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Ministry to persons with mental disability brings challenge, grace

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

It's easy to talk about the unconditional love Christians are to practice without losing heart. But for priests and others who choose to minister to people with mental disabilities, especially those whose faces are unresponsive to either love or sacrament, the demands of unconditional giving are dramatized daily.

It's easy, in such circumstances, to ask, Is there any payoff here for either one of us?

Two priests who regularly make such rounds are Fr. Patrick Cullen in Birmingham, Ala., and Fr. Charles Aho in Syracuse, N.Y. Catholic chaplain Jim Dahn is involved in ministry to the mentally disabled in Prospect Heights, Ill. The National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities assisted this reporter in searching out these ministers.

Comments from staffers in this kind of ministry suggest two reasons why most priests avoid working with those who have severe mental disabilities:

  • They don't want to be that vulnerable to the kind of failure latent in dealing with irrational behavior, where priestly effectiveness requires constant leaps of faith as well as enormous physical and mental stamina.
  • They don't want to be isolated so much of the time from normal interaction with friends and colleagues.

Cullen, Aho and Dahn have this in common: They have learned the secret of steadfastly working at cruising speed without burning out; they have exorcised any personal emotional demons; and they actually (so they say) receive more than they give (which is a lot).

Otherwise, their backgrounds, personalities, work styles and recreational choices are clearly different.

The deacon

Dahn is a 61-year-old certified chemical engineer who, between international consulting trips, puts in 16 hours a week divided between two of Illinois' largest state mental health centers, Elgin and Chicago-Read. Dahn isn't sure what drew him into his ministry, but he talks freely about his troubled first marriage, about his mentally ill mother (whom he never saw after she abandoned him in childhood) and about his father, who committed suicide.

Then there was also that very frightening experience at age 12 or 13 when he visited what was then called an "insane asylum" where, Dahn says with a shake of his head, patients were classified as slightly insane, insane or hopelessly insane.

Dahn is a short, bespectacled, soft-spoken, gentle man with a white goatee and mustache who evokes an image of, say, a Santa Claus helper. He makes his rounds in a slightly frayed suit of small black and white checks and a red and black necktie with white swirls. It's his uniform. He's actually worn the same outfit every day, he admits, for three years.

"It takes a lot for me to change a necktie. I like to be consistent." A deacon once advised him that wearing a cleric's white collar would be safer in a place like Elgin. Dahn replied, "I don't feel like wearing a collar. I trust the person, not what he wears."

Fr. Charles Aho, 57, once a chemistry major, is now director of religious activities for 2,700 mentally retarded and physically disabled persons spread over the eight-county area of the Central New York Developmental Services Office. He's a convert from the Finnish Lutheran church. His mother was three-quarters Native American (Mohawk nation), raised on the St. Regis Reservation in upstate New York and Ontario.

Aho is a white-bearded giant, six feet two inches tall at a muscular 210 pounds, with a cheerful, outgoing and relaxed style of shepherding. For 20 years now he has also been adjunct professor of art history at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school at Syracuse, N.Y. He currently lives with his friend of three years -- a 33-year-old profoundly retarded and crippled man with whom Aho takes slow weekend walks. "We also go for train rides because he likes the motion," Aho says. "We go to concerts when he's in a good mood."

For recreation from this work and from "knocking off on weekends" a doctorate in American studies, religion and culture, Aho retreats into Wagnerian opera. He has twice attended an annual Wagner festival in Bavaria and enjoys an occasional drive to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Last Feb. 9, Fr. Patrick Cullen's empathy for the 125 mentally retarded persons (several with dementia) to whom he ministers increased instantly. While helping a woman get to Mass, he fell and broke several bones in both hands. "That made me aware of what disabled people have to cope with," he said.

In his office next to St. Paul's Cathedral in Birmingham, Ala., the 55-year-old Cullen pauses and glances up at one of several charcoal drawings of retarded persons. Finding equilibrium for his hands -- encased in plaster halfway to the elbows -- he says, "I found out you can go from good health to disability in a few moments."

To recuperate from his "birth-to-death" responsibilities for mentally retarded and demented persons of all kinds, Cullen views an occasional episode of "Masterpiece Theatre," plays golf (around 90, he says) four times a year and travels annually for a family visit to Ireland, where he was ordained at the Carlow Cathedral.

Breaking stereotypes

But as Cullen tells it, the real recharge of his spirit comes from his most draining responsibility: that of taking 12-person groups to tourist sites in Europe and America. "Our group always has a positive effect on people, and we break down stereotypes people have about retarded persons not being able to do this and that. We go into nice places. People at first get tense, but they later relax because the retarded people behave freely without social barriers. This makes others feel free."

What strains him most, Cullen says, is having to deal with "all the systems" and the frustration of "providing for people all over the place." He spends a lot of time getting the local Catholic churches to respond to his people's needs. "People are very busy with other things, and this work for a volunteer is not very glamorous after the first week. I find myself having to continually reintroduce myself to the people who run our group homes. You never seem to get ahead."

His work once caused him to feel isolated from the mainstream church, he says, but he now feels very connected. What has been the payoff for Cullen?

"It's refreshing to work with people who don't have an agenda," he said, "and who avoid the usual secular trappings -- they have a great sense of authenticity. I get the feeling that I'm doing what I'm supposed to do."

In Syracuse, Aho ponders the same issues in his large, rather austere office with its bare walls, a shared PC and a single bookcase. He says, "This kind of work would test the faith of a priest if he's not getting immediate satisfaction." For Aho, the most difficult thing is "constantly seeing human beings who have no potential for development."

