Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Place for the Damaged

A few thoughts in the light of the Pope's remarks recently about priests of whom he is afraid. It is really the second part of this post.

There is a small French Old Rite Community of nuns who have Downs Syndrome, The Little Sister Disciples of the Lamb, it is one of the many offshoots or affiliates of the Abbey of Fontgombault. I don't know if there are New Rite communities like these sisters. Somehow the Old Rite seems particularly able to respond to people like the Sisters of the Lamb.

At one time people with handicaps or with mental 'difficulties' or illnesses might not have become Choir Monks or Nuns, certainly if they could not cope with the Latin but if they were able to work they might well have been welcomed as a lay Brother or Sister. The change came in with renewal of religious life following Vatican II. Nowadays without a decent university degree many religious communities would simply not consider a prospective candidate and if there was a significant blip on one's 'psychological assessment', which now seems almost mandatory for every diocese and most religious communities, they are likely to be rejected.

It would seem that one of the things that some of the new traditional communities and some more traditional bishops of diocese have come up against is that they haven't sufficiently screened new community members or seminarians. This seems to be one of the reason why the Holy Father has demanded the resignation of some more traditional bishops and possibly one of the reasons for what has been termed the 'persecution' of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. One of the things the sacked traditional(ist) bishops and the Franciscans of the Immaculate have in common is they all attract large numbers of vocations. I can't help wondering if the problem has been that often they set the bar too low, as if they somehow think a religious community is a 'field hospital', that somehow living in an environment that is aimed holiness and where holiness is expected, that a prospective religious might be taught, if his or her heart is open, the ways of holiness

In contrast the Pope always sees priesthood in terms of function, and always a pastoral function. I am not sure he accepts that it is possible to be a priest or a religious in other terms, for example being an enclose contemplative, praying for the world, or being a scholar -he has often been quite unpleasant about them, or being a teacher of doctrine or a canon lawyer. In some German diocese for example, rather than being a pastor a priest might be very welcome as an administrator on a financial board or advisor on moral theology  in a hospital. St Paul reminds us there are a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit.

Today more than ever those who join seminaries or religious communities are likely to be damaged, more than their predecessors. Increasingly they are unlikely to come from stable families, they are likely to have had some sexual experiences, they are very unlikely not to have been exposed to pornography. In the past they might have been a little 'eccentric' or even 'difficult', now they are likely to be on some spectrum, slightly autistic or some other neuro-developmental disorder. Disorder is perhaps the important word here.

It should not be surprising that those who have had 'bad experiences' of the world are likely to desire communities or seminaries that offer a contrast to those experiences. A strictly enclosed community is likely to attract those who desire separation from at least some sector of society. Childhood sexual abuse might well add to the attraction of such a community, an absent or distant parent might well move someone to seek a community with a warm and loving superior. I remember a convert saying that what he found so attractive about the Catholic Church was being able to call a priest 'Father'.

Current psychological testing might well highlight such people as 'high risk'. If such a history is also marked by some sort of self harm, it is likely to flash quite a few red lights over such an application. Even the more Traditional Catholics might well no longer see a love of fasting or a desire for corporal penance as signs of holiness but perhaps Traditional communities are less likely to 'medicalise' these desires.

I can't help wondering whether Theresa of Avila with her psychological history might have great difficulty today finding any convent to accept her, if she also spoke of being 'divinely ravished', most vocation directors would suggest she sought some kind of long term specialist psycho-therapy. As for St Francis of Assisi ... or St Catherine of Sienna ... let alone the Cure d'Ars. Coming to terms with 'disorders' in the past was a source of holiness, now they are a medical condition.

The question the Holy Father raises is can a damaged man (or women) have a vocation? I would suggest that he might well say, 'it is impossible'. A Traditionalist would be 'yes', but in the proper situation and with the proper support. Someone with paedophile tendencies should never work with or near children but looking after the monastery garden or finances behind the walls, they might well grow in saintliness, with the neurosis that comes with age they might well become a pain for their Abbot or Abbess and possibly everyone else in the monastery, it gives the opportunity for heroic sanctity for everyone else, unless of course they become the superior themselves before they have become a saint.

follow on twitter:  @raylblake


Just another mad Catholic said...

