“O Death, where is your victory? », pastoral letter from the bishops of France to the Catholic faithful

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Dear brothers and sisters,

“O Death, where is your victory? » This question comes from the depths of the ages. It arises from the impulse of life deposited in each human being when he revolts in the face of death. Because it appears to him in some way inhuman.

To the believer, the question seems to spring from God himself! Indeed, God, the Master of life, cannot let death swallow up life: “God did not make death,” we read in the Scriptures of Israel[1].

For the Christian, the question is like a response to our concern, according to the catechesis of the Apostle Saint Paul on the resurrection. It confirms the hope of the prophets announcing that death will be defeated:

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting? (1 Cor 15.54b-55).

The enigma of death and suffering

Death touches and questions each of us. Death of an elderly relative passing away slowly. Death of a person finally relieved of a serious illness. Death, so scandalous, of a child, a young person or a very loved person, early victim of an illness, an epidemic or an accident. Death caused by an attack or by war. Death is there, inevitable, often with its procession of suffering. Spontaneously, we can say that it frightens. Yes, we are not made for death!

The bishops from around the world gathered at the Second Vatican Council noted: “It is in the face of death that the enigma of the human condition reaches its summit. Man is not only tormented by suffering and the progressive decay of his body, but even more, by the fear of definitive destruction. And it is by a just inspiration of his heart that he rejects and refuses this total ruin and this definitive failure of his person. The germ of eternity that he carries within him, irreducible to matter alone, rebels against death[2]. »

These same bishops also affirmed: “The Church believes that Christ, who died and rose again for all, offers man, through his Spirit, light and strength to enable him to respond to his very high vocation[3]. »

Thus, it is by remaining lucid about our own fear while putting our faith in Jesus who died and rose again, that we must welcome the question posed within our society: can we actively help a person to die? Can someone be asked to actively assist in dying? By daring to look at death with Jesus, the Christ, we can begin a response.

“Our sister death”

Every year, on November 2, the liturgy invites us to commemorate the faithful deceased. Throughout the month of November, we pray more intensely for them. This prayer sometimes revives our suffering, it also reiterates our faith full of hope: death is a passage, the most important passage since our coming to life.

Why do we pray for the dead if not because we believe that death is a passage from life in this world to eternal life with God? We pray because we want our dead to know eternal happiness. For, as we know, the soul is “spiritual and immortal”[4]” and “the desire for happiness is fulfilled in the vision and beatitude of God[5]”. This passage we regard as the ultimate “passover” of our lives. This passage is illuminated by the Passover of Jesus: He passed from death unto life. His resurrection fully attests to this. This is why Saint Paul can affirm: “If Christ is not risen, your faith is without value” (1 Cor 15, 17).

Saint Francis of Assisi ends his ode to Creation by daring to sing: “Praise be to you for our sister bodily death from which no living man can escape. » Even if our society hides death and rarely looks at it in the face, it is the companion of our lives and reminds us fraternally of its outcome. In Jesus Christ, “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1.18; Rev 1.5), death becomes blessed. “In Christ all will receive life,” teaches Saint Paul (1 Cor 15:22). This is the magnificent Christian hope.

We often talk about death, each time we pray the Hail Mary: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us […] now and at the hour of our death. Spiritual writers say that there are two important days in our lives: today and the day we die. In the light of the Gospel, these two moments acquire a beautiful density. Every morning it is beautiful to say to the Lord “here I am”, like the blessed Virgin Mary on the day of the Annunciation: “Fiat, let everything happen to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Every evening too, on the threshold of night as on the threshold of death, it is equally beautiful to say with the old man Simeon, full of joy at the meeting with his Savior: “Now you can let your servant go in peace…” (Lk 2:29),-.