What has his ministry taught him since his theology student days at St. Bernard's Institute in Rochester, N.Y.? How has he grown spiritually because of it? "I've learned that love embraces trust. Just as [the severely retarded] trust us, so we have to trust God for what we need. ... For one to find Christ in the actual object of your work -- that's a maturing factor."

Dahn reflects on the same questions, perhaps retrieving data here and there from his three years of diaconate training and one year of clinical pastoral training. "I get to see Jesus in a new way. When we reach out to touch [people with mental disabilities], we touch Jesus. ... I see myself better."

He continues, "The hardest thing is to let go and let God lead and be a human being with them, to be not just a 'doing' person but to be with them. In order to be responsive to another person, I have to empty myself."

And so he did one Sunday morning as he made his way through the activity rooms at the Elgin Mental Health Center and later conducted a chapel service.

Through a string of encounters, Dahn listens and speaks gently and affirms the schizophrenics and other psychotics and the young made old by alcoholism or drug abuse.

He praises the creativity of a man who wants to discuss the pen scrawl on his pants leg. Three women approach him at different times. "Are you from God?" asks one. "Are you a Catholic?" asks another. "Would you please give me communion?" the third asks.

At the chapel service one of the worshipers takes a front seat and repetitively and compulsively shrugs his shoulders for the next 45 minutes. Two young women and a young man also take front chairs and begin a muted conversation that will last the entire service. One man repeatedly exits and re-enters the chapel. There are 16 present when Dahn opens with "Good morning. Everyone feel like singing?" All but four join in the song and responsorial psalm.

At his hand-me-down desk in a cramped office made emotionally tolerable -- so it seems -- by the hanging sketch of "Jesus Laughing" and a woodprint of Don Quixote, Dahn savors a few recent memories of his self-directed retreats when he enjoyed canoeing, fishing and photography in Northern Minnesota. Then he's ready to talk about why most priests don't want to do his kind of work.

"You have to feel whole about yourself before you take on a ministry like this," he says. "If you don't, people pick up on you quick and tap into you."

Dahn (like Aho and Cullen) says priests, like most professionals, tend to shy away from work they don't understand and positions where they would be more vulnerable to their own helplessness and, therefore, failure. Dahn wants the nature of mental illness to be studied more by priests at their seminars and formation programs.

Ancient fears

"My experience is that many priests are happy to know that someone is working with retarded persons," says Cullen. And Mary Jane Owen, executive director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, said, "We still have those ancient, caveman fears about the disabled."

In his book Here and Now, the late Henri Nouwen warned caregivers: "Sometimes a life of compassion offers a gift you are not so eager to receive, the gift of self-confrontation. The poor in Peru confronted me with my impatience and my deep-seated need for efficiency and control. The handicapped in Daybreak keep confronting me with my fear of rejection, my hunger for affirmation and my never-decreasing search for affection."

Perhaps somewhere in the unresponsiveness of the mentally disabled to the caregiving minister lies the most sensitive of all issues yet to be openly confronted.

When Dahn says, "In a lot of our ministry, you don't know if you're doing any good or not," maybe he's also saying that priestly effectiveness with the disabled and those difficult to love boils down to degrees of self-effacing faith. If so, there is much riding on fundamental communication itself.

These three men reveal that simple and clear communication between them and retarded and mentally ill persons gave these caregivers great surprises and their most soul-stirring ministry experiences.

Dahn recalls the time when a six-foot-eight man communicated happiness to Dahn by suddenly grabbing him and lifting him to the ceiling. From on high the chaplain, scared to death, said politely, "Thank you. You can put me down now." It was an awe-inspiring learning experience for Dahn "to know what it's like to be completely out of control."

"These people listen in many ways," he says. "But you really don't have to tell them anything. Just hug them. Their relationship with God might be primitive, more childlike than our relationship with him, but then they might be closer to God because they need to rely more on him."

From celebrating the Mass year after year for the severely retarded, Aho has learned to "read" minds by intuition, taking clues from a person's body language and sound modulations. And they "read" him (for example, if he's tense or relaxed) by his voice inflections. "I can banter with one and get a laugh. But exactly what in my speech triggers the response is a mystery."

Only angels know

Aho says, "I'm not sure they're sure of something transcendent in their lives. But I'm sure God is speaking in his language, which probably only angels know. ... These people become living signs for us of how the whole church has to wait for God's transformation of us." As a Christian, Aho claims, "I've learned more from the retarded than I have from any book."

And Cullen tells his story of one of his people who, at a cathedral Easter service, leaned over to a nun he had visited Lourdes with a year ago and reminded her, "Last year we said 'alleluia.' " The incident amazed Cullen. "This was a transfer of knowledge that's abstract -- all within the faith context!"

Cullen isn't sure how much of his Sunday homilies are understood by the older people afflicted with dementia, but then he has similar doubts about many "normal" people in most churches on Sunday. Yet he has repeatedly seen people with severe dementia respond to the rituals of the Mass by making the sign of the cross and praying, even though "they couldn't say what happened five minutes ago."

"The beauty of the Catholic church," Cullen says, "is that you're not just tied to words. God can communicate any way he wants, and you're not to evaluate whether it's effective or not from the point of faith. Just because you can't evaluate it, doesn't mean it's not going on."

Cullen simplifies the learning goal for himself and everyone else: "The apostle John said God is love, and if these people can grow in this, then they're growing in God."

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997