Palliative care is a reminder that love for those who are dying means accompaniment, not abandonment, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said Wednesday.

In a Feb. 28 letter, the Holy See’s Secretary of State told the Congress on Palliative Care that medicine is based on an “untiring commitment” for new knowledge, but must also recognize the limits of disease and illness.

“And this means not abandoning sick people, but rather being close to them and accompanying them in the difficult test that makes itself present at the end of life.”

He said the mutual dependence of love “emerges with particular emphasis in moments of sickness and suffering, especially at the end of life, but which in reality permeates all human relationships and indeed constitutes their most specific feature.” The cardinal cited St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans about “the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

The Congress on Palliative Care, organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life, is taking place in Rome from Feb. 28 to March 1.

On the agenda of the congress was a presentation of the project PAL-Life, organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life, to disseminate palliative care practices globally.  The congress and the PAL-Life project aim to promote dialogue and cooperation between those involved in performing and promoting palliative care

Cardinal Parolin told the congress that palliative care is “a task in which believers can find like-minded companions in many people of good will.” He said it was significant that representatives of different religions and cultures were present at the congress.

There is a “human and theological dignity” that does not cease, even when one loses one’s health, one’s social role, or control over one’s body.

Palliative care is valuable for medical practice, and for human existence as a whole, because it reminds humanity of the basic dignity at the root of every caring relationship, he said.

Cardinal Parolin noted the importance of the family in palliative care because of its unique role showing “solidarity between the generations.” The family is where mutual aid is experienced in times of suffering or illness.

He suggested there is a bridge between the care one receives at the beginning of life and the care “to be given responsibly to others, in the succession of generations so as to embrace the whole human family.”

When all the resources of action seem to be exhausted, the cardinal said, the “most important aspect” of human relations emerges: that of “being,” including “being present, being close, being welcoming.”

“This also involves sharing in the impotence of those who reach the extreme point of life,” Cardinal Parolin said. When this sharing happens, the meaning of the limit of life can change: “It is no longer a place of separation and solitude, but rather an opportunity for meeting and communion.”

“Death itself is introduced into a symbolic horizon within which it can appear not so much as the term against which life breaks and succumbs, but rather as the fulfillment of a freely received and lovingly shared existence.”

Discussing pain relief, the cardinal noted how Pope Pius XII distinguished it from euthanasia. It may be administered for unbearable pain not otherwise treatable even if it may cause a shortening of life.

With the advent of new sedative drugs, the cardinal explained, “the ethical criterion does not change, but the use of these procedures always requires careful discernment and great prudence.” Deep sedation runs the risk of removing the “relational and communicative dimension” that is crucial in accompanying palliative care.

“It is therefore always at least partially unsatisfactory, so it must be considered as an extreme remedy, after having carefully examined and clarified the indications.”

The cardinal’s letter closed saying that Pope Francis imparted his blessing to the congress and asked prayers for his ministry.

The Congress on Palliative Care considered several topics: how palliative care contributes to medicine, healthcare and society; the spread of palliative care practices; how different religious faiths and spiritual perspectives relate to the care for the dying; and palliative care’s political and economic implications.