Dianne Bulger, right, with Sr. Nuala Kenny, is part of a committee expanding a new ministry to help those at the end of life. Photo courtesy of Dianne Bulger

New ministry to accompany vulnerable on final journey

  • October 27, 2016

Serving the sick and the dying has always been central to the mission of the Church. However, in light of recent legislation that legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide in some cases, dioceses across Canada are giving renewed focus to pastoral care.

Dianne Bulger is part of a committee that is expanding a new diocesan ministry in the Archdiocese of Halifax Yarmouth. Called the Ministry of Care and Companionship, it will begin Oct. 29 to train volunteer caregivers to provide outreach visits.

“There are a lot of people that do not have anybody in the world to help them through the end of their life,” said Bulger. “Yes, they might have nursing staff, but the nurses are busy taking care of the practical needs.”

Bulger said the focus of the new ministry is to be “real company” for people at the end of life in nursing homes and hospices. The training workshops are not meant to replace the practical care nurses provide, but will educate volunteers to better participate in the care system.

“The nurses and the doctors and family members, they don’t want people that are coming along that don’t have the understanding of the death and dying process or the type of support that’s needed,” said Bulger. “When you have that training and they know that, the doors open for you as a volunteer and they invite you in.”

Bulger said people who are sick and dying are very vulnerable. As part of the mission of the Church, it is important that the Church be present for these people and their families.

She first saw a need for this ministry in 1983 as a young woman when her uncle was dying. As a 24-year-old, she remembered how hard the experience was for her family, but there was a nun that regularly visited him in his last days to provide company and comfort.

“It really touched me to know that someone from the Church cared,” said Bulger. “And it wasn’t until I was very involved in parish ministry that I noticed that there were families that stopped coming to church because there had been a death in the family. It was at that point that I realized that the Church wasn’t necessarily responding to that need.”

In 2008, Bulger and 13 parishioners started a parish visiting ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Dartmouth, N.S., and another at St. John XXIII parish in Halifax.

“Our ministry has been playing a strong role in the nursing homes where a lot of people are displaced from their family community. They are also separated from their parish community,” said Bulger.

Their outreach ministry would have volunteers visit nearby nursing homes and hospices once a week to sit with residents, pray with them or just talk with them.

If the person is Catholic, volunteers help get them in touch with local priests for the sacraments. If not Catholic, they help get them in touch with the appropriate religious figure.

For those in palliative care and near death, volunteers often sit in overnight vigil by the person’s bedside to make sure that they don’t die alone.

“A lot of people that decide to choose euthanasia or assisted suicide, a lot of those decisions are made based on the fact that they feel that they are a burden to their families,” said Bulger. “Through our ministry, they’ve got someone there that is there for them. The mere fact that they know that this person is coming from the Catholic Church sends a clear message that the Church has not forgotten about them, that God cares.”

As a response to assisted-suicide legislation passed in Parliament in June, Halifax Archbishop Anthony Mancini wanted to promote visiting ministries in all parishes. He asked Bulger and her parish ministry to expand their service on a diocesan level. She is currently working with five other committee members with experience in palliative care and hospice training to provide workshops across the diocese.

The model for the new diocesan ministry comes from a long-existing Health Care Apostolate that was established in the Diocese of Calgary in 1983. It was formed by Calgary Bishop Paul O’Bryne as a response to the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.

“Today, maybe more than in recent times, we have gained a greater appreciation of the importance of holistic healing,” said director Deacon Michael Soentgerath in an e-mail. “We are, by nature, a highly social being, therefore compassionate pastoral care visits can be a tremendous source of support from the community during times of illness or at end of life.”

Since the Calgary program was formed, it has trained more than 3,000 volunteers. Bulger hopes to someday match that success.

“There is a big wave of interest and I’ve been praying for the last couple of weeks for God to provide some help because it is a huge task,” said Bulger.

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