February 6, 2018
At St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, hundreds of parishioners are starting conversations about their future care wishes. Priests have discussed advance care planning from the pulpit, volunteers have organized conversation workshops and the church has worked closely with Speak(easy) Howard as one of 14 partners in the campaign’s first pilot year.
One longtime church member, Audrey Marsh, had never had a serious conversation with her family about making end-of-life decisions. But when she became part of the church’s committee working with Speak(easy) Howard, she quickly understood that if she were unable to communicate, there would not be anybody to dictate exactly what her wishes are, both while she is here and after she has passed.
This led Marsh to start a conversation not only with her family, but also with several hundred members of the congregation.
“People don’t realize that when you don’t make arrangements for yourself, you’re really unkindly sticking the job on someone else,” said Father Gene Nickol, associate pastor of the church.
The volunteer church committee led by Marsh researched Catholic teachings on advance care planning, met with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, mapped out their outreach and worked with the four priests at St. John the Evangelist to provide resources and information.
The priests began sharing information by delivering homilies on advance care planning to each of their masses. Each priest uniquely described how important end-of-life decisions are to them and using their own personal stories urged parishioners to take important steps in planning for their own care.
“I met with my funeral director to get it done,” said Father Nickol. “It took a half an hour. It was that easy.”
In addition to the message coming from the pulpit, church members heard about Speak(easy) Howard in numerous ways. A committee member attended each mass to answer questions. Newsletters and emails included notices. Workshops took place immediately after mass. Conversation Starter Kits showed people how to begin their discussions and name their health care agent online. The committee conducted a significant amount of outreach—and it made an impact.
Commitment from church leadership was vital to St. John the Evangelist’s work with Speak(easy) Howard. Father Gerard Bowen, St. John the Evangelist senior pastor, supported clergy, Marsh and others on the team in reaching out to the congregation. “Our parishioners really embraced this effort – they were eager for it. And the first workshop was done very well, which kept people engaged.”
The church held three conversation workshops with as many as 120 people at each session. Panel discussions that answered questions about the legal and medical components of advance care planning had more than 300 attendees.
St. John the Evangelist also made a concerted effort to ensure the message reached the church’s Spanish-speaking members who make up nearly half the congregation. Associate Pastor Father Leandro Fazolini delivered Spanish homilies that emphasized the importance of determining and discussing these decisions now.
The church is continuing to expand its outreach with more discussions including a “Sabbath Sunday” message in October and another session in December. Volunteer and clergy leaders also are sharing their experiences with other faith groups to help them get started. The work is making a difference.
“We had one member tell us she had shared this at a big family reunion,” said Marsh. “She made decisions with the immediate family right then and there and gave Conversation Starter Kits to the rest of the families to get it done. People just understood how important this is, and I feel blessed by how fulfilling and uplifting this has been.”
See homilies from the 2017 Lenten season that discuss advance care planning: