CathBlog July 4: Love at the Threshold of Hope

‘The hospice makes one understand that dying means living before death,’ Pope John Paul II once reflected, writes Gabrielle Mc Mullen. Such a place, he said, becomes ‘a threshold of hope which leads beyond suffering and death’.

I recently had the privilege of participating in the 75 year anniversary of Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew, Melbourne.  The hospice is one of the ministries founded by the Sisters of Charity of Australia and in 2009 transferred to the new apostolic public juridic person, Mary Aikenhead Ministries, for which I am one of the six Trustees. 

The celebration took place on 7 June, a propitious date which is both the Feast of the Sacred Heart and 75 years to the day since the first Mass celebrated at the hospice.  

For the anniversary Mass, Archbishop Denis Hart was chief celebrant and he expressed his appreciation to the Sisters of Charity for their ministry to the dying through Caritas Christi Hospice and to the lay staff who continue to provide hospice care faithful to the tradition of the Sisters.   

Current Chief Executive Officer of our health ministries in Melbourne, including Caritas Christi Hospice, Professor Patricia O’Rourke, recounted how the founding sisters had admitted the first patients to the hospice just days after taking possession of the property in Kew. 

She lamented the fact that modern planning dictates a very different time scale for new healthcare projects!

The inspiration for the modern hospice movement is attributed to Dame Cicely Saunders who in 1967 established St Christopher's Hospice in London.  Her philosophy of care, founded on the dignity and comfort of those in the last stages of life, has spread around the globe and made a profound contribution to modern healthcare. 

Significantly, the contributions of many religious institutes to hospice care prefigure these developments.

Madame Jeanne Garnier, who in 1842 founded the Dames de Calaire in Lyon, France, is credited with the first modern usage of the concept of a hospice for the dying.  The Irish Sisters of Charity next opened hospices of this type – Our Lady's Hospice, Dublin in 1879 and St Joseph's Hospice, London in 1905.  The Sisters of Charity of Australia similarly founded Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1890 and Caritas Christi Hospice in 1938.  Another early Australian hospice was Mary Potter Home in North Adelaide founded by the Little Company of Mary in 1902.

For these and other religious institutes, establishing hospices (and delivery of healthcare more widely) was a means by which they continued the healing ministry of Jesus, "which upholds the dignity of each individual and promotes wholeness and transformation as life nears its end" (Caritas Christi Hospice mission). 

A hospice with its specialised care for the dying is underpinned by a multidisciplinary healthcare team and, for the Church's facilities, spiritual and pastoral support is integral to the holistic care of the patient and their loved ones.  Further, patients are offered art and music therapies, the opportunity to record an oral history, and other means to reflect on their life, articulate their spirituality, and to face their suffering and vulnerability.

On a 1998 visit to Rennweg Hospice in Vienna, Pope John Paul II reflected, ‘The hospice makes one understand that dying means living before death, because even the last phase of earthly life can be lived consciously and organised individually. Far from being a 'home for the dying', this place becomes a threshold of hope which leads beyond suffering and death.’

He continued, ‘The believer can trust in the Lord’s promise: “Because I live, you will live also” (John 14:19) ... To make the acceptance of this message easier for the critically ill and dying, it is necessary that all who approach them show by their own conduct that they take the words of the Gospel seriously. Therefore care and concern for people close to death is one of the most important signs of ecclesial credibility. Those who in the last phase of life feel supported by sincere Christians can more easily trust that Christ truly awaits them in the new life after death.’

I am in admiration of the lay staff and volunteers who continue the ministry of hospice care founded by the various religious congregations.  So many of them live out the foundational story of Christian healthcare, the Good Samaritan, in a truly inspirational manner. 

Just as the Good Samaritan cared for the health and wellbeing of the injured man encountered on the roadside, tending to his wounds and providing hospitality at an inn, these staff bring Christ to the bedside of the terminally ill and dying through the nature of their holistic care. 

In 1938 the Sisters of Charity named their new hospice for the ‘love of Christ’.  In the following decades many sisters who ministered at Caritas Christi Hospice radiated this love to those whom they accompanied during their final illness. 

It must be a source of joy to the Congregation that staff and volunteers who continue their ministry bring this same loving respect for the dignity of the dying and for life at all its stages to their service at Caritas Christi Hospice.  The nature of their service is especially important at a time when proponents of euthanasia seek to dominate the end-of-life culture.

 Professor Gabrielle McMullen AM is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.