Those with mental illness have the right to be treated as images of God
You may have noticed that at the bottom of my column in each issue of Northwest Catholic I offer an invitation to send prayer intentions to me. One of my great privileges and responsibilities as archbishop is to pray for you, and since arriving in Western Washington more than five years ago, I have received thousands of prayer requests, which I have placed in a large box beneath the tabernacle in my home chapel.
Since being ordained bishop 16 years ago, I have loved receiving and praying for these intentions, because they bring me close to you and your concerns and allow me to enter into your lives in an intimate way. Through the years, prayer requests have spanned a huge variety of intentions: wisdom in making a decision; healing for family estrangement; children who have left the faith; a couple’s desire to conceive a child; peace of mind and heart for any number of reasons; consolation in time of grief; peace in a local community; an end to violence in a neighborhood; the well-being of a child or grandchild who hasn’t been heard from in years; the search for employment.
Very often, your requests express deep worry over a loved one suffering from mental illness. Reading these requests, I sense immediately your love for those who suffer and your yearning not only for healing but also for understanding on the part of friends, fellow parishioners and even strangers who pass your suffering loved ones at the mall. Not only can mental illness bring profound suffering to those who experience it and to their families; it can also cause painful isolation when friends and strangers don’t know what to say or what to do to help.
One thing is certain: Your friends and loved ones who suffer mental illness are your treasures. Precisely because you love them, precisely because they are your very own, you see their human dignity clearly and long for healing, understanding and welcome.
St. Luke reports in the Acts of the Apostles that in the early Church, “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.” (Acts 4:34) Luke singles out a certain Barnabas, who sold some property “then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles.” (Acts 4:36-37)
The practice of selling material goods for the poor began during Jesus’ ministry in direct response to his teaching. Luke tells us that the profits of these sales were placed “at the feet of the apostles,” because people had once brought their treasures to the feet of Jesus. But what were the treasures brought to Jesus?
“Moving on from there Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, went up on the mountain, and sat down there. Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others. They placed them at his feet, and he cured them.” (Matthew 15:29-31)
The treasures of the people were their suffering loved ones. People knew that the Lord would not turn away or look askance at them but would see them immediately as sons and daughters of his Father, the very ones to whom he was sent; and he would embrace and heal them. These treasured sick were brought to the Lord as offerings in love and trust.
In recent years we have often seen similarly moving gestures by Pope Francis, Pope Benedict and St. John Paul II. With the eyes and heart of Jesus, they have revealed the Lord’s love and have shown how to welcome the sick, including those who suffer from mental illness.
St. John Paul II once told participants in the International Conference for Health Care Workers that “Whoever suffers from mental illness always bears God’s image and likeness in themselves, as does every human being. In addition, they always have the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also to be treated as such.” He added that this belief applies not only to Christian attitudes and care for the suffering but also to the duty of government to ensure proper treatment for the mentally ill.
Having received and loved and healed the treasures who were brought to him, the Lord Jesus never let them go. In fact, embracing all human suffering, including mental illness, he took it to the cross. That is why you and I can so trustingly place our treasured loved ones at his feet.
Many advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness, but much remains to be done. Many of our homeless and those in prisons are there because of mental illness and might not have met such hard times had adequate treatment been available to them. We have to remind our legislators to budget sufficiently for this care in recognition of the value and dignity of the mentally ill.
And we who are their brothers and sisters in Christ, we are to reach out as we can — in love and compassion, in understanding and acceptance, in practical care and attentiveness. They, too, have gifts to place at the feet of the Lord. Not only does the Lord treasure them and their gifts — the Church is not complete without them.
Northwest Catholic - June 2016
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