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Writing about death is difficult for a priest. It is difficult because to write about death in the abstract is to miss the reality that death never comes in the abstract. When death comes, it comes to people I know and love. And for them to invite me into this last passage of their lives is to offer me a sacred trust. I cannot write about their experiences, or my experiences with them, unless I erase the details of their lives that make their ends so unique. So, I have to write about death in the abstract, thinking about it as a concept or an idea. Nobody who faces death faces it as a concept; they face it as an enemy to be vanquished one way or another.
One way or another we must eliminate death. The usual course for eliminating death is by passing through it. Even in a society like Canada’s, which is increasingly secularized (or at least de-Christianized), I’ve learned that the Church still has a place in helping people as they prepare to pass through death. But in Canada this is complicated by our policy of medical assistance in dying, known as MAiD—the euphemism we use for euthanasia. MAiD is not about palliative care, though it can include elements of palliative care. MAiD is about the use of medicine to shorten the lifespans of those who request it.
Writing about MAiD as a priest is difficult for the same reason that writing about death is difficult. To write about either is to write in the abstract, or to write about faceless people with indistinct illnesses, fears, and anxieties. But I will nevertheless attempt to point to the problems with Canada’s embrace of MAiD, from my perspective as a Christian priest. Some of the problems are conceptual, and these are somewhat easier to write about. But the human problems with MAiD only ever emerge in context, and while I have to respect the privacy of those who have confided in me because of my office, I will try to gesture toward some of these problems as well.
In the English Reformation, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer drew together a number of homilies to read in parish churches, especially in settings in which there was no licensed preacher. These homilies were meant to set out doctrine in plain form. They privileged simplicity and applicability over eloquence.
The “Exhortation Against the Fear of Death” is one of the more pastoral sermons. Its aim is to buttress the Christian against the inevitability of death by pointing out the way Christian hope—especially hope unmarred by “popish” notions of purgatory—can guarantee the nearness of Christ, avoidance of damnation, and joy in the world to come. Thus death, though it is cast as fearsome, can be borne with courage.
If the language of the same exhortation were modernized, the homily would sound right at home in many Christian churches today. In Canada, it would have been compelling until around five years ago, when MAiD was first enacted. But if the logic behind homilies like the “Exhortation Against the Fear of Death” still remains broadly applicable, it may not be for much longer. Increasingly, many Canadians, including Christians, are opting to hasten death’s arrival. In the next year, new legislation will allow people the option to die even if they can’t see their end on the horizon at all.
This is evidence of how the ancient patterns of life that once shaped the cure of souls are changing. The cure of souls is bound to the concrete texture of human existence as much as it is bound to religious life and its scriptural roots. With the shifting of the patterns of human existence, the task of caring for human beings whom God loves changes, too. Are the changes leading to further human flourishing? What does it mean for pastors to keep up with the shifting values?