More than 100 people gathered last week at the Mission Conference Center in Mission Viejo for the Faith Leaders Event, a program by St. Joseph Health/Mission Hospital; part of the St. Joseph Hoag Health Alliance. The Most. Rev. Kevin W. Vann, Bishop of Orange, delivered the keynote address, speaking on “The Spiritualization of Mental Health.”
Dr. Rick Afable, interim CEO at Mission Hospital, welcomed those gathered, a mix of mental health professionals, religious and faith leaders, as well as individuals who simply wanted to learn more about how to support those impacted by mental health challenges.
“We have a deep commitment at St. Joseph and St. Joseph Hoag Health to mental health,” Dr. Afable said. “As a community we need to talk honestly and openly about mental health… Regardless of what situation you find yourself in, wellness or not, help is available and it’s time that we talk about it.”
As the keynote speaker Bishop Vann shared his reflections from years as a parish priest on how the Catholic Church’s services, rituals and blessings offer support to those impacted by mental health.
Bishop Vann urged everyone to personalize encounters with individuals.
“A person is not their mental illness,” he said, adding that it was Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren who shared that lesson. “We need to go behind to find the person behind the illness,” Bishop Vann stressed.
The Bishop shared his early encounters with the audience. “I was a transitional deacon in 1980,” he said. “I was assigned to the cathedral in Springfield, Ill. Lots of folks and lots of homeless. As we know, a lot of times with the homeless there is this struggle of mental illness.”
He shared his first face-to-face experience with an individual who was hearing voices. “Bernie, lets you and I go for a walk,” the Bishop recalled telling the man. “We walked downtown and back until Sunset. I let Bernie talk.
“I just listened to all the stories,” the Bishop said. “Bernie, I really am grateful for you sharing the stories. Why don’t you and I just pray the Our Father together?” Bishop Vann said Bernie remembered the prayer that they said together and then went on his way.
There was another occasion in Fort Worth. Bishop Vann said he would walk the streets at night to connect with the homeless. He saw someone coming down the street toward him so he crossed the street and said, “Hi John, how are you.” He walked with him and prayed with him. At the end of their walk the man said, “Thank you for calling me by name and thank you for spending time with me.”
“I found in that moment of encounter that calling them by name will lift them from the pain of the moment, from that cloud of darkness, to be recognized,” Bishop Vann said.
“That is why in our sacramental rituals there is always a space where we’re supposed to mention a person by name.”
We need to bring God’s presence to them, the Bishop said, suggesting praying the Psalms is a good place to start, especially when connecting with the mentally ill.
“I simply prayed with them the 23rd Psalm,” the Bishop said while recalling a challenging encounter with a distraught individual. “They prayed it an they calmed down.”
Finally, Bishop Vann urged the audience to be strong and not to be afraid when dealing the mentally ill.
“Always trust,” he said. “I believe that we are God’s instruments, wherever we find ourselves.” And in those moments he reminded everyone not to be fearful.
“Fear is one of the things that can really paralyze you or I,” he said. “When we’re trying to talk to someone, for example, [who is] about to commit suicide, the Lord is reaching out to them through you or I. We can’t be afraid. Somehow God put us there for a reason to be an instrument of healing.”
David Mandani, pastor of mental health at Saddleback Church said of the event, “It’s a unique opportunity to collaborate with the Catholic Church – to leverage our mutual resources and extend the vision of Christ’s healing and hope in our community together.”
Mandani said Kay Warren asked him to attend to continue to support the partnership Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren had forged with Bishop Vann in recent years.
“We know that one church can’t do it alone,” Mandani said. “This is a real opportunity to share the hope of Jesus Christ with people who have been impacted by mental illness.
Dana Boone, representing B.R.E.A.T.H., a San Clemente-based nonprofit wellness center, said she attended because she wanted to learn more about how the church and hospitals are addressing the issue of mental health.
“So often the elements of wellness are looked at individually,” Boone said. “We want to bring the conversation together so we are the sum of our parts.”