11/11/2008, 00.00
VATICAN
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A conference at the Vatican on how to accompany sick children

More than four million children have died of AIDS, and six million have been left crippled by war. Cardinal Barragan reiterates the Church's "no" to embryonic stem cell research, which "so far is of no use, and has not cured anyone."

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - It is not easy to face a sick person, and when the sick person is a child, the problem is even more serious. In addition to this, the problem of sick children is a looming one: over the last decade, more than 2 million children have been killed during armed conflicts, 6 million have been left crippled, tens of thousands have been mutilated by anti-personnel mines, while recently 300,000 child soldiers have been recruited. More than 4.3 million children have died of AIDS; every day, in Africa alone, 7,000 contract the virus, and more than 14 million children have been made orphans by the disease.

These are figures that, in their vastness, show the dimensions of a problem that also involves the Church. So the 23rd international conference of the pontifical council for the pastoral care of health workers will be dedicated to "the pastoral care of sick children." The conference will be held at the Vatican from November 13-15, and was presented today. The meeting has given the opportunity for Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the pontifical council, to reiterate the Vatican's opposition to embryonic stem cell research: "so far, embryonic stem cells are of no use, and there has been no cure. The cells that instead have a positive value are umbilical cord and adult stem cells."

In providing the "numbers" on the situation, Cardinal Barragán emphasized how "poverty remains the principal cause of childhood diseases. 1.2 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Even then the richest countries, one child out of  six lives below the poverty level. The problem of drugs has also extended in alarming proportions even to the schools. 30% of children under the age of five suffer hunger or malnutrition." "250 million children under the age of 15 work, and 60 million of these work in dangerous conditions. According to the world labor organization, 120 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work full time, many for six days a week, and some even for seven, often being forced to work in locations without adequate ventilation, with poor lighting, and with armed guards to prevent them from escaping."

In addition to this, "today many children and adolescents are left to themselves and their instincts. The environments in which they live are dominated by the internet and television," and "many families have given up on their educational duty. The father and mother work, and have no time for their children."

"In these circumstances, a question arises: what should the pastoral care of the sick children be like? This conference will seek to provide an answer." It will first examine the reality and origin of childhood illnesses, and then ask what Sacred Scripture and the Fathers of the Church say about care for children, and what has been the testimony of the saints who dedicated their lives to caring for sick children. The third part will be dedicated to "Action." "What kind of catechesis in formation and faith do we need to confront this grave problem? How should we proceed on a sacramental level with these children? How should we use psychological services in their care?"

"I believe," said Msgr. José L. Redrado, O.H., secretary of the pontifical council, "that pastoral service must play an important role in the child-parent relationship, and especially the child-mother relationship, to grasp experiences, needs, problems; to grasp life and be present to it. For this reason, pastoral attention will be oriented increasingly toward a relationship of assistance in which trust may emerge, on the basis of which it will be possible to address the many problems that arise in moments of suffering. Better pastoral care will, therefore, be a constant presence, discreet, noninvasive, an organized and coordinated presence, which will accentuate the most significant needs of persons in the hospital: at the center, the sick child, and around him his parents and health care personnel."

"More than adults do, children have the sensitivity and intuition to recognize whether the 'pastor' who presents himself to them is real and authentic," says Fr. Felice Ruffini, M.I., undersecretary for the pontifical council. "And," he added, "if we want to use the popular expression, 'if he is a true priest', if he truly believes in what he says, and above all is he is consistent with it in his life. It is not an easy 'Mission' to bring light to the dark and difficult journey of such a young life, the prisoner of severe physical suffering, or destined to end its course prematurely." "The priest assigned to the pediatric hospital chaplaincy," he concluded, "must profoundly live the Spirit of Jesus, and will have from him the inspiration at the right time in order to help the sick child to share in the experience of St. Paul, who wrote of himself, 'I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me . . . (he) loved me and gave himself for me' (Gal. 2:20)."

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