By Emilie Ng
Ask Dr Julia Upton RSM to name the holiest places on earth, and at least one of her answers would be Mercy Hospice in Auckland, New Zealand.
Although situated 14,000 kilometres from her home in New York City, Dr Upton found herself inside Mercy Hospice while on sabbatical in 2012.
The hospice, which was once a novice house for the Sisters of Mercy in Auckland, provides community palliative care at no cost to patients and their families. For Dr Upton, it was like being on the precipice of Heaven.
“I walked in, and it was so holy, it was like being in a sanctuary,” Dr Upton said.
“I just think it’s such a privilege to be with someone who is going to be with God next. I can’t think of anything holier than that – it’s handing someone off to God.”
“I always had a respect for dying, I was not afraid of it … I grew up know that dying was part of life, as was grieving”
Dr Upton’s work in the hospice movement came after she reconciled with her decision to walk away from a childhood dream: “I’ve always been interested in medicine, but I figured I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor, a physician, so I became other things.”
At the age of 30, she realised that although she couldn’t be a doctor, she had the charism of healing, and became a hospice volunteer.
For Dr Upton, palliative care and the global hospice movement offers the utmost respect to human death.
“I always had a respect for dying, I was not afraid of it – I think that was my father, who dragged me to all family wakes, and we had funerals for our fish who died, and turtles,” she said.
“I grew up know that dying was part of life, as was grieving.”
With a Master’s degree in public health, a PhD in Theology, and 40 years as member of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Dr Upton knows the current culture has a very different view of death.
“I think that the culture in general wants quick answers to things, and it doesn’t have the patience for dying, or doesn’t have the faith that God will companion us through whatever it is,” she said.
“I think that people are most afraid of pain and suffering. You certainly can attend to people’s pain, without killing them, to alleviate their pain – emotional, physical, spiritual – but people just don’t trust that that happens.”
Dr Upton will share her insights into the theological view of human death and her experiences in the hospice movement in an upcoming online intensive Professional Learning Seminar for Australian Catholic University on 4-7 July.
The seminar, Liturgy and Prayer in Pastoral Care, which will run as part of a postgraduate unit of study for ACU students from the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, will explore a Catholic theological view of the human person as they experience illness and death, and how liturgical rituals and prayers offer consolation at the end of life.
“At a time when palliative care is in the news with the recent vote in the NSW parliament to legalise euthanasia, ACU is providing a special unit focusing on pastoral care of the ill and dying …”
Dr Upton will focus particularly on understanding and using the Church’s ritual books: Pastoral Care of the Sick, Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass and elements of the Order of Christian Funerals.
ACU Centre for Liturgy director Professor Clare Johnson will co-teach the unit with Dr Upton and will be joined by special guests: Head of Palliative Medicine at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Associate Professor Maria Cigolini, Queensland Bioethics Centre director Dr David Kirchhoffer and Long Bay Correctional Facility Chaplain Fr Peter Carroll MSC.
Professor Johnson said the Professional Learning Seminar was timely considering the recent passing of the voluntary assisted dying bill in New South Wales.
“At a time when palliative care is in the news with the recent vote in the NSW parliament to legalise euthanasia, ACU is providing a special unit focusing on pastoral care of the ill and dying, and the role liturgy and prayer play in supporting those who are ill, those who care for them, and those who grieve,” Professor Johnson said.
Registrations for Liturgy and Prayer in Pastoral Care close on June 30, 2022. For more information about the seminar, including costs, visit the ACU Centre for Liturgy Professional Development page.