In society today there exists a void between the time a terminally ill patient is informed that further medical treatment is unless and the beginning of palliative or hospice care. During this period of time the potential exists for a terminally ill patient to be confronted with two distinct options. First, the patient can be overwhelmed by the fear of suffering and death, which can result in feelings of abandonment and despair. Second, the patient can, with the support of loved ones, accept the inevitability of suffering and death and grow in his or her dependence upon others and God. I believe this time of transition also exists for family members and friends of the terminally ill patient. They too are confronted with two distinct options. They can avoid the inevitable by isolating the patient in the hospital, under the guise of what is best for the patient, which can often lead to feelings of guilt and remorse after the death of their loved one. Or, they can support the terminally ill patient by their loving presence, which allows family members and friends to face their deepest fears and to embrace death as part of the normal cycle of life. For both patient and family, this period of transition is crucial, because within this time frame the bond of relationship between patient and family is transformed. This transformation can become either the basis for alienation and despair, or the essence of acceptance and hope.
To bridge the transition between the time medical treatment ceases and palliative care begins, I am proposing a Christian ritual that can be used by clergy, pastoral care workers, parish ministers of care, etc., in order to ensure that the fear of abandonment is transformed into the hope of acceptance through the commitment of family and friends. This is a period of time when many in the healing ministry feel helpless in the presence of the suffering patient. What does one say to a patient when he or she has been told that further medical treatment is useless? Any words that might be spoken at this moment would seem almost hollow. Instead, a sense of aloneness seems to pervade the situation. Many within the healing ministry recognize an emptiness here that needs to be filled. But how can this emptiness be filled and who can fill it? To address this need, I am proposing a “Rite Of Christian Commitment To The Terminally Ill,” which can be administered by anyone in the healing ministry in conjunction with family members and friends of the terminally ill patient. Ritualizing our Christian commitment to one another enables the bond that holds us faithful to one another, which can be expressed by our willingness to be present to one another, to be revitalized and strengthened. I believe this ritualization is not only needed but is imperative, especially now when many in our society are advocating physician-assisted suicide as the most humane viable option for the terminally ill. Unless terminally ill patients know that family and friends are committed to be present to them during the dying process, the option of physician-assisted suicide becomes more of a reality.
Rite of Christian Commitment To The Terminally Ill
I. Introductory Rites:
1. The peace of the Lord be with you always.
R. And also with you.
My dear brothers and sisters, the Lord Jesus, who went about doing good works and healing sickness and infirmity of every kind, commanded his disciples to lovingly care for the sick and dying, to pray for them, and to lay hands on them. In this celebration we shall entrust our sick brothers and sisters to the care of the Lord, asking that he will enable them to bear their pain and suffering in the knowledge that, if they accept their share in the pain of his passion, they will also share in its power to give comfort and strength. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen[i]
II. Liturgy Of The Word
A. Suggested Readings:
Hebrew Scripture New Testament
1. Psalm 23 1. 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7
2. Psalm 71 2. Romans 8: 31b-35, 37-39
3. Job 7: 1-4, 6-11 3. Romans 8: 18-27
4. Job 7: 12-21 4. Colossians 1:22-29
5. Job 19: 23-27 5. Matthew 5: 1-12
6. Isaiah 35: 1-10 6. Matthew 11: 28-30
7. Isaiah 52: 13-53:12 7. Luke 12: 22-32
8. Isaiah 61: 1-3 8. John 6: 35-40
9. John 6: 53-58 9. Wisdom 9: 1, 9-18
III. Prayers Of Christian Commitment
The Pastoral Care member will begin by introducing the individual prayers of Christian commitment with a short prayer calling upon God to give comfort and care to the person who is ill. Then each person present will extemporaneously present a prayer for the person who is ill stating his/her intention to be present to the person who is ill throughout the remainder of their illness. The patient, if possible, will then state his/her intention to allow family and friends to be present to him/her.
Jesus came as healer of body and of spirit in order to cure all our ills. He chose to be like us in all things, in order to assure us of his compassion. He bore our weakness and carried our sorrows. He felt compassion for the crowd, and went about doing good and healing the sick. With trust let us pray to Jesus that he will comfort (N.) with his grace and that he will fill (N.) with new hope and strength.
The patient, in his/her own words, accepts the care and love offered and agrees to allow family and friends and health care professionals to be present to him/her.
IV. Prayer of Blessing
All present will extend their hands over the person who is ill and pray the following prayer. At the conclusion of the prayer each person will trace the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person who is ill.
Lord, our God, you sent your only begotten Son into the world to bear our infirmities and to endure our sufferings. Look with compassion upon your servant (N.). Give (him/her) strength in body, courage in spirit, and patience in pain. Support (N.) with your grace, comfort (him/her) with your protection, and give (him/her) the strength to fight against all evil. Since you have given (N.) a share in your own passion, help (him/her) to find hope and consolation in suffering, for you are Lord for ever and ever. Amen
All: Our Father
V. Concluding Rite:
God of mercy, look kindly on your servant (N.) who has grown weak under the burden of illness. Strengthen (him/her) by your grace and help (him/her) to remain close to you in prayer. Fill (him/her) with the strength of your Holy Spirit. Keep (him/her) strong in faith and serene in hope, so that (he/she) may give us all an example of patience, and joyfully witness to the power of your love.
Lord, we ask you to soothe the hearts of the family members and friends of (N.) gathered here today. In your loving kindness enlighten their faith, give hope to their hearts, and peace to their lives. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Go in the peace of Christ to serve him in the sick and in all who need your love.
The Joint Commission of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences, “Order For The Blessing Of Adults,” Book Of Blessings, (New York, Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989), No.383, p. 165.