Saskatchewan faith leaders participate in mental health conference

A number of leaders from Saskatchewan recently attended a mental health conference in the United States: (left to right) Deacon Eric Gurash, Melissa Gurash, Dr Christine Taylor, Madeline and Peter Oliver, Archbishop Murray Chatlain, Fr Andre Lalach. (Submitted photo)

Compassionate Embrace: A Pastoral Response to Mental Health

By Peter Oliver, Catholic Health Associaton of Saskatchewan

Key leaders  from all the dioceses in Saskatchewan attended a mental health conference in Mundelein, Illinois (just north of Chicago) April 25 to 27, 2024. Participation in the conference was sponsored by the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan (CHAS) and the intention was to promote mental health ministry throughout the province of Saskatchewan.

Those attending included Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin Le-Pas, Dr Christine Taylor, Fr. Andre Lalach of the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, Deacon Eric Gurash and his wife Melissa from the Archdiocese of Regina, Peter and Madeline Oliver of Saskatoon.

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Saskatchewan organizers became aware of the recent mental health conference through the work of the  Association of Catholic  Mental Health Ministers in the United States.

Association representative Deacon Ed Schoener  was a key conference organizer. He is also a passionate advocate for the development of mental health ministries in parishes throughout the United States, Canada, and beyond.

Schoener’s message at the conference highlighted three things: first, you can do this. Second, the organization offers many free resources on Mental Health Ministry that are accessible from the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers website. Thirdly, the association encourages those interested in this ministry to contact them for information and support.

Suicide was a particularly sensitive subject addressed during the conference.

Bishop John Dolan of the Diocese of Arizona, spoke to the importance of responding in a spirit of accompaniment to those who have died by suicide (YouTube link).

Drawing from the personal experience of losing three siblings and a brother-in-law to death by suicide, Dolan helped conference participants understand the important role the Church plays in helping to prevent suicide, as well as responding to families who have lost someone through suicide.

An expression of this powerful ministry that is very meaningful in his diocese is an annual memorial Mass for those who have died by suicide. This Mass provides an opportunity to acknowledge the grief that people experience at the tragic loss of someone who has died by suicide, and provides an opportunity to convey teaching on the Church’s pastoral care for those who have experienced these losses.

One of the issues that Schoener highlighted was the lack of pastoral guidance or educational tools concerning the Church’s response to those who have died by suicide.  Helpful in this regard is a short video titled “When a Loved One Dies by Suicide” and the pastoral handbooks Schoener and Dolan have produced on the subject.

A workshop presented by Dr. Mike Carotta entitled “The Trauma-Informed Parish” focused on available resources, while emphasizing the capacity of parishioners to facilitate educational encounters that will help parishes to become “trauma informed.”

Carotta’s presentation, like others during the conference, noted that the Church’s role is not to replace the work of professionals who offer care and healing to those struggling with mental health. Rather the Church is called to do what professionals are not able to do, namely, offer a welcoming and supportive community that is grounded in the hope born of faith in Christ.

Each year, the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan holds a convention on health care.  In assembling presenters for this year’s convention Oct. 22-23, 2024, sharing the insights from the conference in Mundelein will be a priority.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis said, “The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5) (169).”  Prioritizing our response to people struggling with mental health is one way to do this.