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Towards a Pastoral Care of Christian Faith and Trust in Life
By Cardinal Ivan Dias, archbishop of Bombay
There is a Chinese proverb which says: "Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle." While those who are in a state of depression curse their lot and may cause others to do the same with them, Christian faith and trust in life invite us to help them to light a candle of hope, because hope is a strong antidote against depression and a powerful cure for it.
For Christians, this pastoral care is an important, nay indispensable, accompaniment to other treatments such as medication, therapy, counseling and loving moral support of near and dear ones, and can help to bring true solace and relief to persons subject to depression.
Such pastoral care has reference to the virtue of hope, which makes people see the silver lining in dark clouds, causes them to expect healings and even miracles, and urges them to strive for victory in the face of tough challenges.
Hope, we know, can be a mere human trait of character or also a theological virtue. As a human trait it can he seen, for example, in mothers when caring for their babies or nursing their sick, weak or disabled children, or nurturing plans for their future.
The topic of this talk centers around the theological virtue of hope which links human beings with an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God, without of course excluding links with human intermediaries. As the human virtue of hope, so also the theological virtue of hope is deep-seated in the human heart.
For this reason, people offer prayers to God, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels and the saints, they make sacrifices and vows to God, they go on pilgrimages to holy shrines, etc. Hence, Christian faith and trust in life must be nurtured as part of the normal pastoral ministry of the Church in favor of those suffering from depression. The topic we are now discussing would concern more the pastoral agents -- bishops, priests, religious and lay persons -- than the depressed people themselves.
Besides personal prayer for and with such persons, and close fellowship with those depressed, I would like to indicate some valuable resources and make certain observations which could be useful in the pastoral care we are talking about.
Our Lord Jesus Christ described the role which Christian faith and trust in life can play in a person in a parable of the house built on a rock, in contrast with one built on sand. The house built on a rock, says Jesus, can withstand the rains, floods, winds -- and we can add, even earthquakes -- while the one built on sand collapses at the least provocation.(1)
As an antidote to depression in some and a cure for it in others, this parable underscores the importance of giving our spiritual lives a strong faith and hope foundation. St. Paul speaks of a "hope that does not disappoint" and echoes Jesus' teaching of a house built on the rock: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."(2)
Such a faith and trust in God makes the psalmist sing: "The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want ... even if I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear, because your are there with your rod and your staff."(3)
The image of the rock of faith and hope as an antidote to depression may apply not only to individuals, but also to a whole society, to peoples, to a continent. It is indeed significant that our Holy Father took "hope" as the main theme of his apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Europa" after the Second Special Assembly for Europe of the Synod of Bishops.
In this document the Pope masterfully analyzes the present European situation. He says: "There is a need to proclaim this message of hope to a Europe which seems to have lost sight of it."(4)
Europe today is a continent of light and shadows: despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- the affluence in wealth, the immensity of knowledge and the spectacular inventions and achievements, it is being crushed down ... by godless ideologies and enticing proposals that exalt the anti-God cultures, including the culture of death, by striving to build a city of man apart from God or even in opposition to him, and by leading people toward self-destruction, depression and despair. Never before in the history of humankind has there been such a proliferation of soothsayers and black magicians, of psychiatrists and quacks, of esoteric theories and healers. The rates of suicides are on the increase in richer countries than in the developing ones.
Europe today, says the Pope, faces "a growing reed for hope, a hope that will enable us to give meaning to life and history and to continue our way together" (5) and "despite all appearances, even if its effects are not yet seen, the victory of Christ has already taken place and is final ... thanks to the Risen One, present and at work in history."(6) What the Holy Father says of Europe can easily apply to the so-called developed nations all over the world and be a warning to the developing countries who often try to mimic the richer ones and fall prey to the all-powerful globalizing world trends.
Pastoral care for the depressed is a must today: it must enter every home, parish, community, diocese and society at large. It is not a passive apostolate, just helping people to accept their pitiful state with resignation, but requires a proactive attitude which help people to get out of their shackles of negativity and to breathe the freedom of the children of God. It requires pastoral agents to he patient listeners with a compassionate heart, and to lovingly persevere in their determination to help a depressed brother or sister to come out of the dungeon of seclusion.
Much will depend on the spiritual and moral strength of the pastoral agents, and their capacity to instill hope and confidence in the person being assisted. Only then will they be able to discern the causes of the problems assailing the depressed person and help in solving them with the spiritual resources we have mentioned earlier, of course in tandem with other treatments available, like medication, therapy, counseling, and loving moral support. Spiritual therapy must go hand in hand with other treatments.
The psalmist says: "Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do the workers toil."(7) It is the same when one has to rebuild the house of confidence of a depressed person, whose foundations have cracked and whose building has collapsed. But this house must be built or the rock of Christian faith and trust in life. The sturdier this rock, the easier will it he for the pastoral agent to accompany the depressed person from "cursing the darkness" to "lighting a candle" of hope, and the more such candles are lit, the faster will be the recovery from emotional chaos to a life truly worth living.
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(1) Matthew 7:24-27
(2) Romans 8:35-39
(3) Psalm 23:1,4
(4) "Ecclesia in Europa," 2
(5) ibid. 4
(6) ibid. 5
(7) Psalm 127:1