Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

Clinic dealing with grief, isolation issues

By 
  • May 9, 2020

Perhaps the frustrations of being a priest in a time of pandemic can be no better summed up than in the anguish that followed the slaughter of 22 people in Nova Scotia.

A nation mourned for the victims, none so much as their neighbours in the east-coast province, but it was from a distance. And the priests who are normally there in times of such grieving were handcuffed in doing their duties by the restrictions put in place to keep ahead of the COVID-19 virus.

“You want to be there for your parishioners, you want to support them in their grief,” said Fr. Stephan Kappler. “You want to be that supportive person accompanying them and that’s made so much harder.”

Yet this is just one example — and one Kappler as president and chief psychologist of Southdown Institute heard from more than a few Nova Scotia religious — of ministering in these days of isolation. From across North America, Southdown has been fielding calls from clergy, religious, lay ecclesial ministers and more frustrated in their ministry by health restrictions that have shut down most operations.

The Holland Landing, Ont.-based Southdown addresses the needs of clergy, religious and lay ministry staff around addiction and mental health issues.

The frustration doesn’t come as a surprise at Southdown, said Kappler. There’s been a steady outreach since it launched its Virtual Walk-in Clinic in mid-April.

There are all kinds of reasons people have been calling, many like the Nova Scotia priests who felt “powerless” when one crisis piled upon another. Kappler called the common denominator “a temporary loss of identity.”

“When much of your life is defined by being there for people, reaching out to them, ministering to them, celebrating the sacraments, when much of your life revolves around that, then all of a sudden the rug’s pulled out from under your feet, many of the priests are struggling with what do I do now?”

What clinicians are stressing with these callers is they need to find a way around the isolation. The normal way of connecting is no longer there, so they’re told they need to find another way to tend to parishioners.

“It seems to me that those priests that are able to come up with a creative way of connecting in a meaningful way with their parishioners, they are doing better than those who are having a hard time finding a meaningful way to connect,” he said.

It can be something very simple. Kappler shares a conversation he had with a Prairie bishop overseeing a largely rural diocese where priests are making calls to check in on parishioners. For many, it’s likely the first time they’ve been reached this way by their parish priest.

“It has the added benefit. Try something new instead of waiting for someone to come to you for Sunday Mass,” said Kappler.

There have been enough calls to Southdown that the institute is considering making the virtual clinic a permanent part of its service. (It has also been expanded to include French and Spanish-language services.)

“What I’m hearing is people like the idea of being able to connect with us in an easy way, in a non-bureaucratic way,” Kappler said. “We’re trying to make it as accessible as possible.”

Those in distress, and not just Catholics, can call (289) 763-1478.

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