National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Becoming a Better Church for Families with Special Needs
By Dana Dillon
The response to Paul Gondreau’s reflections and the whole story of his son Dominic’s encounter with Pope Francis has been overwhelming, and overwhelmingly positive. As Christiana Gondreau told Wolf Blitzer, “there was not a dry eye,” neither anywhere around them in the moment, nor around the world as people encounter their story.
Pope Francis has certainly won a lot of hearts, not only by his embrace of Dominic, but by the ways that he keeps embracing people with disabilities who are a part of the crowds, and by the ways that he keeps reaching out to the oppressed and marginalized by events like his Holy Thursday foot washing at a juvenile detention center.
There are two sets of reactions, though, to this aspect of Pope Francis that are really crucial to pay attention to. One is this basic reaction: “It is great to see the Pope embrace people with disabilities in this way, but it would be nice if my family, with our special needs member(s), actually felt welcomed and helped at our local parish.” Not to take anything away from Pope Francis (please, keep these embraces coming!), but wouldn’t it be wonderful if they weren’t news, because it’s just so obvious that every parish, every priest, every bishop just always responds that way to those with disabilities? And, at the parish level, what are the ways, other than simple embrace and welcome, that resources might be rallied to help a family with special needs? The answer to that, really, is as diverse as the kinds of special needs in the parish, but it needs exploration.
The second set of reactions to Pope Francis’ embrace of those with disabilities goes like this: “This is wonderful, really, but what about those whose disabilities are not quite so visible, whom Pope Francis would never think to stop and kiss?” Because of my own family history, I think first of those with mental health disorders (26.2 percent of the U.S. population has a diagnosable mental health disorder; 5.8 percent have a severe, persistent mental illness). But, especially since World Autism Awareness Day—which the Vatican celebrates!—recently occured (April 2), I think too of all those people who are on the autism spectrum. These and other issues generate serious special needs for individuals and families. Dealing with them sucks a ton of energy; it isolates families.
And each of these involves some similar dynamics of stigma. When someone you love is behaving in odd ways, it can come as a great relief to receive a diagnosis that explains all those oddities; it can also feel like a life sentence. ”Yes, your loved one has schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or autism.” For families who have been mystified by behaviors, there is often a wave of relief at being able to put a label on all the strange moments. But then you find that having the label doesn’t mean a cure, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a change in the behavior patterns, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people will now accept your loved one as having an illness. In fact, a lot of times you find that people who hear the label will avoid your loved one even before they see the odd behavior. That’s the stigma that comes with these already often debilitating disorders.
Part of me would love to see some video of Pope Francis hugging someone on the autism spectrum, or someone with bipolar disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it would basically look like Pope Francis hugging … anyone. But our parishes, right there on the ground, can be places where autistic kids get the extra help and resources they need in religious education classes, and where they and their families are always made to feel welcome and understood. Wouldn’t it be great if this mom of a son with autism listed her church among the hopeful signs and supportive communities?
The best resource I know for communities looking for better responses to mental illness is NAMI. NAMI coordinates support, education, and advocacy efforts for people with mental illnesses, for their families, and for the public. It does this through a network of state and local affiliates everywhere. They even have NAMI FaithNet, a particular outreach to faith communities looking for resources. Churches need not reinvent the wheel here, but could do a much better job of becoming aware of the resources for families in need of them.
These reactions are not a critique of Pope Francis; in fact, they show a deep, deep, appreciation of his witness to the Gospel call to reach out to “the least of these” in all-embracing love. But they ask the People of God–at the most local levels–to follow his example, not only for those whose impairments are physical and visible, but also for those whose disabilities cannot be seen with the eyes, but whose need and whose pain is great nonetheless. What would it mean for our churches, and for individuals and families with disabilities, if every Catholic parish and diocese in the world found ways to embody in our local communities the embrace of the least of these that the world is seeing and responding to in our Holy Father? Wouldn’t Jesus’ Gospel promised, that they will know us as his disciples by our love, be made visible? What if, whether people agreed or disagreed with the Church teaching on x, y and z, they knew absolutely and without question that they are embraced, welcomed, loved, and cared for by the Catholic Church?
It starts with awareness, but it demands action as well. Let’s get started.
A version of this article originally appeared on Catholic Moral Theology. Dana Dillon is a NAMI Family-to-Family trainer for NAMI Rhode Island.