Skip to Main Content
UMass Chan Medical School, Lamar Soutter Library. Education. Research. Health Care. Empowering the future. Preserving the past.
UMass Chan Medical School Homepage Lamar Soutter Library Homepage

Cultural Approaches to Pediatric Palliative Care in Central Massachusetts: Roman Catholicism

This subject guide is a collaborative project with the Children's Medical Center Pediatric Palliative Care Team, the Lamar Soutter Library, and Interpreter Services.

Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholicism

  • Roman Catholicism is the largest group in the U.S. 


  • Strong tradition of liturgy (ceremony)
  • Emphasis on practices (usually termed, sacraments), including: baptism, Eucharist, prayers for the sick, holy orders, marriage, confirmation and confession/penance
  • Dedication to creeds (formulated statements of beliefs)
  • Belief in Apostolic succession of leadership, meaning leaders should be male successors of the original apostles of Jesus


Daily practices

  • Prayers at table, bedside and other times
  • May desire daily Eucharist or attendance at Mass
  • Use of sacramentals or aids in the spiritual life, such as rosary beads/prayer, holy images, candles, etc.

Dying and death

  • Belief in life after death
  • Persons experiencing grave suffering and/or approaching death are usually encouraged to pin their suffering to that of Christ’s.
  • Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick very important for the seriously ill, frail and elderly. Used to be called Last Rites.
  • Autopsy and Organ Donation acceptable
  • Body to be treated with respect
  • Wakes encouraged- usually in a funeral home the day before the funeral.
  • Funeral Mass is the norm but can be replaced with a funeral version of Liturgy of the Word
  • Graveside service is also typical

Facilitating practices

  • Ask patient and family about preferred practices
  • Ask about rituals and needs such as Eucharist/Communion or anointing
  • Provide for privacy as needed


  • Traditional Catholics may fast and/or ask for sacramental confession prior to receiving Eucharist and may wish to avoid meat on Fridays, especially during season of Lent; offer to provide fish instead
  • No general dietary restrictions


  • Blood and blood products acceptable
  • May wish major amputated limb to be buried in consecrated ground
  • Sacrament of the sick (anointing by a priest) may be very important
  • May believe suffering is part of one’s fate or punishment from God

Holy days and festivals

  • Traditional Christian holidays as well as observance of special holy days when attendance at Mass is viewed as an obligation.
  • Holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated as a season, not only for one significant day.


Pregnancy and


  • Natural means of  birth control
  • Abortion and sterilization prohibited
  • Artificial means of conception are discouraged
  • Baptism of infants may be required and urgent if prognosis is grave


Rituals or ceremonies

  • Attending Mass on Sunday and Holy Days, sometimes daily
  • Observing sacraments
  • Praying the rosary (beads to aid in saying prayers)
  • Lighting candles
  • Be aware of cultural differences in observance and practice, especially in the large and growing number of Spanish speaking communities.


Spiritual instruments, structure, and symbols

  • Rosary (prayer beads)
  • Holy water
  • Incense
  • Saints, especially Mary the mother of Jesus and saints associated with healing
  • Jesus pictures and statues; crucifix (cross with corpus of Jesus)
  • Name of Jesus is important
  • Only (male) priest can offer Sacraments
  • Leadership includes priest (‘Father’) deacon (‘Mr.’ or ‘Deacon’), nuns ‘(Sister’) and brothers (‘Brother’), whom all have taken vows, as well as Eucharistic ministers (lay-men and women who bring Eucharist /Communion); chaplains, both men and women, who are specially trained and certified.

*Eastern Rite Catholics (different form Eastern Orthodox Christians) have similar but not identical beliefs and practices.

Reproduced by permission from George Handzo, BCC at 

Dictionary of Patients' Spiritual & Cultural Values for Health Care Professionals was developed by the Pastoral Care Leadership and Practice Group of HealthCare Chaplaincy, New York, NY. (Revision and update of earlier work by the Rev. Susan Wintz, BCC and the Rev. Earl Cooper, BCC)