Talk Covers Church’s Response to Mental Health Issues
By Lynne Conner, Observer Correspondent
June 23, 2022
LOVES PARK—“Everyone’s got a battle going on,” observed Msgr. Stephen Knox, pastor of St. Bridget Parish. His comment, attributed to former diocesan director of faith formation John McGrath, refers to the personal struggles Catholics manage in their daily lives. 
Msgr. Knox and then-St. Bridget Parish parochial vicar Father Sean Grismer moderated a “Discipleship Night” talk June 6 at the parish entitled, “Mercy Awaits: How Should the Church Minister to Those Struggling with Mental Illness?”
The priests used Gospel readings, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and personal anecdotes to illustrate the Church’s pastoral care for those with mental health issues. 
“We all have illnesses, and we can unite them to Christ upon the cross.” 
—Father Sean Grismer
“We see in the book of Matthew where Jesus said, ‘Come to me all you who are burdened…’ Anyone who knows illness of any kind knows what it’s like to be burdened. People suffer physically, mentally, and even spiritually, but we see Jesus bringing His healing to all these maladies,” Msgr. Knox said.
“The stigma surrounding mental health treatment often prevents people from seeking help,” he said. “People worry about what others will think and how seeking treatment will affect their jobs and relationships.” 
Msgr. Knox referred to statistics shared by Dave Gomel, president, and CEO of Rosecrance Health Network in Rockford. “Gomel stated in a recent Rockford Register Star article that over 50 million people in our country live with diagnosable and treatable mental illness, but only half seek treatment. Stigma is often the reason for this.” 
He encouraged those gathered to reframe their thinking on mental illness. “Healthcare has come a long way in treating physical conditions like diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart and lung problems, and even COVID-19,” Msgr. Knox said. 
“When it’s a physical condition, we don’t think twice about getting treatment, but there is still that hesitation to seek help for mental health issues. Often, there’s been a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding within the medical community and the Church in responding to and treating these disorders,” he said.
Father Grismer reflected on Gospel parables to convey Christ’s response to human suffering. “Time and again, we see Jesus caring so much for the salvation of a single soul that He’s willing to be seen as an outcast. Every person has that dignity and is worth Christ,” he said.
Faith and science can work together in treating and managing mental health issues. “The Church has become more aware of mental illness and the science behind these diagnoses. Our faith teaches us that Christ can and does heal. We are united to Christ in a certain way in His own suffering and His humanity,” Father Grismer observed.
He recalled a quote from Pope Saint John Paul II who said, “Well, 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.”
The priests also discussed the Church’s response to those who die by suicide. Msgr. Knox shared a passage from the CCC. “A key line in the Catechism (2282) states, ‘Grave psychological disturbances, anguish or grave fear of hardships, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.’”
“In my experience as a priest, and in ministering to families affected by suicide, when someone takes their life, there is often some severe impairment, disorder, or depression deep within that person,” he said. 
“We also read in the Catechism from 2283, ‘Therefore we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to Him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.’”
Msgr. Knox also addressed the culpability of persons who die by suicide. “The question of moral culpability and when it is lessened applies to a suicide death. Sometimes, that culpability can be reduced if someone is suffering from a serious mental illness and is not in their right mind.”
“Ultimately, we allow God to be the judge,” he said. “We in the Church need to be Christ the Healer and Christ the Consoler. We entrust that person to God’s loving care.” 
Father Grismer encouraged Catholics to rely on prayer and the sacraments of reconciliation and healing to provide grace in navigating health conditions. 
“We all suffer physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We all have illnesses, and we can unite them to Christ upon the cross,” Father Grismer said. “Somewhere in the Passion, He experienced what we experience wherever we fall on that spectrum.”
The night ended with a question and answer segment and information on the St. Bridget Trinity Mental Health Ministry. 
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