Humanization of Death: A Challenge for Christian Formation

Massimo Petrini Would Put Emphasis on Mercy and Hope

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ROME, JAN. 16, 2004 ( Theologian Massimo Petrini thinks the topic of death should be addressed more fully in catechesis — not only for the benefit of those who are dying but also for those who remain.

Petrini, a professor at the Camillianum International Institute of Pastoral and Health Care Theology and director of the Center for the Promotion and Development of Geriatric Care at Rome’s University of the Sacred Heart, presented his book “Care at the End of Life” (“La Cura a la Fine della Vita”) on Wednesday.

In this interview with the newspaper Avvenire, the theologian addresses the need to make death a way of humanization and a proclamation of hope.

Q: Let us begin with the elderly. How is the topic of death addressed with them in Christian communities?

Petrini: Many times, including in the pastoral realm, we talk more about playful aspects, how to amuse them. What is needed is a pastoral program dedicated to these topics, which are not limited to the subject of death, but which touch upon suffering and the acceptance of limitations.

Q: How can this be done?

Petrini: The elderly — at present it is those who are older than 75 — realize that their horizon has been reduced; death is in the background. We must also have the courage to address the topic from the religious point of view.

Q: There is an old tradition of popular piety and support for a “good death.”

Petrini: Without judging the past, the pastoral program in previous centuries was of an “obsessive” nature, based on the Judgment, on the darkest aspects of death. Instead, we should begin to re-read it in a note of mercy and Christian hope. The dying person must be able to accept his life and re-read it in that note.

Q: What interaction is possible between Christian communities and places where people die: hospitals, rest homes?

Petrini: In fact, even today, many oncology patients and very elderly people are at home. Therefore, it is important that the parish also be aware of these problems, whereas we are linked to the figure of chaplains of hospitals and institutions.

Q: How should the laity and priests be formed?

Petrini: If we want to have a realistic pastoral program, we must introduce these “disagreeable” topics in all kinds of catecheses, in keeping with each age and category.

Death and pain are certainly not the only things that exist. But among the many pastoral motivations, these topics must be given greater attention. Priests and religious also need to start addressing them in the seminary; for example, to allow seminarians to frequent hospitals and care institutions for some periods. It would be a way of humanization.

Q: In what sense?

Petrini: I see death as a process of humanization. It makes us grow and creates a unifying factor: Our common humanity is discovered.

These are topics that certainly cannot be exalted, but if we are able to talk about them, we humanize the atmosphere, beyond exclusion and our daily “representation.”

Q: It is a different question when a child or youth dies.

Petrini: We must not look so much at the age, but see a person’s death as the end of his response to a vocation. A child also, in a few months of life, in a mysterious way, has responded to the vocation God committed to him.

Q: How can a funeral be made an instance of closeness with those who suffer?

Petrini: During the funeral, people still don’t realize their loss. They are surrounded by everyone. The problem arises when they return home. Closeness in mourning, signs of which we have done away with today, forms part of the support.

We must help the community to reflect on the fact that the first six months constitute a period in which the one who remains must be given greater attention, and must be heard.

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