Science and faith against pain and suffering

Already in 1965, the Second Vatican Council, confident in the progress of science, remarked: “All attempts at technique, however useful they may be, are powerless to calm the anxiety of human beings: because the prolongation of the life that biology provides cannot satisfy this desire for a later life, invincibly anchored in his heart [6]. »

Today, medical science has progressed. Not only does it allow for advances in care, but it is also increasingly capable of relieving physical and, sometimes, psychological pain. The Church welcomes this progress when “we simply want to alleviate pain effectively by resorting to analgesics, which medicine makes available [7]”. This can help alleviate existential and even spiritual suffering.

The development of palliative care is an important gain of our time. In a very fortunate way, this care combines medical competence, human support thanks to a quality relationship between healthcare team, patient and loved ones, and respect for the person as a whole with their history and desires, including spiritual ones. Thanks to this care, families can better support those who, in painful circumstances, are approaching the great passage of death. We encourage research and development of palliative care so that every person at the end of life can benefit from it[8], whether at home, in an EHPAD or in hospital. Dear brothers and sisters, it is good for each of you to learn about palliative care[9] to properly support one of your loved ones who needs it.

In some cases, however, the suffering seems unbearable, particularly when treatments seem powerless. It also happens that an incurable illness plunges the person into anxiety or unhappiness that they want to put an end to. Our faith is then challenged by these situations which raise legitimate questions.

“Active assistance in dying” would obviously eliminate all suffering, but it would go beyond the prohibition that humanity finds deep within its being and which is confirmed by God’s Revelation on the mountain: “You shall not kill” (Ex 20.13; Dt 5.17). Inflicting death to eliminate suffering is neither care nor support: on the contrary, it is to eliminate the suffering person and interrupt all relationships. This is “a serious violation of God’s Law.”[10] This is a serious transgression of a prohibition that structures our social life: our societies are organized by restricting any attack on the lives of others. Practicing “active assistance in dying” is and will be the cause of other suffering, in particular that of remorse and guilt which insidiously gnaw at the heart of the human being who has consented to put his fellow man to death, until may he encounter the mercy of the Living God.

The choice of fraternity

Our faith invites us to another attitude: through it we choose accompaniment, despite everything. The brotherhood of the Good Samaritan who takes care of his “half-dead” brother inspires us on this path (Lk 10:33-35). Fraternity invites us to help each other to maintain the strength to accompany with delicacy, fidelity and gentleness.

In conjunction with the healthcare teams, we can experience this support with patience. Agony, that is to say the last moments of life, can be more or less long, more or less peaceful, more or less dramatic. The Christian tradition knows varied gestures to accompany it in a human, truly fraternal way: psalms, common prayer, but also the fact of remaining close to a person at the end of life, without getting tired.

Support, to alleviate pain, can go as far as sedation. This sedation is often intermittent and must be proportionate. Rarely, the healthcare team may consider it fair to accept a patient’s request to receive continuous sedation until death or to consider it with loved ones, when the patient can no longer express his wishes [11 ]. It is not a question of causing death but of alleviating suffering. These decisions, always collegial, must be taken in a delicate exchange with loved ones, in particular to allow time for real goodbyes, as much as possible.

It is then beautiful “to “know how to remain”, to watch with those who suffer from the anguish of dying, to “consolate”, that is to say, to be with them in solitude, to be a shared presence which opens to hope[12]. » It is beautiful to prepare the sick to see God. The presence of the chaplain is important. When possible and corresponds to the religious situation of the patient at the end of life, the celebration of the sacraments of Reconciliation, the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist is a very beautiful step. Let us not forget the communion received in viaticum, that is to say at the moment of passage to the Father: it is more than ever “seed of eternal life and power of resurrection”[13]. And in any case, prayer with a dying person, even silent prayer, is priceless for us who believe in “the communion of saints”.

Baptism, source of life

Brothers and sisters, to take control of the length of our life, to choose the hour of our death, to become an accomplice, is to return to the commitment made in our holy Baptism. In him we have been immersed in the death and resurrection of Jesus so that, like him, we live a “new life” (cf. Rom 6:3-4). Through Baptism, we are purified and consecrated in the Holy Spirit to offer with Jesus, every moment given by God during our life on earth. The new life of Jesus’ disciples is that of “love” (cf. Rom 13:8-10), love for God and for our neighbor (cf. Mt 22:36-40). Preparing for death is, with the grace of God, loving and growing in love for God and for our brothers and sisters. “In the evening of our lives, we will be judged on love”, according to the words of Saint John of the Cross that Pope Francis likes to repeat[14].

