Laity have role in stemming tide of assisted suicide

Fr. William Hann was one of the speakers at a recent conference for chaplains and lay pastoral care workers in Vancouver. (Photo by Agnieszka Ruck, BC Catholic - CCN)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Living in the region with the highest number of assisted suicides in Canada, Fr. William Hann of the Diocese of Victoria says he has seen much moral distress, broken families, and troubling situations.

“Remember when we talked about the slippery slope? Even before five years are up, the slope is becoming more slippery,” Hann told 95 priests, chaplains, and health care volunteers Jan. 21.

In 2016, assisted suicide and euthanasia were legalized for Canadians whose deaths were “reasonably foreseeable.” In the two years that followed, 500 people on Vancouver Island sought a doctor-aided death – five times the Canadian average.

With the wrapping up of a federal government consultation on public opinion about expanding eligibility for assisted suicide, Hann is skeptical. “The government does not want to hear the stories of what we are experiencing in our diocese where people are suffering moral distress.”

On Vancouver Island, “where everybody comes from everywhere else to retire,” many elderly people have fallen out of touch with friends and support networks and become vulnerable, he said.

He has met nurses who have lost jobs over refusing to participate in assisted suicides. He sees ailing people mired in isolation because family members consider it too inconvenient to travel to the island. And he has reached out to a parent in the early stages of cancer who was urged on toward death by her children.

“Dying with dignity? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But it’s corrupted,” he said. “We live in this culture that is death-denying and death-defying – the last great selfish act.”

Yet despite the grim scenarios, Hann said people of faith still have a vital role to play.

“We are called to the healing ministry of Christ, to walk with people, to be with them in their time of need,” he said. “We must always come back to the very core of who we are called to be. Pope Francis invites us to swim against the tide of cynicism and despair and be people of hope and mercy, even in these difficult, challenging times.”

Opportunities range from sharing one’s views about assisted suicide on social media to spending time in a care home or hospital with someone who is ill. When there are no family members nearby, those visits can make a world of difference for someone.

“People tell chaplains things they don’t tell doctors because the heart speaks to heart. That is something we have lost in British Columbia in the most part.”

Hann encouraged lay people to take up the challenge to be like Jesus for the ill, elderly, and dying.

He offered a quote from Jesuit theologian Father James F. Keenan: “Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”

“I love the definition,” said Hann. “Mercy is the ability to enter into the chaos of someone’s life and be with them in their need.’ Jesus did that. He did that and so must we.”

Taking questions from the crowd, Father Hann said he accompanies the ill and dying as long as they want – but not if they request an assisted suicide. That’s where he draws the line.

“As priests, as pastoral care workers, as chaplains, when we bring Jesus to people, we have discovered, when they are supported, when they are loved, when they are affirmed, when they are included, they don’t need to make choices to end their life.”

Hann was speaking at a one-day conference for chaplains and lay pastoral care workers in Vancouver Jan. 21. Also speaking was Bob Breen, head of the Catholic Health Association of B.C. and the Denominational Health Association, who said the faithful have a role in building a culture of life.

“It’s not the reins that pull the carriage, it’s the horses,” he said. In combatting assisted suicide, “we need to look to the laity.”

Star of the Sea Parish, for example, offers a pastoral care program to train parishioners to become regular visitors for the hospitalized and homebound. The health association is making the same training available to any parish in the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

“Be with people, sit down, and hold a hand for half an hour … listen and let them share,” said Breen. “Once they get to know you, they will share things they may not share with their family. They need to get it off their chest. It’s listening that makes a difference in their quality of life.”

His organization has also released a Health Ethics Guide smartphone app with resources for chaplains and Catholic health care workers who face troubling moral situations.

Speakers Fr. John Horgan, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in North Vancouver, and Peter Nobes, head of Catholic Cemeteries, discussed how to navigate cultural expectations and complex situations regarding funerals.

“We need to have the courage to reach out in love so even in times of brokenness, when they can’t see the fullness of Christ’s love, they can see some of it,” said Horgan.

Nobes said some statistics show 16 per cent of Catholics actively practise their faith, but double that number requests a Catholic funeral Mass.

In his work he draws inspiration from a woman he knew named Mary who was so reconciled with her family and death and had such strong faith that she cried out on her deathbed: “Lord, I am ready! Take me!”

“Our aim is to prepare people to be like Mary,” he said.