The latest initiative of the Tulsa, Oklahoma diocese is not only offering practical care for the region's homeless and under-privileged communities — it's bringing a message of hope in the face of death.
“Just because you're dying doesn't mean there's no reason to hope,” Bishop Edward James Slattery of Tulsa told journalists March 21 during a visit to Rome.
“Just the opposite. Christ has changed the meaning of death to the entrance into life.”
Porta Caeli — Latin for “door to heaven” — is a diocese-run hospice center people can receive end-of-life care consistent with the Catholic understanding of human dignity and the afterlife, regardless of race, illness, or financial status. The center will host up to twelve terminally ill residents at any given time, with 200-400 people expected annually. Those admitted to the center are expected to die within a matter of days or weeks. “What's valuable to this is that it sends messages to the entire diocese that it's okay to die,” Bishop Slattery said. “We're all going to die. And stop pretending that you're not.”
The Tulsa bishop expressed his desire for parishioners to be personally involved in the initiative, helping console the dying and their loved ones, while trying “to show them that what’s awaiting them is heaven: To be in the company of God for all eternity.”
“Their own faith then will be strengthened,” he said.
Bishop Slattery explained that Porta Caeli is unique in that it does permit interventions to end life prematurely, nor does it encourage artificially extending life beyond what is necessary.
Praising modern medicine and technology as a “gift from God,” he said some procedures are nonetheless “contrary to Catholic teaching, and are of not service but are detrimental to the good of humanity.”
The bishop cited the example of giving a terminally ill patient pain a higher dose of pain medication with the intention of speeding the dying process.
“That is really not letting the person die a natural death. It’s really, in effect, killing them,” he said. “Let God decide when you die. He knows when you should, and then he will take you to himself.”
Assisted suicide for terminally ill patients is currently legal in eight U.S. States, although Oklahoma is not one of them.
Bishop Slattery also addressed the other extreme, seen in the effort to keep someone alive artificially when they have the “right to die.”
Speaking of family and loved ones of the patient, he said “maybe they don't believe with real strong faith in life eternal and what’s in store, so they want to keep their loved one alive as long as possible — even though the person will never wake up.”
In situations where there is no chance of recovery, he said, it is best to allow the terminally ill person to “die in piece,” give them medication, and pray with them “if they’re awake or alert.”
The Porta Caeli center is a carry over from another Tulsa diocese initiative called the St. Joseph's home, a hospice established decades earlier to minister to those dying during the AIDS crisis.
We “invited people who had AIDS and who were dying to come and die with us, because they would otherwise be out on the street,” he said.
When medications became available to lower the mortality rate of AIDS, St. Joseph's could not continue serving the needs of people with the disease. This led to the decision to reestablish the hospice to cater to anyone suffering from a terminal illness.
Porta Caeli is an initiative of the Tulsa diocese's non-government funded Catholic Charities branch. Bishop Slattery explained this presence is important in that it is distinguished from a simply humanitarian entity.
“What I think our witness is to the Gospel is that we always unify the Eucharist with works of charity, so that no one will perceive what we do as purely humanitarian,” he said. This is “because we do things with faith, which means we are really just agents of Jesus Christ.”
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