Thus, our Baptism is the true source of our “advance directives[15]”, whether written or simply transmitted orally to a “trusted person[16]”. It is good to help each other live, to trust each other to be encouraged to live to the end with the dignity of children of God.

We commit to thinking about our personal advance directives so that our death is neither stolen nor forced upon God, and we invite you to do the same. We want our death to be, thanks to the Holy Spirit, thanks to the presence of brothers and sisters, thanks to the accompaniment of medicine, a freely offered passage where we will hand over with gratitude to our Father in heaven everything that we have. he will have given us. We want with his Son, Jesus, to participate in the offering of the world, still suffering, for its salvation and the glory of God, by offering it all the love experienced here on earth. We want it to be in spirit and in truth the ultimate Easter in the image and likeness of the Easter of Jesus. We want it to be an act of trust in the infinite mercy of our God, greater than all.

To do this, let us understand the essential place of “intention” in medical decisions at the end of life. Is the intention to relieve the suffering that is too severe by sparing the moments still to be lived, even if this could shorten the days of the patient? Or is the intention to anticipate death in order to end suffering[17]? God says, “Choose life! » (cf. Deut 30:19). Let us help each other, by listening to the advice of caregivers, to discern between what is care, hydration and food due to the patient, even if death becomes certain, and what could be futile therapeutic efforts and a source of unnecessary suffering [18 ]. Yes, let us help ourselves to discern life choices while consenting to the death that comes.

Active help to live

Our words will perhaps carry little weight in the face of apparently dominant opinions. However, many of our fellow citizens wonder when faced with the radical question of death: “O death, where is your victory? » They would so much like victory to be for life! Our commitment to being together servants of life is the response to the call that Jesus addresses to us by proposing the attitude of the Good Samaritan: “Go, and you also do the same” (Lk 10:37).

We undoubtedly need to examine the modalities of personal and collective care for the elderly, in order to offer them the best conditions for a dignified end of life and a good approach to death. It would be good for us to teach each other, to love each other in truth and, dare we say it, to prepare, without fear, to die well.

Everyone should prepare for illness and death. We do not do this by worrying, by imagining the worst, but by learning to take advantage of each moment to get closer to God and others. Let us ask for the grace to understand that being dependent is not a decline: the human condition is beautiful in the very fact that we are dependent on one another. There are moments in life when everyone gives a lot, and others when everyone has to receive with gratitude.

Gratitude and hope

To those who serve the end of life of vulnerable people, whether in the short term or medium term, whether they are elderly or not, whether they are perhaps young people or children, we want to reiterate the words of Saint Paul at the conclusion of his preaching on the resurrection:

“My beloved brothers, be steadfast, be immovable, take an ever more active part in the work of the Lord, for you know that in the Lord your labor is not wasted” (1 Cor. 15.58).

We invite you to make this great chapter 15 of the First Letter to the Corinthians your own on the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. We invite you to meditate on it while praying to the Holy Spirit to give our society the joy of choosing life, of choosing active help to live and die well. We entrust you with this Word of God “so that you may overflow with hope” (Rm 15:13).

“Let us give thanks to God who gives victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57), exhorts Saint Paul. We give thanks for the caregivers, caregivers, chaplains of hospitals and EPHADs, for the dedicated staff, volunteers and kind visitors of our parents and friends in health establishments, and for the brothers and sisters who hold the hand of those who leave us, often remaining close to them in silence. All contribute to the victory of peace! How many witnesses reveal to us the fruitfulness of caring for the dying so that peace comes to their souls, and also to the hearts of their loved ones!

