A Priest’s Journey: Depression and Suicide

Frank - crucifix

Frank - crucifix

I like stories. Whether it’s a program on EWTN, or a homily, or an article, I like the saga of how some Catholic figure dealt with a challenge. It could be a story about converting the barbarians, or some primitive people, or of a modern man being thrown into prison while facing a seemingly impossible situation. Regardless, I will remember the details of the story long after some abstract lecture on vice or virtue is concluded.

Often, I reflect on the quote from Pope Paul VI, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers.” So, when two enthusiastic women from my church told me about a Lenten Retreat in a nearby parish hosted by a priest who had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts, I was hooked. Having suffered with mild depression most of my life, particularly during the winter, I could instantly relate. I attended my first retreat, expecting to be inspired. I was certainly not disappointed.

I was the first to arrive at Holy Family Church in Queens, New York. It’s one of those old churches that look like an ark inside; great exposed dark-brown wooden beams overhead. In the front of the church was the magnificent dark-brown wooden cross draped in a deep purple cloth placed there during Lent; a surly crown of thorns at the top. Four cacti were at the base symbolizing Our Lord’s forty days in the desert. In the distance, the golden Tabernacle shined. And there, leaning against the podium, was a curious wooden staff.

The next to arrive were a blind couple carrying their white canes. As they proceeded into the meeting room, I began to realize how important this retreat was for people. While standing in the vestibule, I met a man who told me he had suffered severe depression his whole life and that no medication had ever helped him. I shared that I too suffered from mild depression and could appreciate his journey. I offered to pray for him and we then exchanged phone numbers. As the fifty souls attending this retreat began to take their seats, I noticed the diversity of the group; individuals, couples, families, a nun wearing a long black veil.

After seeing and hearing Father John Powers talk for only a few minutes, my friends and I couldn’t believe our eyes. How could such a warm effervescent man ever be depressed and suicidal?

But for this Passionist Priest, who has spent thirty-seven years giving lectures and retreats all over the United States and in a number of foreign countries, along with TV and radio, his life’s journey has been quite contrary to his image. He told the story of how in his early days as a priest he would be giving a talk on TV, while thinking of how he was going to kill himself.

Father John then revealed: “Courage is a three-letter word: YES. Yes to who you are. Yes to your flaws. Yes to ask for help.”

When Father John realized he couldn’t  journey alone and needed help, he went to his priest superior seeking his help. Father John was then hospitalized. He still occasionally sees a psychiatrist for medication, a therapist and, of course, a spiritual director.

Father John told us, “Mental illness is a disease and it’s not your fault. At first, I suffered with depression. Then I learned to live with it. Now I realize it lives with me. It’s not who I am.”

As part of his self-care, Father John also goes to AL Anon, the twelve-step program for family and friends of alcoholics, to deal with the leftover pain of his mother’s alcoholism, even though she eventually became sober. The damage from that experience is life long. He and the brothers at the Immaculate Heart Monastery in Jamaica, Queens, where he resides, also started a Depression Anonymous group. Although, the group has since closed.

As a youth, he was traumatized by the loss of his much beloved infant brother to cancer. Of this he says, “Loss is the flaw of love. What we love [on earth] can be lost.” Concerning our pain to such losses he says, “Our anger is as high as our denial of hurt is deep. Lent is when we touch into our sorrows to be lifted up.”

Throughout his struggles in life, Father John’s Catholic faith has helped him immensely. He challenged those of us present at the retreat in saying,

“We should get into the Scripture stories, into the spaces between the words. Become a character in the story and see what it says to you.”

He then picked up the staff that was leaning against the podium. (He calls the stick his “Story Staff”.) He showed us how to immerse  ourselves into Scripture by taking on a character in several of the Bible stories; the Prodigal Son and a shepherd who sees both the birth and the Passion of Jesus. He challenged us to see what they saw, and to hear and feel with they experienced.

He then shared something that echoed much of what Pope Paul VI said about witnessing. Yet, Father John was quoting Joseph Campbell; “Preachers err by trying to talk people into belief. Better they reveal the radiance of their own discoveries.”

“The soul is made up of stories,” Father John said, “story of you/us living, learning, loving, laughing, losing, longing, and letting go into God so that we can do it all, all over again.”

