by Tom Welk, C.PP.S., Leadership Team
We had been providing hospice services for only a few years in the early 1980s. The concept was fairly new, not just in south central Kansas, but also throughout the country. One of my responsibilities was to give talks in the community, explaining the purpose and philosophy of hospice care. A line I used regularly to describe our program was “hospice is available to help people die well.”
A psychiatrist at a large Wichita hospital asked me to talk to a group of teenagers who were hospitalized for severe emotional problems, primarily dealing with depression. He thought it would be helpful and healthy for them to confront the issue of mortality. I knew this would be a challenge, and had a certain degree of trepidation addressing the group.
As I was delivering my remarks I used the phrase “hospice helps people die well” several times. I could sense a certain amount of unease; I attributed this uncomfortableness to the difficult topic and age of the audience. Finally, one young man simply yelled at me, “Why in the hell is it so important to die well?”
In my mind I was quickly formulating a way to defend my comment, but suddenly the light went on in my head. The youngster was absolutely correct. Generally, we don’t go about thinking about how we are going to die well. The overwhelming concern we all have is figuring out how we are going to live well every precious moment of the gift of life.
My tag line for every group I now address always centers on this point, “hospice is available to support people to live well.” This support is especially important for terminally ill individuals. They know they have a limited time left, and they want to spend it living every moment as fully as possible. Some of them end up living more fully the last part of their life’s journey than they have their entire preceding lifetime.
I also remind groups we are all on a terminal track. The moment we began our physical existence we began the “dying process.” In the meantime we are alive. The challenge for us as we begin every single day is to concentrate on living. As Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S. pointed out with the Albert Schweitzer quote from the August issue of The New Wine Press, “The real tragedy in life is what dies inside a person while he is still alive.” Unduly dwelling on dying can easily lead to a paralysis that keeps us from living.
Just as we know death comes for each of us personally, so also we realize death may come for our Community. In the meantime, what will be our focus: the fact that our Community may not be around forever, at least in the form we now know it? Or will we strive to accomplish as much as we possibly can while we are still alive? Comments such as “we are a dying Community” can easily lead to a paralysis that keeps us from being a vibrant Community.
Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M. reflected on this point in her April 25, 2014 address at the annual meeting of the Conference of Religious of Ireland, stating that presently too many in religious life spend their lives in a holding pattern as they lament the decline of religious life and lack of younger members. Schneiders states “a healthy congregational age distribution chart should show the majority of professed members between 60 and 80 with a small number in the 40s and 50s.” She continues, “You often hear religious saying, ‘Just look at the age chart. Most of the Congregation is over 70. We are dying.’”
According to Schneiders’ observations, we are still a vibrant Community. As such, we need to engage ourselves in ministries that will continue to foster the well being of God’s People. What especially resonated with me as I read her remarks was the comment, “We probably need to shift the focus of our ministries from the first half of life (Catholic children and adolescents) and the extreme end of life (the sick and dying) toward the bulk of the population.”
At first I thought, is she putting down my hospice ministry? Obviously, that is not the case; people considered having only six months or less to live must be ministered to. But that is not where the majority of our people are in their life journey. Schneiders concludes that our ministerial concentration must be toward supporting people in their faith life and commitment.
What does this mean for our own Community? First, we must let go of an attitude that says, “We are a dying community. Why even think about starting any new venture?” This kind of attitude will ensure we are a “dead” community. Second, once we get beyond this defeatist attitude, we may be ready to tackle the harder question of how will we support “people in their faith life and commitment?”
We have raised and discussed (and will continue to discuss) the possibility of expanding Precious Blood Center with the building of a conference center. By no means has a final decision been reached about building this center. However, I believe we can only honestly and fruitfully discuss this possibility by having trust and hope that we still have a lot of living to do, and much to offer the Church in the sharing of our Precious Blood Spirituality.
To paraphrase my opening comments: Let us strive to really live well; let us fully minister to God’s People well while we are alive. Let us avoid the real tragedy of being dead inside long before physical death occurs.
Carpe Diem: let us grab hold of whatever opportunities come our way.