By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — With U.S. Catholics in the midst of a National Eucharistic Revival, the call to accompany those with mental illness is stronger than ever, a Catholic mental health counselor and researcher told OSV News.
“To live out eucharistic communion means not only the reception of the sacrament,” said Beth Hlabse, program director for the Fiat Program on Faith and Mental Health at the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life. “We are called to then live out that communion in our daily lives — a communion that knits us to Christ himself and to one another.”
Launched in 2022 by the U.S. bishops to increase devotion to Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, the revival coincides with a sharp rise in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among large segments of the nation’s population.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has issued advisories regarding “alarming increases” in sadness and hopelessness among young people, and on what he called a broad “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.”
Those trends urge Catholics to ask “how we as a church can better support one another and live out this call of caring for one another as one body,” said Hlabse.
She cited St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:12-31), in which the church is depicted as one body, with Christ as the head and faithful as its members.
“St. Paul reminds us … that when one member of the body suffers, all suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all share its joy,” said Hlabse. “That means if a member of my parish community is experiencing mental illness or disability, my flourishing is bound up in theirs.”
Mental illness and disabilities can be inherently isolating for both those directly affected and their families, she said.
“They’re both often too great a burden for one person or family, and yet so often the burden rests on that person or family to seek additional support and outreach,” Hlabse said.
She pointed to the “great need to shift that burden so that falls more upon all of us, as people of the body of Christ, so that we can better support those families with children or loved ones who have mental illnesses or disabilities.”
“How can we better involve them in the fabric of parish life?” she asked. “What are the barriers for them in finding fellowship, information and catechesis, and in participating in the sacramental life of the church?”
Hlabse noted that “some beautiful fruits” have emerged through a number of mental health and disabilities ministries at national, diocesan and parish levels.
She stressed that such initiatives “must not be relegated to ministers or priests” but instead be shared by “the people of God.”
Hlabse said an array of resources for accompanying those with mental illness and disabilities are available through Notre Dame’s Fiat program, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, as well as the Catholic Psychotherapy Association.
She also highlighted the model established by the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, Ukraine, where persons with mental illness — recently described by UCU president Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia as “arguably the most marginalized” in society — are integrated into UCU campus life.
Catholics can extend that same sense of belonging and connection to those they encounter both in the pew and in the wider community –– and fear of those with mental illness and disabilities can be overcome by faith, said Hlabse.
“Practice the presence of God,” she said. “When you feel anxious (about someone with mental illness), breathe and ask the Lord’s help. So many people need to be known and acknowledged … (in this) pandemic of loneliness.”
Hlabse also underscored the need to remember the gifts those with mental illness and disabilities can offer.
“Let’s open ourselves to the gift of friendship, and learn from the unique voices of those with mental illness,” she said. “Let’s learn to walk with them, because we don’t express our vocations in isolation. We need to be able to share them with each other.”