During our assembly in Lourdes, we pray to the Lord of the dead and the living to grant to each and every one, to his beloved sons and daughters united by Baptism to the resurrected Jesus, to all our brothers and sisters in humanity, an increase in wisdom and also the grace of a “good death[21]”. “For a Christian,” says Pope Francis, “the good death is an experience of the mercy of God, who is close to us also in this last moment of our life. » He adds: “May Saint Joseph help us to live the mystery of death in the best possible way[22]”

Here we pray to the Lord for you and, especially, for those who are facing a painful end of life. We pray, aware of what the great debate on the end of life can resonate deep within each of us. May the Virgin Mary obtain for all the hidden gift of the Holy Spirit which makes us discern the beauty of life and the greatness of fraternity.

In Lourdes, November 8, 2022

The bishops of France.

Source: https://eglise.catholique.fr/conference-des-eveques-de-france/textes-et-declarations/531765-o-mort-ou-est-ta-victoire-lettre-pastorale-des-eveques- from-france-to-the-faithful-catholics/

[1] “God did not make death, he does not rejoice in seeing living beings die. He created them all to exist; what is born in the world is the bearer of life: there is no poison that causes death. The power of Death does not reign on earth, because justice is immortal. » (Wis 1,13-15)

[2] Constitution on the Church in the contemporary world, Gaudium et spes, December 7, 1965, n. 18 §1.

[3] Ibid., n. 10, §2.

[4] Cf. ibid., n. 14, §2.

[5] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2548.

[6] Ibid., n. 18, §1.

[7] Cf. John Paul II, encyclical The Gospel of Life, March 25, 1995, n. 65.

[8] The law of June 9, 1999 considers that it is the right of every citizen to have access to palliative care. The latest Opinion of the National Consultative Ethics Committee recognizes that this is not yet the case for all patients and places the development of palliative care as a prior requirement for possible legislative developments (Opinion 139, June 30, 2022).

[9] You can go to the website of the French Society for Support and Palliative Care (SFAP).

[10] Cf. John Paul II, encyclical The Gospel of Life, March 25, 1995, n. 65.

[11] This is provided for by the so-called Clayes-Léonetti law of February 2, 2016.

[12] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Samaritanus Bonus, V §1.

[13] Sacraments for the Sick, n. 144.

[14] Cf., for example, Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus, n° 15. See the quotation from Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1022.

[15] Provided for by the law of April 22, 2005, article 7.

[16] Designation of the “trusted person” provided for by the law of March 4, 2002 and specified in the law of April 22, 2005, article 8: “The opinion of the latter, except in the event of urgency or impossibility, takes precedence over any other opinion non-medical, excluding advance directives, in investigation, intervention or treatment decisions taken by the doctor. »

[17] Intention is “an essential element” for discerning the moral goodness of a human act (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1752). John Paul II, at n. 65 of his encyclical The Gospel of Life, writes: “By euthanasia in the strict sense, we must understand an action or omission which, in itself and with the intention, causes death in order to thus eliminate all pain. Euthanasia is therefore at the level of intentions and that of the processes used. »

[18] Saint John Paul II confirms the moral possibility of refusing therapeutic relentlessness (The Gospel of Life, n. 65). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith evokes “the moral obligation to exclude therapeutic relentlessness” (Letter Samaritanus Bonus of June 25, 2020, V § 2. The civil law known as Léonetti of April 22, 2005 prohibits it.

[19] On the subject of autonomy, John Paul II, n. 64 of The Gospel of Life, writes: “By refusing or forgetting his fundamental relationship with God, man thinks he is a criterion and standard for himself, and he also considers himself to have the right to ask society of him guarantee the possibility and means to decide about one’s life with full and total autonomy. It is particularly men in developed countries who behave this way; he feels led to this attitude by the constant progress of medicine and its ever more advanced techniques. […] In this context, the temptation to euthanasia becomes ever stronger, that is to say the temptation to become master of death by provoking it in anticipation and thus putting a “gentle” end to his own life or the life of others. »

[20] Cf. Fratelli tutti, October 3, 2020, n. 71. Take the time to read the admirable second chapter “A Stranger on the Path” of this encyclical from Pope Francis, Fratelli

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