Father as you know this speaks to me and my experiences with 'Traditional' groups. I've effectively given up any hope of happiness and / or holiness with the way that (through the Church) God has rejected me, I only go to Church now to fulfil my obligation and to, as it were say to God, I've fulfilled my Sunday obligation you can't throw me any curve balls this week. Simmerly I only go to confession out of fear of hell (although it would be nice to love God, but its difficult to love someone who doesn't love you back).

The world of Wealth Management may be worldly, full of nepotism and concerned more with this life than the next but it at least offers me a distraction from the fact that God made me autistic and gave me to divorced parents. In the latest Bond film, James is asked why he became an assassin, he replies "Well it was either that or the Priesthood", Ditto.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Just ....,
I was in part thinking of you. If I was a Superior, I would say to you come, but first go away and forgive and then learn to be willing to forgive me, often, but come.
Then we would spend many years helping one another grow in holiness by learning to forgive one another.

B flat said...

I am very grateful for this post Father. The question you tackle is so huge, and the first comment shows how it works in the life of a real person. You were writing of a range of real people and their difficulties, but the comment of Just another mad Catholic hit hard.
The answer, whatever it is in practical terms, is clear. Christ the Incarnate and true God, unites all human frailty to the Father in Himself. The Church that He founded, identifies as His Mystical Body and cannot reject any human being seeking salvation in Christ. With the showy talk before the media of meeting people "where they are" and "accompaniment" as a pastoral approach, who, in practice, gets to see a bishop even for one short interview, about a personal problem? But if the leaders of the Church only take the best candidates for themselves, what hope for the rest of us? And what does it show about their understanding of what being the CATHOLIC Church means?
The religious Superiors who accept those with personal disorders and a desire to serve God, show a trusting Faith in God's ability to work our healing by His Grace. Reliance on God and co-operating goodwill, rather than psychiatry, may be pastoral mismanagement worthy of dismissal or deposition, but in a world where Faith is meaningless. That World, we renounced at Baptism. Or perhaps not?

Scott Woltze said...

Don't forget St. Joseph of Cupertino! Or that arch-pharisee sour-faced windbag, St. Paul!

David S said...

It's funny, but the Pope's comments strike me as mentally elitist and exclusionary. The Pope is always talking about not excluding... ''Include ALWAYS, never exclude! Not this, no, no, not this! NO! Include ALWAYS!'' (Because that is how he talks, right?) Except if you have any mental difficulties.... As a man with some emotional issues and thinking I might have a vocation (not withstanding my issues and obstacles and difficulties), the Pope's comments are hurtful and, as I said, elitist. Maybe he only wants perfect people to become priests and religious. Good luck with that.

Sadie Vacantist said...

I come from a damaged background: one parent dead at six, the other a self-absorbed gambling addict, sexually abused by a priest at eleven, twin addictions myself (one of which continues to afflict).

I couldn't function in the modern Church as a seminarian but am slowly discovering the joy of Mass attendance without receiving communion.

A feature of modern seminary life is that it requires that its candidates be the finished product from day one complete with their own support infrastructure. It's tacit recognition that the modern Church no longer provides formation or support. Perhaps that is a good thing, I honestly don't know.

Clare Short said...

I'm a damaged person and I am living out my vocation as a wife, mother and a secular Carmelite :) Show me someone who isn't damaged?

khkcomments said...

I resonate with this strongly, Father. I remember when a priest of with a certain traditional order heard that both my father and mother were divorced twice and that I was a product of the second failed marriage. I'll never forget that look. At the same time, I am happy that some people see it as the sad and horrible thing it is.

