Diocese issues advance medical directives for dying

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted has issued new advance medical directives to help Catholics better understand the Church’s teaching on end-of-life issues and to provide guidance to caregivers.

In a May 16 letter to the faithful, the bishop addressed confusion over end-of-life issues. “In a culture where some people demand that they have the right to die and even to assist others who may be suffering to end their lives, the Church proclaims that God alone is the Lord of life,” he wrote.

The medical ethics board for the Phoenix Diocese developed the advance directives based on the Church’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which deal with the care of the seriously ill and dying.

Dr. Frank Agnone, a Catholic internal medicine physician, has stood many times at the bedside of patients facing the end of their lives. He said the advance directives issued by the Phoenix Diocese are based on the magisterial teaching of the Church and will be a big help to the faithful.

“None of us is equipped to put something this profound and this insightful together about human nature and natural law as God would have us live it out in His plan for creation, redemption and our salvation,” Dr. Agnone said, “but the Magisterium of our Church has and it makes so much sense.”

Dr. Agnone said the time during which patients and their families face the end of life is sacred and shouldn’t be rushed.

“We want to create the most sacred environment in which to finish the journey,” Dr. Agnone said. “We don’t prolong death but we respect that there are still some final chapters, some final moments of this life that can be carefully observed.”

The advance directives, he emphasized, are focused on human dignity. “We’re observing the dignity, the final moments of this natural passage,” Dr. Agnone said. “The last thing we want to do is take an active role in rushing somebody out of here when death is the last great act… when the Lord takes back their soul and the soul moves on.”

Geriann Heslin, a registered nurse who spent five years working with hospice patients, said that for her Catholic patients and their families, the knowledge that the end of earthly life was near was often a call to prayer.

“The Divine Mercy prayer within the hour of death is important to those who ask for it,” Heslin said. “If you look at the writings of St. Faustina, you see how powerful the chaplet is when it’s prayed within their last hour. That’s something that’s hugely valuable.”

Most people aren’t familiar with the natural signs that death is near, so Heslin often spent time educating and counseling the families of her patients. That included teaching them that patients can hear what those around them are saying until their last seconds of life.

“It’s important they can hear the chaplet being prayed by their husband or wife or children around their bed,” Heslin said. She said she also told family members to give their loved one permission to let go of life. “It’s important to give them permission, to say, ‘It will be OK, go to Jesus’ arms.’ That’s really comforting to the family.”

Everyone’s life is sacred, Heslin said, right up to the moment when it ends. “I believe God has the perfect time for them and we should leave it up to God,” she said.

The new advance directives developed by the diocese’s medical ethics board are in the form of a health care power of attorney. The directives follow guidelines from several Church documents, including the fifth edition of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services and “Responses to Certain Questions of the USCCB Concerning Artificial Nutrition and Hydration” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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Advance directives

For a copy of the new advance directives, visit: www.diocesephoenix.org/about-policies.php

The direct link is found in Book 3: The Teaching Office of the Church. Click here for the PDF document.