Fr. Kevin Belgrave will deliver a talk in Toronto Jan. 13 on preparing parishioners spiritually for the end of life. Photo courtesy of Fr. Kevin Belgrave

Catholics need better spiritual preparation for the end of life

  • January 7, 2015

TORONTO - Priests need to preach the Church’s teachings on end-of-life issues more frequently to better spiritually prepare parishioners for the inevitable, Fr. Kevin Belgrave believes.

Belgrave, an assistant professor of moral theology at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary, will deliver this sentiment in a four-hour lecture and dialogue on the topic Jan. 13 at the seminary, titled Helping Families Through End-of-Life Issues: What Priests Need To Know.

“The solution to the vast majority of problems and challenges that arise at the end of life begins long before the moment of death arises,” said Belgrave, who recently returned from Rome where he completed his dissertation on end-of-life bio-ethics, specifically palliative sedation. “If you attempt to deal with end-of-life issues only at the moment when death is on our door you have a person who has in no way been prepared for that moment.”

Belgrave said that the parishioner who is spiritually unprepared for death is becoming the norm. A “despiritualized” culture has changed how parishioners talk about death if they’re talking about it at all, he said.

“Even in our own parents’ generation there was so many more religious resources that were part of the air of the culture that people drew on when they were dying,” he said. “People understood that spiritual preparation for death was so important. Now we live in a very despiritualized world where people are so much more concerned about their physical well-being (rather) than their spiritual well-being.”

Even those who claim to be prepared for the end of their life more often than not are referring to funeral and visitation arrangements rather than their spiritual affairs, added Belgrave.

That dedication to the physical has manifested many medical advances such as vaccines and life-prolonging treatments which have further shifted the attention of many from preparing for death to preventing it entirely.

“We have a capacity to extend life to overcome things that most certainly killed people earlier in generations past,” said Belgrave, who noted that today people are expected to live an additional decade compared to people from a half century ago. “We are not accustomed to thinking about death and dying and when we do think about it we are often very, very afraid of it because we see the way people sometimes die in hospitals.”

But ignore dying as we may, a simple glance at demographics tells us that a surge in deaths is pending as the baby boomer generation ages.

“You take those three elements together — the demographic, the technical changes and the cultural changes — and you have a storm on our horizon and priests need to be ready to face that.”

Fortunately for priests, while much in the secular world has changed regarding dying, the Church’s teachings have remained constant. Simply reminding parishioners of those teachings eases their anxiety by beginning to prepare them for death, said Belgrave.

“It gradually begins to strengthen their hopes, their faith, it reduces their fear and it thus leads to better decision-making, clearer decision-making and more peace at the end of life,” he said. “Priests are often on the frontlines of helping families through what can be difficult end-of-life scenarios. The more they understand the Church’s thinking and her mind on this the greater benefit to families.”

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