at the annual Pro-Life Clergy Symposium held in Ottawa Aug. 28-30. (Deborah Gyapong / CCN)

OTTAWA (CCN)—Priests for Life Canada addressed the pastoral challenges posed by legal euthanasia at their annual Pro-Life Clergy Symposium in Ottawa Aug. 28-30.

One way to meet the challenge is to prepare people for dying, said Father Stefano Penna in an interview.

“Ideally the last thing a parent does is show their children how to die,” he said. “It’s actually a deliberate Christian witness.”

We should invite people to embrace their mission as witnesses as dying persons, dying in Christ,” said Father Penna, who teaches at Newman College in Edmonton. “My mother is doing that for me.”

While Quebec is handing out “death kits,” the Church should respond by telling people, “we will walk with you as compassionate caring communities” while they approach the end of life, Father Penna said.

He said he once went to visit a man in excruciating pain from severe burns all over his body. The ICU doctor told him, “Well, you can’t hurt him.”

After visiting the man, Father Penna asked the doctor what he meant. The doctor told him, “When you come, they give up hope.”

“You really don’t know what I’m about,” Father Penna told the doctor. “I’m all about hope. What can you give? Two more days of pain? What am I proclaiming? It is truth and what I put forward before him is glory if he but says, ‘Yes.’”

Priests have to remember their call is “to be Christian, not to be spiritual,” Father Penna said. He wondered if priests had “lost our nerve.”

“As a priest I’m there concerned really with the salvation of the soul of that person who will be meeting, the loving, gentle, awesome judgment seat that we are to approach, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, without fear.”

“How am I the apostle, the witness, that is going to be there to prepare for that encounter?” he said, noting “we’re always focused on this-worldly pain, what the medical profession is all about.”

“We give too much information and not enough formation,” said Father Tom Lynch, president of Priests for Life Canada. “What am I living out? Am I living out my faith? Am I living out my trust in God? Do I believe there’s something beyond this?”

He recalled how his mother, before she passed away, said to one of her granddaughters, “'But you are going to die. Where are you going with your life, your husband, your daughters?' That’s the kind of testimony we need.”

Father Lynch said he finds most people believe in life after death, even if they can’t articulate their beliefs. “They don’t believe they go into a hole in the ground.”

He said he was grateful for the guidelines produced by the Alberta and Northwest Territories bishops which dealt with pastoral accompaniment in some of these difficult scenarios surrounding euthanasia.

Father John Lemire, chairman of the board of Priests for Life Canada, said we live in an “instant culture” that has lost the understanding of redemptive suffering. 

“Sometimes I can see the redemptive value of suffering and sometimes I’m overwhelmed by it,” said Father Lynch. “Sometimes it’s okay to be overwhelmed by it, even as a priest. Families can be wrung out and exhausted.”

Dr. Jose Pereira, a palliative-care physician and expert who spoke at the symposium about end-of-life care, said the language of redemptive suffering can have negative connotations because it is not well understood.

But he agreed the “instantaneous culture” poses big problems for health-care professionals. Most people request euthanasia, not because of uncontrollable pain, but for psycho-social and spiritual reasons, he said. 

Profound depression and loss of meaning in life can’t be treated by “a 10-milligram tablet that I give and in an hour all that is reversed.”

“Time is a vanishing therapeutic option,” he said, noting that some of the underlying spiritual and psycho-social issues take time to heal.

“The whole concept of redemptive suffering is not at all foreign to people,” said Father Lynch. “You’re a father, I’m a spiritual father. We suffer for people all the time, we do it for people willingly and gladly."

Lynch said it’s astonishing how many people in parish communities take on the burdens of other people, including those without families, by visiting them in nursing homes and so on.

“This is how we start to build up that broader community, as Christ suffered for us and thereby was able to bring us into the mystical Communion of his body and blood."