No Time to Wait in Accepting Death, Says Bishop

Affirms That Even Youth Should Make Peace With Life

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By Marta Lago

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 27, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The moment to accept death is during the fullness of life, even in youth and adolescence, said the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia affirmed this in his intervention at the academy's congress titled "Close By the Incurable Sick Person and the Dying: Scientific and Ethical Aspects." The congress was held Monday and Tuesday in Rome.

As the prelate explained to ZENIT, the nucleus of his extensive address was in recognizing "how the thought of death is lived when one is healthy […] a youth, child or adolescent."

"I consider this moment essential to be able to confront death when it arrives, because one has to make peace with death during life," the prelate said.

The bishop contended that if death is adequately contemplated, then it can be valued in its true light, and life can also be given meaning. He affirmed that disorientation in confronting life's final step comes from "not having anticipated in ourselves a concept of death that is open to hope, to the positive, and thus, sustained by love."

"Transforming this face of death must be done when there's still life; one can't wait till the last moment." And even then, he said, "we should give the best of ourselves."

The bishop said one shouldn't carry on a dialogue of truth that is "not just clinical -- 'how I am, how I feel, better or worse than yesterday, how many days I have left.'"

Instead, Bishop Sgreccia said, it is about "the global truth: that of the value these days have, that of the hope we have before us, that of the moment of encounter with God, especially if the patient is open to the faith; if not, there is work to be done to orient, if possible, toward the positive, toward the final act of one's life."

"For one who has a sense of the value of the person," he added, "it is the most fragile moment, but the most precious."

Obstacles to truth

"Rejection" is the word Bishop Sgreccia used in his address to summarize the difficulties society has in manifesting the truth of death to the ill.

Various factors cause this, he said, including the secularization of culture and society, the experience of well-being and increased life expectancy in developed countries.

The result of this, warned the prelate, is a fleeing from the thought of death and suffering, while, "paradoxically, the life of others is easily discarded, as something without value, or with equal ease, death is inflicted to protect one's own ephemeral satisfaction and the enjoyment of one's liberty."

The reality of death is hidden, but "health is emphasized, as is productivity and the organization of free time," he added.

Modern medicine, so advanced for example in Western society, reveals the same rejection of death, the bishop affirmed: "Before it was considered a natural event in the realm of medicine itself. Now it is seen as a failure, a limit, a lack of success."

"We should concern ourselves, above all, with illuminating the mystery of death in the hearts of youth, adolescents, of those who enjoy health, with the truth that liberates us," he contended. "Those who have made peace with suffering and death feel they are brought to help those who find themselves in pain or nearing death, they open themselves to dialogue, to service.

"This is the world of positive solidarity, formed by those who, having accepted their own cross, with the force of love inside them, help others to carry their crosses."

On the other hand, those who flee suffering reveal an "interior flight" with their "exterior and social flight." This becomes, he said, "emptiness surrounding the incurably ill," and the marginalization of the sick and handicapped; it leads to eugenic euthanasia of the deformed unborn, or terminal and social euthanasia of those who cannot be healed.

From this flows the importance of "building up in the hearts of youth and adults a 'peace' with suffering and death," which implies a "pedagogical path carried out with the effort of reason and will on the natural plane, and also with a maturation in the faith on the supernatural plane," Bishop Sgreccia affirmed.

Truth revealed

The president of the Pontifical Academy of Life emphasized the role of truth that should accompany the diagnosis and treatment of the ill.

He noted various points in light of Catholic morality, beginning with: "The doctor-patient relationship is founded on trust."

Bishop Sgreccia spoke both of the doctor's duty to tell the truth and the patient's right to know it: "A moral obligation" and a "juridical right" that "does not imply that the doctor should say everything he could know, but rather that which is relevant to understanding the real state of the person and the gravity of the situation."

"It's obvious, because of this, that lies must be avoided," he said. The reality of the situation inasmuch as it is known must be laid out, "avoiding drastic communication, but giving a place to hope. And a guarantee of closeness and assistance should always be given, because if it is true that justice demands the truth, it is also true that such news should be accompanied by charity."

Beginning and end

When death nears, having already seen the need to communicate, what's important is knowing how to communicate, Bishop Sgreccia affirmed.

The gravely ill pass through stages known and explained by psychologists who accompany these patients: denial, anger, negotiation, depression and acceptance, the bishop noted.

In the last stage, the prelate noted, death needs to be spoken of in its metaphysical sense, set within a salvific and eschatological framework.

"It's not enough to speak of death as a fact, but rather one must speak of it as an act, and as a human act […] that is concentrated above all in the moment of agony," and that "has to be considered in its profound depths," he said. The act of dying, a "most solemn and sacred moment" should be contemplated "with recollection and with love."

"All the moments [of life] of the dying person are contained within this instant; in one single act, he can see the totality of his life," said Bishop Sgreccia. "It is the final and the initial act: the new birth."

Thus the "great 'news' that should illuminate and reinforce the consciences of man is the announcement of the death and resurrection of Jesus that opens access to the full life of eternity."