Still, it seems sad when someone broken and rejected by the world is in turn rejected when they want to escape from it because of "psychological" factors. It is like with the military of today. Fifty years ago, they took in the damaged, the undisciplined, and they beat them into shape, made citizens out of them. Today, they only want perfectly citizens.

Sadie Vacantist said...

Reading the comments thus far everyone seems to be agreeing with one and other! In summary, the contemporary seems hostile to sinners.

geoff kiernan said...

Father Blake, A little off topic but your reference to lay Brothers and lay Sisters?
I can understand the position of a 'lay' Brother, meaning a male religious not studying to be a Priest but how can a female religious be called such. As a female religious, the attachment 'lay' is rather superfluous......

Palincor IG said...

Wether Francis feels only the 'perfect' should go anywhere in the church I cannot tell, but I can't deny that this seeking of the perfect seems to be the disease, and a terrible one of our society.

It emanates especially it seems from two sources: 'psychologism' (scientism ?) an ever increasing tendency, even in industry now, of relying on psychological testing, to get the 'right' candidates, and since it just is 'right', even though wrong, it will even screen out experienced and able candidates who fail some obscure element of testing.

And the other other source is Political Correctness, which also 'just isn't wrong, because it just isn't because it isn't'. I beleven certain dictatorships, though oppressive, have a certain sanity and freedom in the lives of their people unavailable to ours, since they approve of common sense and normalcy. That's the problem - there is no normality anymore.

JARay said...

Wow! What an interesting set of comments and also, once again, a very apposite posting. I am sure that there are indeed many Orders which would indeed benefit from such "damaged" people. I think that it is exactly right that they should do so. We are often told how loving Down's Syndrome children are. It surely is wonderful if they can find a Community and fit into it in some manner.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Lay Sisters =/at least what I meant, those not under the obligation of singing the Office in Choir.

Charlesdawson said...

Having read several biographies of St Thérèse of Lisieux, I am sure that she would not have been admitted into a modern enclosed community, especially which already contained her relatives! She obviously had "psychological issues" resulting from the early loss of her mother and then of the sisters with whom she had replaced the mother figure....We older generations are so lucky that we never ended up in the hands of the child psychologists, any little quirk of character or behaviour being investigated, medicalised, "counselled" or pharmacologically treated.

It seems to me that our ancestors were far, far more tolerant of variety in the human personality than seems to be posssible today.

That said, I can quite imagine that in an enclosed community, a "difficult" personality could be a serious risk. It is not only the Church, remember, which tries to screen for this; space travellers, people spending time in submarines or at the North and South Poles, for example, all situations where accidents of personality become magnified, all have to be most carefully evaluated. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer, has some insightful remarks on this in his autobiography and his biography of Captain Scott.

Lynda said...

Many persons have to live with psychological suffering or difficulties, some related to sin, some not, at least not the sin of the one suffering. We are all called to moral and spiritual perfection whatever out cognitive, intellectual or emotional impairments. We are all responsible for repenting of our sins, seeking to avoid sin, etc. Putting our own suffering to one side, offering it up to God in reparation for our own sins and others, and putting others' needs before our own, is a sacrifice that helps one on the road towards sainthood.

Forgiveness of egregious wrongdoing by mother, father, priest or other close to one and with a grave duty towards one, is something that is very hard but yields great graces for the wronged and others who are disposed to accepting those graces.

David O'Neill said...

How are we expected to rationalise the teaching of our Church when different ideas/rules come from different quarters? Here in the UK we have the Archbishop of Liverpool together with the Bishops of Lancaster & Shrewsbury (all adjacent dioceses under the same Metropolitan) welcoming the traditionalist Orders of the FSSP & the ICKSP whilst other bishops (under the same Metropolitan) have refused to accept the FSSP in the very recent past. Are we not One, Catholic & Apostolic Church any longer?

As to the psychological tests given to seminarians before acceptance; when we look throughout the world at the actions of some clergy (including VERY high clergy) should we not be saying that accepting (so-called) mentally challenged persons might not bring the Church a very much higher standard of clergy than some we already have?

