Pastoral carers are sustained in ministry by Catholic belief

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Pastoral carers are sustained in their ministry by Catholic beliefs. Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Let me introduce you to a man we’ll call “Paddy”.

That’s not his real name, but it was suggested by a good son of Ireland who recently enjoyed lunch among friends on a perfect early spring afternoon which saw our conversation turn from aspects of Irish heritage and past experiences, to the subject of euthanasia.

Paddy, who turned 85 on his most recent birthday, may not be alive as you read these words: he’s been confined to bed in a nursing home for some time, totally dependent on others even for feeding.

He’s an ex-serviceman lacking social support due to being estranged from his family – and proud to brand himself as an atheist.

Like many people in similar situations, Paddy was aggressive, ungrateful and believed that the world was against him when he was first visited by the person who gave him that nom de plume for this story.

He is my friend, Michael Lyons, who works voluntarily as a welfare officer for an ex-services club and is a committed Catholic who spent 10 years on the pastoral care staff of Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital and the Sacred Heart hospice after putting aside his role as an executive in the motor industry.

Despite their differences regarding faith and Paddy’s displays of aggression and dismissal which had made him unpopular with his nursing home staff, Michael’s training and skills acquired for pastoral work and his determination to persist with regular visits eventually produced important changes.

“Visiting Paddy became more enjoyable and he talked about his family and certain life regrets and of course, his life in the services. He began to ask: ‘When are you coming again?’ The staff welcomed my visits as they seemed to leave Paddy in a better space,” said Michael.

Our discussions over lunch inevitably moved to considering broadcaster Andrew Denton’s attack on what he labelled as a “subterranean Catholic force” which was preventing the legalisation of euthanasia.

“If Paddy was in the Netherlands would he ever have reached that place where life does have meaning? In my visits with him religion is never, ever discussed. My own Catholic beliefs are very sustaining for me as my God is very much part of my journey with Paddy. Why should I get ‘out of the way’ as requested by Mr Denton?”

Through those words, Michael expanded on a letter he wrote to this journal regarding euthanasia: “Great stance on Denton” (CW 28 August).

He had written that an average of 35 people passed away every month from the Sacred Heart hospice alone, but he had “never, ever (been) asked to go down the Euthanasia road with them and I have not seen them in extreme pain”. At lunch, just as in his letter, he expressed deep sympathy for Mr Denton’s report that his father indeed had died in extreme pain but Michael raised further questions about why appropriate and effective palliative care apparently was not provided to Mr Denton senior.

Our luncheon companions understood that the pressures of time for other health workers curtail their opportunities to explore the real problems affecting people who are facing death – and this is where the nurturing strength of pastoral carers assists those who are facing the toughest days of their lives.

Inspiration for Michael comes from studying writings on ageing and spirituality by Elizabeth MacKinlay rather than from the Bible.

Professor MacKinlay of the Faculty of Humanity and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland talks of the “Fourth stage of life”.

“Suffering and spiritual distress ceases in some way when we find meaning” she has written, while acknowledging that many people in Australia’s increasingly secular society may not accept a spirituality based on religion.

“People have different belief systems – even atheists do,” according to Michael, who said: “My association with them did not necessarily involve religion which was rarely discussed because as Christians we are non-judgemental and tolerant of other religions, 55 of which were spread across St Vincent’s hospital”.

Pastoral carers like Michael are there above all to be a listening presence to people like Paddy who are facing death, which is often the subject avoided by their closest family and friends.

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