Ministry to Persons with Mental Disability Brings Challenge, Grace

By Schwarz, Robert | National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

Ministry to Persons with Mental Disability Brings Challenge, Grace


Schwarz, Robert, National Catholic Reporter


It's easy to talk 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 reported 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 physical 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. …

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