I agree and disagree on some points raised by martin scicluna in his interesting article ‘last human right’ (Times of Malta, August 10).
I think that, although a lot is being written about euthanasia and the heartbreaking appeal by two suffering patients, who are in my prayers, very little has been said about the art of dying, or ars moriendi,which originated in eastern Germany at the Council of Constance (1414-1418).
In Malta, we had the tradition of the buona morte, followed by the vjatku, a procession from the church to bring the blessed sacrament to the homes of the moribund. Scicluna made reference to the living will as a means to alleviate prolonged suffering without infringing upon the fundamental value of the sanctity of life, as God’s most precious gift to man. In my 30 years at San Raffaele scientific Hospital in Milan, I was close to many patients at the moment of death.
I do understand the grief at that moment and, I must confess, I too shed some tears.
Till the very end, the patient must be considered a human person without any distinction, but the right to terminate life is only God’s. We should be giving priority to ‘being close to’ and ‘looking after’ the patient.
We are called to ‘accompany’ the dying till the very last moment. after Vatican Council II, the Church, in its liturgy and pastoral care, simplified the rites of the dying.
Christian death is now Christ-centred, as He overcame death and returned to life. i have often found solace in the prayer of st Gregory of Nyssa: “You turned our fear of death to hope. You have changed the end of our life into the beginning of true life. to those who are afraid You have given the sign of the Cross, which is an assurance of eternal life.” this is how we can accompany the dying.
It was what inspired Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. i
It was also what inspired Mother Teresa, whom I met twice in her ‘Home for the Dying’, where she often said that these “people lived like animals and now they die as angels”.
She never made a distinction between Christians and non-Christians. What both these women did was to make death more comfortable “to help them live a full life till the very end”. This should also be what inspires all doctors and paramedics. scicluna very aptly quoted the Hippocratic oath, written 2,500 years ago, but alas, many a patient today dies alone. anthropological studies show that the product of the present secularised human culture has boosted our fear of pain and suffering.
As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross affirmed, today we have “a crisis between death and pain”. Death is now a collective taboo. as Plato said: “in order to become a good doctor, we must first experience suffering.”
I have seen many patients facing death bravely, whether believers or not. often, the situation next to their bed becomes a school of love, courage and faith. the bed becomes an altar where the liturgy of suffering is celebrated. i often remind people of the case of Rosanna Benzi, who for many years, had to live her life in a steel lung. another case is of a student nurse, who in a letter to colleagues wrote: “What are you afraid of?
After all, it is I who am dying”. I confess that, at my ripe age, i think of death daily, but only faith helps me to overcome fear.
I also think that, after the celebration of the eucharist, accompanying the dying is living to the full our ministry. I also plan to write on the living will, which i see as a way not to prolong life.
It is part of the accepted art of dying.
Mgr Charles Vella spent 30 years as director of San Raffaele Hospital