Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan, 58, is working to raise awareness about suicide. It’s a subject he knows intimately: two siblings took their own lives, as did the spouse of one of them, and a third sibling attempted it. He co-edited a pastoral handbook just published, “Responding to Suicide,” to assist Catholic ministry leaders. A companion workbook for survivors of suicide will be published in January.
Question: Why was it important for you to lead the effort to raise awareness of mental illness in the Church, especially suicide?
Answer: I do this because of my own journey through this reality. I had shared my story as a priest in retreats and in Masses. And now that I’m a bishop I felt it was important to let people know that even someone in the Church hierarchy, like a bishop, has people in their lives who have died by suicide, and that they are not alone in this. Suicide affects everybody, at every stage in life. (A total of 429 people died by suicide in San Diego County in 2019.)
Q: How have attitudes changed in the Church about this subject in the last 40 years or so?
A: We are hearing more about the science of psychology. We’re able to trust it in a way we weren’t able to decades ago. Now, we’re able to respond to a mental disorder in a more holistic way. It’s no longer “black or white, where you either fix your problem or there is no place in the Church for you.”
Q: How did fellow priests and bishops respond when you raised the issue of suicide?
A: It was a learning moment for them when I was able to share with them my story.
Thankfully, the California bishops wrote a pastoral letter that addresses mental illness two years ago that gave me an opening to having more discussions about it.
Q: You talked to Pope Francis about this issue during a visit by the U.S. bishops last January. What did you tell him?
A: I urged him to write a letter to the faithful about this issue, similar to what the California bishops had done. I told him, “The people need to hear from you.” And he said he would do it.
Q: How do you want your book to be used?
A: Our goal is to communicate to Catholic leaders that tending to people with a mental illness is not a program a parish can offer, it’s an approach, an attitude. If pastors have an appreciation for the science of psychology, and not dismiss it in favor of judgement, the way we address people with mental disorders will be better.
Q: What would your message be to the people in the pews at this difficult time?
A: I would let them know that they are valued and loved. And to trust the science of psychology. Faith and reason lead to the same goal: To strengthen our relationship with God.
Q: Who should our faithful contact if they are having a mental health issue?
A: They should check with our diocese’s Office for Family Life and Spirituality, which coordinates our mental health ministries at the parishes.
Q: How do you take care of your mental health?
A: I work on all parts of my life that are essential: General-spiritual, physical well-being , emotional-relational and academic-intellectual. All of these make up the spiritual being, not just prayer. If all of those plates are spinning, you’re probably going to be in good shape.
Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan co-edited “Responding to Suicide,” published Ave Maria Press; available at avemariapress.com. The Office for Family Life and Spirituality offers information about the mental health at (858) 490-8299; email firstname.lastname@example.org.