By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
I am not a psychologist in the modern technical sense of the term. I have no training in matters dealing with the brain or nervous system, and I possess only a rudimentary knowledge of human biochemistry. But I do love uncovering the etymologies of words, and therefore I can say that I aim to be a psychologist in the original sense of the Greek word psyche: the animating principle of the whole person, which we translate as “soul.” Saint Gregory the Great emphatically declares, in his influential “Pastoral Rule,” that the proper nurturing, challenging, and encouraging of souls is the great duty of priests, since “the care of souls is the art of arts.”
What happens, though, when a priest, even a bishop, finds himself in need of specific care for his psyche?
Bishop James Conley, shepherd of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, had attempted to plow through increasingly debilitating symptoms of depression and anxiety in 2019, but finally admitted that he needed extended time away from his work. With the encouragement of several brother bishops and a supportive network of Catholic psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and friends, he took a leave of absence, and received the treatment he desperately needed. Happily, he recently returned to his pastoral duties after a year free of his daily episcopal burdens.
Bishop Conley gave an interview to a clinical psychologist in North Dakota earlier this year, in which he candidly acknowledged and detailed the dark depths of his struggles. The Bishop bravely detailed the downward spiral that led him to question his self-worth and even to wonder whether he could ever return to his diocese. He also described the love shown him by those who cared for him in his critical time of need, as well as the way in which his faith fortified him during his terrible trials. While aware of the stigma of shame still frequently attached to the admission that one needs help to overcome mental illness, the Bishop eloquently outlined his firm belief that God will waste none of his anguish:
“I know that my life is not without purpose, even if I’m still trying to become more conscious of that fact. And that gives me a bit of consolation. The Lord is going to use my suffering somehow. Already people have written to me, thanking me for being willing to talk about my trial. Maybe the Lord wanted me to use this to break open some hearts that needed the example of a bishop who admitted his suffering and his mental illness in order to get help.”
I admire the Bishop’s honesty, and found great encouragement in his insights regarding his reliance on prayer to help him persevere through his grueling but necessary treatment:
“The great spiritual writers of the tradition talk about the dark night of the soul and the experience of the absence of God — and I was experiencing these realities spiritually, but also psychologically. You can’t really separate faith and psychological or mental activity. Mental prayer transcends those boundaries. But the faith is definitely the bedrock of my being, and it’s what kept me going forward. I could always fall back on the truth of faith even though it was difficult and I was struggling with it. I almost felt like I was learning how to pray all over again.”
Occasional periods of spiritual desolation are inevitable. God allows us to experience moments of dryness in prayer, or a sense of His absence, in order to make us seek Him in bad times as well as times of consolation. While desolation and depression sometimes overlap, there are cases of mental illness that simply cannot be conquered by prayer or stubborn will power alone. Bishop Conley found the courage to admit that he needed help, and his witness will, I hope, motivate many who suffer in silence to unload their psychological burdens on those who can offer graced and healing support.
If you, good reader, routinely heed a reflexive inner voice tempting you to think that you alone of all human beings are excluded from God’s unconditional love; if you run a narrative loop through your head convincing yourself of your unworthiness even to approach God; if you are consumed with regret for past sins and/or anxious worry for the future, do not be afraid to follow the example of Bishop Conley and seek help! Whether from a priest, a counselor, or both, healing and health of mind and soul are never accomplished alone!
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.