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Lessons For All Of Us

Lessons For All Of Us

Several million people will travel to work today in Delhi. Most will get back home safe, with no accidents. Their names will not be in the papers tomorrow. The “news” will have the names of the very, very few who died in accidents or who committed violent crimes. 

News is not about what is normal, but what is exceptional. An old rule of news reporting was: “Ninety-nine children born with one head do not make news. One child born with two heads will make news.” Most news channels go for what is sensational. Evil is generally more sensational than good. 

It would be a mistake to form our ideas about a place or its people from the “news.” Such images will tend to be dangerously sensational -- and generally negative. 

We do not have statistics on how many priests and religious have committed (or attempted) suicide in the recent past. There are no grounds for thinking that such cases are more frequent today than earlier. This mistake is often made. What is new is technology -- and the much faster and easier transmission of news. Thus we know how many died in police firing in Mangalore this past week. Decades ago, we would not get the information, or get it very late. Today, the transmission of “news” is instantaneous, and it is further relayed, almost endlessly, over social media. 

About ten days ago, social media passed around the comments of Father Victor Ferrao of Rachol Seminary on this same topic. I agree with most of his suggestions. They are certainly sensible. I would like to add the following comments. 

Depression, Madness or… a Trial?

But first, I would like to invite you, reader, to do a simple exercise in assessing people: 

Look at the six quotations below. They are true statements made by real persons. Mark each with one of these four letters: (a) if you think the person is mentally sick or abnormal; (b) if he/she seems to lack faith; (c) if you consider this individual is saintly or unusually mature; (d) if he/she seems to be an ordinary human being, with a normal problem. 

“I am incapable of finding any other comparison than that of a man hanged by the neck who, with his hands tied behind him and his eyes blindfolded, remains hanging from the gallows and yet lives, with no help, no support, no remedy.”   (…)

This young man experienced “…a state of extreme mental anguish, firmly believing that he was doomed to go to hell and had no hope of salvation. This made him go cold with fear. This state of anguish lasted about six weeks…and it was so violent that he could hardly eat or sleep and went thin and yellow as wax.” (…)

“[From my own experience of temptations of despair] poisonous medicines should not be kept near severely sick people; for they may be tempted to take them…I do not feel any of the beautiful things I write about. The tempter whispers in my ear: ‘Carry on hoping! There is nothing waiting for you after death.’”           (…)

“I have thought of suicide many times. May be I would have done it, if I knew how to.”  (…)

OK? Finished rating the five statements? Then, read on. Here is the identity of the writers:

These words belong to Blessed Angela of Foligno, a thirteenth century mystic. In her time of “most horrible darkness” (as she called it), she cried for death. She asked Christ “to send me to hell without delay.” Yet from this she came forth into “a state of joy so great that it is unspeakable. In it I knew everything I wanted to know, possessed all I wanted to possess.”

The person in question was a bright young student of a Jesuit college in Paris who would later be known as Saint Francis de Sales. The description of his experience of despair comes from the person who knew him best—his soul friend, Jeanne de Chantal. How did the young Francis get over this torment? “Coming to a certain church…he knelt down in front of an altar of Our Lady, where he found a little wooden board on which was mounted a copy of the prayer beginning: ‘Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, …’ He said it right through, rose from his knees and at that very moment felt entirely healed; his troubles, so it seemed to him, had fallen about his feet like a leper’s scales.”

Words of Saint Therese of Lisieux. In addition to her extreme physical sufferings, she was tried with severe mental anguish, with no consolation, no felt sense of God’s nearness. She would say: “The death of love I so much desire is the death of Jesus on the cross.” In spite of such pain and near despair, her last words include: “I do not regret surrendering to love” and “My God, I love thee.”

A contemporary priest holding a very public office, during a time of severe depression. What helped him and healed him were the love and support of family and close friends, and competent medical help. He got over his depression and went on to a very productive public life. 

Lessons

Why did I present the experiences of these five persons?

To highlight a few truths we may easily forgot: 

Any of us can undergo severe depression , and lose all interest in living. Depression is commoner than many of us think. We all need, at least occasionally, a shoulder to cry on, and a loving heart into which we can pour what is going on in our lives, with all the good and the bad within. 

All of us, especially superiors and formators, need to be healers . Most people carry unhealed wounds, especially from painful childhood experiences. When we do not see, or care about, people’s pain, we tend to judge them.

As philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “To understand a person generally means to understand the tragedy of his/her life, for it is around it that his/her life is organized.” Having sat in therapy groups with religious and priests, I would agree. Many shared tragedies and hurts that made us the rest of cry. Hardly anyone is as confident as they look in “normal” life. 

