As we heed Pope Francis’ invitation to pray during November for those suffering from depression, Deacon Ed Shoener recalls that we are all worthy of God’s grace, even those who live with a mental illness.
Did any of the Saints live with a mental illness? Yes, most certainly some of them did. They were human. Mental illness has always been part of the human condition. Saints lived with every kind of illness, and those who lived with mental illness can give hope to the millions of people who live with mental illness today.
By suggesting that some saints lived with a mental illness does not diminish their legacy. To believe that would only perpetuate the stigma and discrimination that people who live with mental illness must endure; it would infer that living with a mental illness makes a person less worthy of God’s grace.
The reality is that people who live with a mental illness can have deep and profound insights into suffering and the mercy of God. God’s grace is not limited by any condition, including mental illness. People who live with a mental illness can be especially close to God and live holy lives.
People with mental illness are uniquely joined to Christ. Pope Saint John Paul II said: “Christ took all human suffering on himself, even mental illness. Yes, even this affliction, which perhaps seems the most absurd and incomprehensible, configures the sick person to Christ and gives him a share in his redeeming passion.”
There are two Saints, Saint Dymphna, and Saint John of God, that stand out because their legacies have inspired entire communities to value and accompany people who live with a mental illness.
Saint Dymphna is well known as a patron of people living with mental illness. She was a 7th Century Irish princess who fled from her father, who seems to have had a mental illness, and she settled in Geel, Belgium, where she cared for people with mental illnesses. Because she lived so long ago, much of her story is shrouded in the mist of legend, so it is difficult to know with certainty much about Dymphna herself.
However, what is known with certainly is that Saint Dymphna’s legacy inspired the people of Geel to show compassion for people who live with mental illness. Over the centuries the people of Geel invited people with a mental illness to live and work in their community without any stigma or discrimination. Throughout the Middle Ages and even today the town of Geel is known as a model for community acceptance of people who live with a mental illness.
The legacy of Saint John of God continues to inspire people to provide good and compassionate medical care for people who live with mental illness. Saint John of God lived in Spain in the 15th Century. In his mid-life his mental health deteriorated, and he was sent to Royal Hospital in Grenada, Spain, a psychiatric facility. As was typical at that time, his care was harsh and inadequate. Despite this treatment, over time John recovered and he was able to visit with other patients and help the nurses in their care. After he was released from the hospital John dedicated himself to help the poor, sick and homeless, who often lived with a mental illness.
He drew followers who were inspired by his holiness and compassion. Today his followers are known as the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God. The Hospitaller Brothers continue his mission of caring for the poor and those with mental illness by operating hospitals and medical care facilities in over 50 countries.
The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers sees the legacies of St. Dymphna, and St. John of God as models for mental health ministry. We provide free St. Dymphna and St. John of God prayer cards for use in mental health ministries.
On each card there is an image of the saint turning from the darkness, which so often envelopes people when who suffer with mental illness, and looking toward the light Christ. Along the bottom of the card is the phrase “The Pain is Real – but so is Hope”. The prayer concludes by asking God to grant courage to those for whom we pray and fill them with hope. Help them remember You love them; they are never alone. We ask St. Dymphna and St. John of God to pray for us.
Ed Shoener was ordained a permanent deacon in 2004 and serves at St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA. He is a founding member of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, the Catholic Institute of Mental Health Ministry at the University of San Diego, and the Scranton Mental Health Ministry.
With thanks to Vatican News and Deacon Ed Shoener, where this article originally appeared.