I accept that some priests will have homosexual leanings & some will have heterosexual leanings but, providing they subjugate these leanings, as long as they maintain chastity through celibacy they can serve well. How do these leanings differ from those with mental (or physical) disabilities?

viterbo said...

"There is a small French Old Rite Community..."

This is getting country now.

Mentally impaired = Catholic.

It ain't fun being beaten up of a Sunday by DS. It's less fun, once you are an adult, realising that every 'christian communion' has solutions that Pius X would have written an Encyclical against, at least.

Matthew said...

Three cheers for a massive dose of common sense!

Jeremiah Methuselah said...

One blessing brought to us all by the Bishop of Rome (his own preferred title, so it seems) is that some of his pronouncements elicit wise Catholic responses to many of the “challenging” statements/addresses he makes, or is reported to make. Whether or not that is his intention, who am I to say ?

We ordinary Catholics benefit greatly thereby, as is, once again, the case here. Father Blake, your piece is a further distillation of wisdom, quite likely influenced by what you have learnt along your priestly way, but also you clearly have a profound understanding of the human condition. I had heard of this magnificent apostolate in France and you ring the same bell, producing interior warmth, a deep happiness and yet more conviction, if it were needed, of the vitality, strength and understanding of our Roman Catholic Church.

Some contributors have revealed deep, personal problems, that must take a lot of courage, even though under anonymity, but the example of the Little Sisters, Disciples of the Lamb is inspiring and encouraging, to us all. Some of us who have had these “little angels” in our family believe they cannot sin, because of their intellectual situation, which makes them even more special.

In the UK, 90% of these little angels do not escape from their mother’s womb when their chromosome condition is revealed by amniocentesis. But it’s not always a reliable test for chromosomes, in fact, it can kill the expectant mother. I admit that’s an old term, fallen out of favour in recent years but it means she is already a mother, someone expecting a baby, not a foetus, not a 28 bus, not a rabbit, but a junior human being.

It was good to be reminded of the superb Pro-Lifer, Dr. Jerome LeJeune, the famed geneticist who isolated the chromosome responsible for Down’s Syndrom. He once compared the MOD (March of Dimes) policy of “neutrality” to selling weapons to terrorists and claiming no responsibility for the eventual outcome.

How apposite, RIP Dr Le Jeune.

Sadie Vacantist said...

The Pope's words about the rigidity of priests is valid.

The news coming out of Salford though (the heartland of the English Church) that they running out of Catholics and priests means many of us fear dying without access to a priest be they rigid or otherwise.

If something is worth doing (like the last rites) it's worth doing rigidly in my book. OK, a saint would be fine but I'll settle for a bad one.

exsurge said...

The light shines brightest in the darkest room. The darker our humanity the brighter the light of Christ seems. Every saints life tells us this. The more damaged the life the more joy is unleashed on its return home.

Childermass said...

I'm currently on retreat at Fontgombault. Just when I thought that this community couldn't impress me anymore than it already as, Father Ray, you tell me about this daughter house of nuns with Down's! There are NO words for how much learning this has touched me deep in the heart.

As the damaged product of an abusive childhood myself, Father, I can only thank you once again for your Christly wisdom.

khkcomments said...


I don't understand what you are saying. Could you make your point or points clear? "Getting country", "beaten up of a Sunday", "DS", "Mentally impaired = Catholic", "'christian communion' has solutions that Pius X would have written an Encyclical against, at least." All of these things, almost your whole post, seems unintelligible.

If you write a comment, write so that others can understand. If you just want to put down your thoughts in writing, don't publish it as a comment.

Hoser said...

We have a convent in Kansas City in Kansas of the Little Sisters of the Lamb whose Motherhouse is in France, I'm not thinking they are the same are they?

geneticallycatholic said...

