Being Christ for the Elderly

Interview With Health-Care Council Secretary

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By Marta Lago

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 20, 2007 (Zenit.org).- As societies age, specialization in caring for the elderly is more and more important, says the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry.

In this interview with ZENIT, Bishop José Luis Redrado Marchite discusses the goals of the pontifical council and explains why health care ministry is so important today.

Q: What is the role of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry?

Bishop Redrado: This is a dicastery particularly familiar with ministry; it is not a "health department" as governments have. This must be made very clear. The emphasis is on "health care ministry," with all that the term "ministry" implies: evangelization and Church action in the world of health -- both with the sick and the healthy, beginning with the people who take care of the sick. The dicastery's mission also includes prevention, an aspect that concerns all, so they take good care of their heath.

By health care ministry, we understand the footsteps of Jesus in the midst of the sick and helping people find meaning in their illnesses.

Q: Does this involve close, direct, personal contact with those who are suffering?

Bishop Redrado: It involves conveying a message of Christian values to men and women who are sick, to awaken them to a new sense in life, to help them discover that Jesus' life had meaning when he was evangelizing, but also when he was on the cross because of what emanated from there: a great love that saved all mankind; a great suffering, but full of love. It is superb that the Church, in its evangelization, in its pastoral work, is able to sustain this reality and bring others to live it.

For this reason, there is an appeal to the pastoral services in hospitals, especially to those that are Catholic. Catholic hospitals cannot reduce their task to curing the body, but must focus on the entire person. Being in a Catholic hospital should be, above all, a stay that renews life, that conveys something to the sick, that brings them to encounter the Lord. For this reason, our dicastery is trying to educate men and women who can be close to the sick with this great message, discovering that illness is not useless but, rather, that it can lead to a road like that of Emmaus, to discover that it is the Lord who is walking beside us.

Q: How does your dicastery carry out this task of evangelization?

Bishop Redrado: It has specific tasks -- among them, a principal one is to motivate, inform and educate, and to be up-to-date on what is going on in the world, in terms of health and illness, in order to evaluate how to minister.

Motivation is given with international conferences, group meetings, courses, radio and TV programs, the publication of books, and our magazine Dolentium Hominum. The magazine is sent all over the world in four languages, and presents criteria on health and illness, its Christian meaning, and how this ministry should be carried out.

Within the scope of our goals we have held 22 international conferences. Countless professionals have attended and lectured in these gatherings: an average of 600 people per conference, and there were another two with 9,000 registrations. The range of possibilities is, therefore, extremely broad.

Motivational activities have also included trips abroad from the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry -- more than 150 trips, undertaken to evaluate health in various countries and see how episcopal conferences are working in this sector in their respective regions.

Q: The last international conference, held last November, focused on elderly sick people.

Bishop Redrado: It was the third conference centered on the elderly, although each one has had a particular emphasis. This last one focused more on the diseases most typical of old age: loss of vigor, hearing, cognitive capacities, depression -- this last one [can set in] at any point in life, but particularly at this age -- and many other sufferings that must be cared for at this stage of life.

In view of the fact that a long life expectancy is common -- at least in developed countries it is between 75 and 80 years of age -- we must strive to give quality of life, controlling or preventing these types of ailments. The purpose of this international conference was to analyze how to face this current situation in society. As a pontifical council, we are open to society and thoroughly within it; our mission is markedly social -- health and sickness are universal. The Pope agreed immediately to our holding the meeting on this subject. Societies, which are aging, must be prepared to deal with many of these aspects.

For example, the family is called upon to be the primary source of care for an elderly sick person; this should not complicate, but involve. At this age, the sick person needs to be very much welcomed, very well loved. Otherwise, I insist, other illnesses like depression soon set in. These are subjects that have been discussed internationally, as well as the psychology of the elderly sick, who are keenly aware that life is coming to an end, and who see their peers disappearing.

