Bishop Ricken

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The Most Rev. David L. Ricken is the 12th bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay.

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Faith and end-of-life decisions

By Bishop David Ricken | August 24, 2016

Recently I had the opportunity to be in communication with Jen Bolen, the mother of Jerika Bolen. Jerika is a 14-year old girl from Appleton who has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy, a terminal condition that is slowly shutting down the motor nerves of her body. Jerika’s mother and grandmother have cared for her with so much love since she was diagnosed as a small child.

This summer, we learned of her condition through news reports after she decided to enter hospice and embark into a summer of doing many of the things she has always wanted to do. She plans to remove the ventilator that helps her to breathe toward the end of summer. We pray for the Holy Spirit to offer guidance, comfort and wisdom to the Bolen family as they journey together through August.

This situation makes us pause and reflect on how our faith plays an active role in our decisions regarding end of life. The Catholic Church has always been deeply rooted in its belief that all life is sacred, social and eternal. Death is a natural part of life, a very special part that brings us into final union with our Creator for eternity.

Our church offers great wisdom to help guide our reflections and decisions toward dying and death. First and foremost, we must engage in personal reflection and prayer. We can bring our needs, concerns, joys, desires and questions to God. With an open heart, the Holy Spirit will guide our path to what the Lord desires of us.

We should engage in meaningful conversations with our medical personnel, to whom God provided talent and care. They desire to help us make informed decisions, allowing our ongoing care to be as close to our desires as possible.

Spiritual and ethical guidance is just as important as clinical care. Prayer, companionship of the faith community, the teaching guidance of the church and the sacraments all offer strength to individuals as they move forward on life’s journey.

Conversations with our family and close friends can be very difficult, yet so rewarding. Desires are shared, hearts are opened for forgiveness and memories are brought forward while new ones are created. Love brings families together. Especially when a person is dying, the conversations can be so healing. These special moments of grace should not be rushed, as God is at work in ways we may not even know.

It is difficult to suffer, and it is often even more difficult to watch someone we love suffer. We can help those who experience pain to unite their sufferings with Jesus. He is there to help us carry our burdens. Suffering is real, and in recognizing this, it should be our mission to advocate for better pain management plans, as well as for stronger faith-filled palliative care and hospice programs.

Finally, it is important to recognize that every situation is unique and decisions may change depending on circumstances. That is why it is essential to not make specific decisions in advance, but rather rely on recurring assessments to guide us. I encourage everyone to read, “Now and at the Hour of Our Death,” by the Wisconsin Catholic bishops, to help you prepare for such an important decision. Since most of the time, when serious decisions about life and death need to be made, we are unable to speak for ourselves, it would be wise for everyone to have a protective power of attorney document to ensure that our voices are being heard through a health care advocate. You can find such a document, along with other valuable resources, on the Dignity of Human Life page of our diocesan website.

As we head toward Respect Life Month in October, I sincerely encourage all of you to pray for those who are suffering from an illness and for those who are in their final stages of life. We entrust them to the merciful heart of Jesus, who knows each of us so well and knows best the moment to call us home. “Jesus, I trust in you.”

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