Toronto palliative care forum seeks a ‘narrative of hope’

  • May 27, 2024

Amplifying advocacy and pastoral care efforts, bolstering educational resources and championing life-affirming legislation are among the recommendations emerging from an international interfaith symposium on palliative care staged in Toronto late last month.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) bestowed health care, medicine, ethics, legal and pastoral care experts with a forum to propose and discuss strategies for alleviating suffering and providing hopeful accompaniment for patients and their loved ones. The central goal was — and will be going forward — determining how to direct the world toward adopting a “narrative of hope.” 

CCCB president Bishop William McGrattan touted the importance of this symposium’s interreligious dimension during the closing news conference. Followers of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and Indigenous spirituality played an instrumental role in advancing the resolutions.

“All of these (traditions) contributed to the richness, to the narrative that we experienced, which was a narrative of hope,” said McGrattan, Bishop of Calgary. “Palliative care is a sign of hope especially for those who are experiencing grave illness near the end of life.”

PAV president Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia said the conference also promoted that “even when healing is no longer possible, it is always possible to care for others.”

The Italian prelate characterized palliative care as “a deeply human vision of medicine,” and he declared that “in the final stages of earthly existence, we must counter indifference and the culture of waste.”

The aforementioned realities articulated by Paglia and other hurdles or ethical considerations confronting palliative care were addressed in presentations by Dr. Mark Stoltenberg of Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Leonie Herx of Alberta Health Services and Chris Gastmans, a medical ethics professor at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. These May 22 morning lectures were followed by a roundtable discussion focused on devising practical and tangible solutions to address challenges and enhance the quality of care.

An interfaith panel assembled that afternoon to discuss how faith and culture play paramount roles in the palliative care journey. The panelists were Bishop Noel Simard of Valleyfield, Que; Rabbi Barak Hetsroni, chaplain and spiritual advisor of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal; Julia Beazley, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s public policy director; and Dr. Ahmed Al-Awamer, a palliative care physician and educator for Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

Dr. Nunziata Comoretto of the PAV and Louise Kashuba, the director of Covenant Health’s Palliative Institute in Edmonton, began the May 23 morning agenda with talks about promoting a culture of social responsibility in palliative care. Following these final two presentations, participants were assigned to one of the following five discussion groups: palliative care advocacy, community engagement and support, education, culturally responsive palliative care and palliative care policy and legislation.

A post-symposium working group will transform the participants’ recommendations into resources that will help people from around the world build a narrative of hope and promote a culture of social responsibility in palliative care.

McGrattan said a suggestion pitched by the advocacy group meriting strong consideration is an ecumenical denunciation of medical assistance in dying (MAiD).  

“As an interfaith intercoalition, (we) should actually approach the government again and point out all of what we are recognizing in and through this symposium,” said McGrattan. “There is a social responsibility, not only to address physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, but more importantly, as Dr. Leonie mentioned, this is a right, and this is something that the World Health Organization has stated is ethically required of every country around the world: access to palliative care.”

A key pillar of the community engagement and support roundtable discussion was how to expand the visibility and impact of Horizons of Hope: A Toolkit for Catholic Parishes on Palliative Care. This program, developed by a CCCB joint ad hoc committee, addresses questions parishioners might have about palliative care and examines how it should be understood through the lens of Catholic moral and pastoral theology.

McGrattan would like to see more Canadian and international Catholic parishes utilizing the toolkit and for it to be an advantageous resource for other denominations.  

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