Deacons learn about end-of-life care during annual assembly

Dr. Jane Thibault spoke to a group of deacons, candidates in formation for the diaconate and their wives during an assembly day at St. Margaret Mary Church, Sept. 29. Her topic was ministry to the sick and dying. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Deacons, gathered for an assembly day at St. Margaret Mary Church Sept. 29, heard that end-of-life care is complex, but that they are called to be the presence of God to the ill or dying.

A group of about 130 deacons of the Archdiocese of Louisville, candidates in formation for the diaconate and their wives took part in an assembly where they heard from speakers on end-of-life care and the church’s teaching on the subject. Part of the day was also dedicated to a town hall meeting led by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz where he discussed the sexual abuse crisis facing the church.

Dr. Jane Thibault, clinical professor emerita at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, gave a presentation on “Listening, Hearing and Responding to the Needs of the Seriously Ill, the Dying and their Loved Ones.”

Thibault opened her presentation by sharing with her listeners that her experience with illness and dying was personal — both her parents died within 13 months of each other when she was in high school. And Thibault herself was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, she said.

Thibault told the diaconate assembly that end-of-life care is “complex” and involves not only the dying, but their family members — who may have differing perspectives and differing “capacity to hear the truth of the dying person’s condition.” They may have no spiritual base and reject pastoral care, she said.

As a result, communication difficulties can be some of the greatest challenges encountered in this ministry, Thibault said.

“It’s amazing what you will walk into. You can never predict what is going on with a family when you make a visit,” she said. Poor communication can take away an individual’s opportunity to experience a “good death,” said Thibault.

A deacon’s presence, she said, can help mitigate the situation.

She shared four communication skills, which, she said, are the basis of good care:

  • Listening with one’s total attention and presence.
  • Hearing and seeing words and body language.
  • Recognizing the real message being conveyed.
  • Responding to the real message.

In ministering to the sick and dying, deacons should also be aware that they may be called to attend to the needs of many —  including family members, friends and even professional care providers, Thibault said.

The “call” may not be formal or come from the individuals themselves. It may be an “inner sense that God is calling you to attend to them,” she explained.

How can anyone minister to so many, sometimes in one visit?

The answer, Thibault said, is being a “compassionate presence, recognizing that you are the presence of God to them and they are the Christ in need to you.”

Compassionate presence means “being aware, to endure something with another person, to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, to feel their pain as though it were our own,” said Thibault.

Her presentation was helpful to deacons, who often minister to people nearing the end of life, said Deacon Dennis Nash, director of the archdiocese’s Diaconate Office. He noted that one of the diaconate charisms is ministry to the sick and dying.

Thibault’s presentation also resonated on a personal level, said Deacon Nash.

“We all deal with death,” he said. Her presentation was “spot on, on what it means to listen, to be present to families and make Christ present in the midst of sickness and death.”

The day ended with a liturgy where deacons were invited to renew their vows and the candidates received the Institute of Lector — a rite on the journey to ordination.

Seven deacons — Deacons James Abell, Martin Brown, Robert Filiatreau, Kenneth Mitchell, Sylvester Nitzken, Charles Thieneman and  Richard J. Walsh — were recognized for their 25th anniversary of ordination at a dinner, which rounded out the day’s events.

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