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Sharing the ministry of the Suffering Christ

The Vatican gets mental health right but it needs to be brought into the trenches.

by Fr Len Thomas
Melbourne Mental Health Chaplain

One in five of us will have mental illness in our life. That’s you or me or one of the five of us.  How many people in our parish are not seen at Sunday Mass now because they have mental illness? Because of stigma, fear, shame, embarrassment?   Because they sense that parishioners have these same feelings about them and about mental illness? If our Sunday Mass congregation numbers 1000, there could be 50 or l00 sufferers who remain at home. And their family carers.

But some sufferers don’t stay away.  When “Ray” or “Joan” stomp in during Sunday morning Mass, do we freeze? And then what do we do? Leave it to someone else?   Yes, there needs to be privacy and respect and dignity shown to people who suffer mental illness. But must we have stigma, fear, shame and embarrassment in our parishes?  In our churches?  In our dioceses?  In our society? And lack of ministry?

The Vatican doesn’t think so.

At the 14th World Day of the Sick conference, sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care for Health Care Workers, and hosted by Adelaide Archdiocese, in February, Catholic pastoral workers were challenged to dismantle fear and ignorance, and the labels which hide a suffering human being  The conference topic was Mental Health and Human Dignity.

“Underline the inviolable dignity of mentally ill people, and do everything possible to protect it at the cultural, institutional, family and individual levels,” said Cardinal Javier Barragan, keynote speaker and President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care for Health Care Workers.

Three hundred participants at Adelaide Conference Centre included several members of a Vatican delegation, pastoral care workers, church ministers, hospital and jail chaplains, parent and family carers, parish leaders, nurses, doctors, medical leaders, bishops, priests, religious sisters and brothers, lay ministers and mental health sufferers. One thousand people attended the final Mass in St Francis Xavier Cathedral on, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.  Thirty sick people were anointed.

This World Day of the Sick was begun by the late Pope John Paul II. It is held on a different continent each year, to “stimulate reflection on the subject of health”, said Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson.

From Melbourne, the neighbouring capital city, two priests and two bishops were sighted, and not too many pastoral carers.  Prior publicity of this Vatican program was not obvious in parishes, deaneries and in archdiocesan structures of Melbourne and other big cities. I got my information because a parent of a mentally impaired person sent me the Adelaide Catholic paper, The Southern Cross. Later I saw it in the diary of OnLine Catholics.

I sense that mental illness is seen as too difficult. Politicians also see it as gaining too few votes.

Superb Vatican information, seen largely through the keynote addresses and homily of Cardinal Barragan, will hardly trickle down to middle management and to people who spearhead the local church, especially if they don’t read or hear about the Pontifical Council’s splendid researched knowledge.   The parish church or deanery is unlikely to experience the urgency expressed by the Pontifical Council.

Try World Day of the Sick (particularly under the media section) for full texts.  You will be surprised at the extent and depth of the information. (see also OLC issue #90, Beyond Belief and from the editor’s desk).

Christopher Danes is ‘spot on’ when he writes from personal experience and need that that there is no organised ministry for mentally ill Catholics in the parish (The Tablet, 7 January 2006). We have ministries for the poor through St Vincent de Paul in most parishes; for the sick through ministers of the Eucharist; for the young through our Catholic schools. And there’s the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

But mental illness has no formal ministry.

Pastoral carers at inner city parishes like West St Kilda’s Sacred Heart Mission, learn by experience to minister to many clients who suffer mental impairment. Jail and hospital chaplains, parish clergy, pastoral associates and school principals give time to sufferers, outside of planned duties. Many families are thrust into being carers, often when their young adult son or daughter is diagnosed, or when Alzheimer’s occurs.

The Vatican has got this one right.  But the Church ‘up there’ needs to be brought into the trenches and parish front lines, where one in five of us, and carers, can share the ministry of the Suffering Christ, with love. 



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