The religious question is also very important. There may be those who have neglected this, but if one wishes to make peace with God or wants to come closer to the faith, old age can also be an occasion to come across that exalted and merciful Gaze that converts. Another critical issue analyzed is the bioethical question, because a materialistic society may consider the elderly person as a "burden" who does not produce and who, moreover, consumes.

Q: What is required in order to rediscover the value of the elderly?

Bishop Redrado: Precisely that, a change in values. Naturally, a materialistic society is a productive one. However, what it should do is focus more on "being" than on "doing." When one is young and healthy, one must also "do." But an elderly person's "doing" is something different. We can think of the elderly in the Old Testament: Abraham, the father of the faith who gives joy, enthusiasm; Ana, a very devout woman who awaits the Savior; Simeon, who takes the Savior in his arms ...

Q: Do people need to learn to value what it means to be elderly?

Bishop Redrado: Like so many important things in life, we cannot live this without some kind of preparation. Personally, I am devoting considerable time to reflection, so that, if the Lord grants me a few more years, I can live them with serenity, enthusiasm and peace, not as a useless person, but a useful person; when I retire -- a stage I want to enjoy tremendously -- I have many things to do if the Lord gives me the mental and physical power to do so ...

Q: Your dicastery has a broad range of activities. What are the current priorities?

Bishop Redrado: [To assist] the people who have to carry out ministry and, first of all, bishops. We emphasize this point because bishops are the successors of the apostles in their dioceses. They have been given the power of the mission of evangelizing, sanctifying and governing. Jesus was always to be found near the sick, and the apostles as well.

From the very beginning, we have stressed the fact that each episcopal conference should have a bishop in charge of health care ministry, to encourage, in each country, health care ministry groups in the dioceses. This has become much more common.

Q: Have there been milestones in this ministry?

Bishop Redrado: The Church has three important milestones in terms of health care ministry. The apostolic letter "Salvifici Doloris" by Pope John Paul II, which one should read prayerfully, is dated Feb. 11, 1984. Exactly one year later, this dicastery was instituted. And in 1992, the World Day of the Sick was established. These are three key dates in the history of health care ministry.

Since 1993, the celebration of the World Day of the Sick has been held in various nations; the latest was in Seoul, South Korea. But after that one, the Pope requested that the World Day be celebrated as follows: Solemnly, every three years, and annually, on Feb. 11, at the local Church level. The solemn triennial celebration is like that of World Youth Day -- once a year at the local Church level; every three years, solemnly; and the World Meeting of Families -- the last having been celebrated in Valencia, Spain. So we shall prepare and we will encourage the local Churches, because the World Day of the Sick has been and is a great blessing within health care ministry. Its work has really taken off and it has brought to light the world of the ill.

Q: What other objectives does the dicastery have in mind?

Bishop Redrado: The Church's presence near AIDS patients and near anyone in the terminal stage of life continues to be very important. I would not like to find myself at the end of my life with someone who does not know how to accompany me. Accompaniment by people who understand this final and decisive moment is necessary, because the lives of many sick people can change at this stage.

So another challenge for health care ministry, which our dicastery is working on, is the formation of people who accompany the sick -- priests, religious and laypeople prepared to take part in pastoral ministry in hospitals, or people who, from parishes, attend sick people -- because this is not an easy task. Basic training and also specialized training are required. Because of this need, centers of specialization in health care ministry are opening. Also, volunteer services to meet this reality are needed, because one cannot go out and attend to the world of the sick equipped merely with good intentions. This is a complex field that calls for preparation.

Another key challenge is the programming of pastoral services, as these should not simply exist in response to the requirements of the moment. A hospital's ministry team should be fully integrated with all of the center's activities. And, I insist, the point is not only to reach sick people, but the entire health care staff. It is fundamental to know how to involve yourself, which is not easy in a world as complex as a hospital, as the world of medicine that is ever more technical. And to know how to propose other values, like humanization, and to pay attention to bioethics. All this demands formation. A lot has been achieved, but there is still a lot to be done.