This is why, if we truly believe in Jesus and are serious about following Him, we will become more and more compassionate. God came among us as a compassionate healer. He came to heal, not to condemn. To be Christlike means to be a compassionate healer, not a CID or Cop!

In classes on Psycho-sexual Integration and Celibacy, I quote Sr Melanie Svoboda, a US Sister who writes honestly and competently about choosing celibacy. Two things she insists on: (a) The desire for intimacy is a deep human longing. A person needs to discern well before deciding to choose life-long celibacy; (b) We can fail in celibacy in two ways, namely, by going “too far” in relationships (as when a priest falls in love with a parishioner) or by not relating enough. She would tell her novices the second is the greater and more frequent danger in celibacy -- to live together without loving one another

We, religious and priests, join these special settings or profess celibacy, not just to do some work. Our work -- teaching, nursing, social work, media, etc. -- does not require celibacy. This unusual choice of life -- saying No to two of life’s BEST pursuits, namely, spousal love and parenting -- would be healthy only if chosen out of a deep spiritual awareness. To coax (“recruit”) someone to join us just because we have institutions to run, and need hands for work, is neither just, nor is it “vocation promotion.” 

Larger Issues

So, rather than focus on a few sensational cases of suicides, we need to pay honest and discerning attention to the larger issues of religious life and priesthood. Is there true fraternity in most dioceses? Are most of our communities homes of love, or simply work-related settings with frequent power games and divisions? Our “real job” as religious is to set an example to the Catholic community on how the Gospel can be lived joyfully. Our core duty as priests is to help people in their relationship with God. Are we really faithful to these main duties, or are we simply a bunch of people living by worldly standards, with several hours spent in the chapel every day?

Formation

India has the largest number of religious in the world -- around 150,000 -- and also the largest number of religious in formation. We are not providing adequate formation for living our life joyfully and lovingly. Diocesan seminaries face the problem of being staffed by professors who may not be formators (the two roles are quite different, and require different qualities and skills). Religious formation houses differ greatly in the seriousness and quality of selection and formation of candidates. 

Apart from these general observations on formation -- which I cannot go into in a short article -- I need to add one weakness which the Church is aware of: The weak link in the formation of priests and religious is HUMAN FORMATION. 

Human formation includes the following six areas: (1) Adequate health and capacity for work; (2) Emotional balance; (3) Psycho-sexual integration; (4) Healthy relationships; (5) Responsible use of freedom; (6) Contact with reality. 

Human formation requires mature, loving and inspiring formators who create a joyful and caring atmosphere in which the young can really grow up. It also requires honesty and responsibility in the formees. But, of the two, the greater responsibility is with the formators, for this simple reason: “The young have a right to be immature, but superiors and seniors should be exemplary.” 

Conclusion

With all its limitations -- which the press is delighted to highlight -- the Catholic Church, I believe, is the largest agency in the world for doing good. The good done in and through the Church is amazing. To quote just one statistic, the Church is the largest private provider of medical care in India, with over 3,500 presences. 

Our challenge is not: How to put right a rotten organization, but rather: How to improve a system that does lots of good, but can and must do even better.  

Providing better human formation, including counselling and spiritual direction, using our long years of formation to become better and more mature human beings, seeking and getting help rather than hiding our problems, being healers more than bosses when we are in positions of authority, understanding that every human being is more insecure than they look, and building loving communities -- all this is stuff we are supposed to know. There is really nothing new or revolutionary in any of these suggestions. 

Since we all tend to blame structures or expect miracles from changing structures, I would like to end by putting two questions for personal reflection to the reader: (1) Is there anyone I go to, or can go to, to share deeper personal issues? How much help have I sought and got in this area? (2) Am I the type of person -- warm and genuine, compassionate and not judgemental -- whom someone in pain or confusion will feel like approaching, certain that I will listen with love and respect, keep matters confidential and do all I can to help? Do people approach me for confidential help. That is the simplest way of checking whether I am suitable for this form of ministry. 

We need many more persons of this type -- warm, genuine, respectful, compassionate and sincerely interested in helping others -- to become all that God wants them to be. They are true life-givers. 

(Fr Joe Mannath SDB is the National Secretary of CRI, and the editor of MAGNET magazine. His experience includes 20 years of formation ministry, 12 years of university teaching, 8 years of work in on-going formation, as well as international lecturing, spiritual direction and writing. E-mail: jmannath@gmail.com)

(Published on 23rd December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 52)