Friday, October 18, 2013

Mental Illness Happens to "Good Priests" Too

A week and a half ago, I received some terrible news. It saddened and shocked many people. It saddened me, very deeply. But it didn't shock me.
"Father X, a local priest, died unexpectedly yesterday...." So begins an obituary. Some people don't need to read any further to realize the awful thing that has happened. But in a few days, it becomes common knowledge.
Another priest has died by suicide.

This was not a priest who abused anyone, or was under any accusation, or who had ever even dreamed of committing a crime. This was a priest who suffered from depression.
Lord Jesus, grant him eternal rest, and console his family, his friends, his parish, his brother priests. Jesus, have mercy on him, and on the souls of other priests who have disappeared in this darkness, and all other people driven to such an end. Have mercy on those who are afflicted by this terrible disease, and by every oppressive suffering. Jesus, have mercy on us and on the whole world. Jesus.
I don't know what to say about this on a blog. I've prayed to God; I've asked Him, "What can I say?" Does God want me to say anything at all? Maybe it would be better to remain silent.

This is a time to mourn.

But it is also a time for vigilance. A time to pray for the dead and the living. And also a time to do whatever we can to fight against the stigma that remains attached to mental illness, and to build up adequate, Catholic, Christian, human ways to reach out to people who suffer from mental illness. Let us face the fact: we do not yet have enough of these resources. We're not even close. This must change! 

Priests are also human beings. They have brains. They have emotions. They have human problems, human suffering, human loneliness, human illnesses. There are plenty of good priests who suffer from mental illnesses. They struggle with them, they find ways to get through the day with them, they limp with them. They are good men -- some of the best men I've ever known, men who have been instruments of Christ's grace for many, men who have never been a threat or a danger to anyone. Except themselves.

Mental illnesses are diseases. For some reason, we still tend to assume that the sacrament of Holy Orders makes men immune from these diseases. It doesn't.

But what can any of us do? How do we help with a problem like this? Its too enormous. We feel powerless. What can we do?

We can pray for our priests, living and dead. We can have greater compassion toward them (and toward one another). We can recognize that these mental illnesses are real, and try to understand them. We can support efforts to build up adequate mental health services for priests and for everyone in our dioceses.

We can encourage and support Catholic men and women who feel called to be psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, mental health care practitioners, researchers, neuroscientists, and health journalists. We can stop mocking these professions and stop showing contempt for the real problems they are grappling with. Yes, there is a lot of error and confusion here, but also a lot of positive accomplishments and a lot of real medical and therapeutic treatments that exist and that continue to be developed. We must recognize these things; it is a matter of justice and mercy, of life and death.

We can think more carefully, make the appropriate distinctions, listen to people whose judgment we trust, and build up what is good here. Let us help our priests, other people, and ourselves to find the genuine healing that is available. Let us work to erase the stigma and the shame that cause so many people to live in denial or hide the reality of their pain.

We can try to remember that every human being is a person--and that means my neighbor, my spouse, my child, my colleague, and also my priest and my bishop. Every human being is a person who needs to be loved and appreciated, who is vulnerable and weak, afflicted and wounded by sickness and sin and the inexhaustible thirst for God.

We can learn to look at the person. Love the person, first, always....