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Posted in Spirituality, on September 12th, 2012

When compassion and fatigue collide at the parish

By Father Peter J. Daly
Catholic News Service

Father Peter J. Daly

Every day brings a new parade of mental illness to our rectory door.

We see schizophrenia, manic-depression, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, drug addiction and just plain craziness. They come by phone, by car, by foot, by bicycle and by email. Here they come with all their troubles. They dump them at our doorstep and say, “Fix it.” The problem is that much of the time we can’t fix it.

One lady calls our parish half a dozen times per day. She calls me “Father,” but she treats me like an ATM. We have solved her problems so often in the past that she thinks we should respond to her every need. She calls us when she runs out of gas or needs rent money or laundry soap or food or even cigarettes. Like most mentally ill people, she thinks that her problem is urgent and that no problem could possibly be more urgent.

One recent Sunday I had a bishop visiting from Africa. She approached us on our way to 8 a.m. Mass. “Father,” she said, “I need toilet paper.” I couldn’t leave the bishop, so I said, “OK, go to the back door of the rectory and take toilet paper from the downstairs bathroom.”

Later that day I was using that bathroom. Just at the moment of my greatest need I reached for the toilet paper to discover she had taken it all.

Dr. Scott Peck, the famous psychiatrist and author of “The Road Less Traveled,” said the common feature of all mental illness is narcissism, an obsession with the self. Those afflicted think the world revolves around them. They think that everybody is talking about them or conspiring against them. They think that their problem must be dealt with right now.

Mentally ill people are not organized. They can’t keep appointments. They don’t follow directions. They don’t take their medication properly. They are a hard group to help, but they really do need help. They need it more than most people.

Not every rectory gets such a parade of people in need. Some rectories are so isolated or so insulated that nobody can find them or get into them. But our parish is on Main Street in a small town. We are sandwiched between the homeless shelter and the police station. The department of social services and the court house are a block away. The bus stop is in front. We are convenient.

We try to be of help. On our campus we have a food pantry, a community outreach office, a counseling office and a social worker. We help with food, rent, utilities, medicine and emergencies. During winter, we run a program for the homeless who overflow the shelter. Every week our food pantry gives out food to 100 families.

Still, it never seems to be enough. Sometimes we must say no. Sometimes people get angry or violent. One man recently started shouting at me, “People said you care. You don’t care.” That really hurt.

What to do?

There really isn’t anything to do, except to continue helping, as long and as much as possible. But we have to recognize that we can’t solve every problem. They are so troubled that only God can soothe their troubled minds. Sometimes praying with them or for them is the best help.

After 25 years of parish ministry, I am under no illusions. The flow will never dry up. The only solution to “compassion fatigue” is prayer and rest. Then start again.

The Lord told the truth when he said, “The poor you will always have with you.”


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4 Responses

  1. Fr Daly:

    Your enclosed article, which was posted at CatholicPhilly.com on 9/12/12, presents a horrific, disheartening, disrespectful and condescending understanding of those with mental illness. The first sentence is particularly insensitive wherein you describe individuals with the image of a “new parade of mental illness.”

    I wonder whether you would write such an article in the case that cancer patients and parishioners, terminally ill church members and other church members afflicted with serious, chronic and debilitating MEDICAL illnesses came to your rectory door, day after day.

    I thank you for allowing me to share these sentiments with you and look forward to your response to my concerns.


    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Philadelphia, Pa

    By: Michael Skiendzielewski on September 17, 2012 at 11:30 am

  2. I think this article is important because it brings to light the caregiver’s side of the equation with regard to the impact of mental illness in our communities. The mental health system is not always adequate, available and/or effective in helping everyone, which leaves many compassionate people trying to cope and help, without much support for their efforts. We at NAMI Southern Maryland hope to step up our relationship with Father Daley and others, in an effort to increase understanding among caregivers/providers about mental illnesses and their impacts on individuals and families, along with providing information and support for their efforts in the community. Hang in there, Father Daly. Jesus said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” You will be blessed for your efforts.

    By: Amy Henderson on September 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm

  3. Dear Father Daly,

    I’ve always enjoyed reading your insightful articles, however, I find this one shows very little compassion for the ill among us. You begin your article by “seeing” diseases and not people with mental illness. It’s the same when we refer to the stroke in room 324 or the mastectomy in room 212, which leads to dehumanization.

    You do a disservice when you paint everyone with a broad brush (mentally ill people are not organized, can’t keep appointments, don’t follow directions, etc). While this may be true with many people, there are many with mental illness who through medication and therapy can still function in their activities of daily living.

    I applaud you for the wonderful work that you do and the care that you provide, but please keep in mind that Our Blessed Lord is present in all these people who are deserving of our understanding, compassion and prayer.

    And there but for the Grace of God go I.

    May God Bless you and keep you.

    By: John P. Harper on September 29, 2012 at 9:06 pm

  4. Shocked at the article. Shocked and appalled that it is appears in a Catholic publication under the heading of “Spirituality”!

    By: Barbara M. Garnaut on November 14, 2012 at 12:59 am

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