Dear Just Another Mad Catholic (JAMC), I was an AMC myself, for a number of years, some long time ago. I had a friend, [we were both 18 years old at the time] who went as a guest to a religious community, intending to join the community. She unfortunately, was just descending into mental illness. The community sent her away - put her on a bus, and sent her back to her hometown...did not even notify her parents. When she got to her home town, she attempted suicide. Thank God the attempt failed. I was furious with my friend for the suicide attempt, and even more so with the religious community.

My friend told me that when the community rejected her, she felt rejected by God. In my wrath at that time, I told her in no uncertain terms, that she had made an idol of the community. To feel rejected by God because the community rejected her, meant that she saw the community as God. [Looking back I could have been more compassionate with my friend, but hey - I was 18 years old].

I also was extremely angry at the community, because I felt they did not display any common sense. I mean, if you have a young, mentally ill adult, don't you at least [if you cannot send someone to accompany her home], when you put her on a bus home, phone and advise her parents that she is ill, and to meet her at the bus station?

Anyway, my wrath at the community lasted some years. So much so, that a few years later,when my friend asked me to drive her to the community, to talk to the superior about her experience, I did so, but remained fuming in my car in the parking lot, categorically refusing their hospitality, while she visited with the superior and the community.

She forgave the superior and the community, and was reconciled with them... though she never joined. My forgiveness of that community took a lot longer, but that too happened - over a decade later.

Why am I writing this? Perhaps it is because your comment brought me back to that time... and other personal turbulences in my life. It is painful to be rejected, - especially by communities whose raison d'etre - is to follow Our Lord. It is easy to believe, that being rejected by them, one is rejected by Our Lord, even though it is not the truth.

All I can say, and this is due to my friendship with my friend for over 3 decades, is that it is evident to both of us, that God has been with her all along- even when she felt rejected by Him. In so many ways, we have seen Providence taking care of her. Neither of us can deny that.

She and I have kept in touch every week by phone all this time over the years, even though we live hundreds of miles apart. She lives alone, she has her illness under control, but not vanquished, and - in a her own way, she ministers to her secular community around her, while also, very importantly, letting them minister to her. She says the rosary every night, and prays for many people who have come into her life. She also has come up with a motto, which I have adopted. And that is to keep going, even if it in first gear- a very slow gear. Sometimes, in life, it is impossible to go any faster.

God bless you JAMC, and thank you for your comment.

lisa alekna said...

I want to say thank you Father, for sharing so much, but also, thank you everyone else for sharing so much of yourselves in your comments! I know how hard it is to share like that, but I can see how much it has helped others, so what you have done is a blessing! Thank you!

geneticallycatholic said...

Father, I apologise for going off topic with this comment that I am posting. But I think it is an urgent comment. I've been posting it as a comment on as many blogs as I can.

Father Jerabek, a young canon lawyer in the U.S.A. has just posted the following on his blog, asking all who read it, to join him in making reparation for the 242 consecrated hosts that have been desecrated in Spain... here is what Father Jerabek says, ... the rest is at Fr. Jerabek's blog, link below.

In Spain, where an ‘artist’ deliberately desecrated 242 consecrated hosts, ( pilfered by attending Mass where he received in the hand), the bishops response to this profanation is woefully inadequate.

Sadie Vacantist said...

Totally pertinent. Regular communion must be reviewed.

Pelerin said...

Geneticallycatholic - I have just been reading about this shocking news from a different source which mentions 248 Hosts having been stolen. The number is irrelevant - even one being used in this way would have been shocking - but it is also shocking that the artist managed to receive Holy Communion more than 200 times with nobody noticing that he had secreted each and every Host. I understood that Communion was allowed in the hand only if there was no danger of profanation. Is this not proof that with Communion in the hand there is ALWAYS a danger of profanation?

I have not yet looked at the American Priest's blog but the source I read said that the Hosts were placed on the floor to form the word 'Pederast'. It also mentioned that someone has since removed the Hosts although photographs of this so called 'work of Art' are still on show.

David O'Neill said...

These Sisters could not be in a better place than under the care of the Benedictines of Fontgombault. It is one of the most prayerful & happy communities I have even had the pleasure of visiting. God Bless them all