In closing, Father John summed up his talk, and highlighted our purpose in this life by saying, “As Christians our job is to give life. We are to be hope bearers, heralds of hope, to give them life. Be more hopeful, more compassionate.”

When the Retreat ended, it began to rain. As my friends and I walked to the bus stop, we were giddy with joy, walking in that rain like children; talking and joking about what we had witnessed – for we had “touched into our sorrows and were lifted up” by a bearer of God’s hope.  We felt weightless.

For as Father John said in explaining how he copes with life’s challenges; “Laughter sustains me. If we can laugh at it we can live with it.”

Visit his website and maybe he can talk at your parish or get his books and CD’s.

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15 thoughts on “A Priest’s Journey: Depression and Suicide”

  1. I’ve cut myself in the past, though I do it on my legs now to avoid detection after a hospital nurse discovered the cuts I made on my arm. Personally speaking, I find that it is the Catholic faith itself that is making me suicidal, and I feel it would be much better for my mental health if I left it behind. I am of the opinion now that religion is superfluous to everyday life because it can actually get in the way of leading a happy, balanced existence. Its not good emotionally or mentally for a person to have to constantly look upon oneself as being dirty and sinful. There is something very wrong at the heart of the Catholic faith when many Catholics simply have to ignore the rules so that they can live a normal, healthy balanced life whilst still remaining Catholics. It’s surprising how many people are doing this. It is a LOT of people. But they are doing it so they don’t turn into screwed-up self-haters who are never able to attend communion.

  2. Josemaria Lazaro Errazuriz-For

    At least this article gives me hope as someone who want to be a Priest and yet cuts his wrists regularly.

    1. I am so thankful that you got hope from this. Josemaria, if you are the one who cuts his wrists regularly I pray that you know how much our good Lord loves you and wants you to live. He wants all of us to live. You should see a priest immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1 (800) 273-8255
      National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
      Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
      Languages: English, Spanish
      Website: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
      We’re all praying for you.

    2. Josemaria Lazaro – I am not a licensed counselor, however, I do have experience with a condition called “cutting” with a family member. There is a cure. I urge you to contact the helpline that Jamey Brown provided for you. Please share your experience that they will put you in touch with a skilled therapist who specializes in cutting. People who cut themselves regularly do not wish commit suicide. They simply want the pain that they are experiencing internally to go away. There is hope. You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not a freak. You are a gentle human being crying out for help. There are people who are able to help you. Once you get in touch with your feelings and obtain the therapy you require, you will the light at the end of the tunnel is Christ with open arms. Please do as I ask. God doesn’t want to see you hurt. And neither do we at Catholic Stand. Peace be with you.

  3. Where are we in your times of need? That is what I confess. Matthew 6:12 -“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We have a debt to be in relationship with others and to be merciful. Yes, your depression is my fault and our fault. It is so hard to see what other people are going through – through their eyes. It is a great struggle of mine. Focus
    on others and not just myself – easier said than done.

    1. Beautiful, Tim. I had never heard that said before: “Yes, your depression is my fault and our fault.” To focus on others and not just myself is a struggle of mine too; to constantly think “How can I help this person?” maybe part of our daily conversion, to die to our old self so that the new man in Christ Jesus may be reborn. Thank you for your insight.

    2. During the week I take time on lunch to wake up my mother-in-law at 11:00. If I just wake her and then leave without staying with her for a while she would just stay in
      bed and if she does get up she is a hopeless mood. I know exactly how she feels. But sometimes I would prefer just to watch TV or read as I eat lunch. It is easy to make life forgetting our duty for others.

  4. The Passionists have a very special calling to intensely meditate on Jesus and His Passion. I have a
    small book called Living Wisdom for Every Day (1991) and the interplay between the meditation of the day and corresponding prayer absolutely tailored to lay people is a fascinating study indeed. Good
    work Jamey, as always.

    1. Sounds like that it sort of what he was doing when he portrayed people from the Bible stories. Very interesting, James.

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  6. Jamey, as a pastoral counselor, I love this story! Even more I love your bio! Thank you Lord for blessing our world with Jamey Brown and Father John! Ellen Marie Dumer, LCPC

    1. Thanks, Ellen. I just tried to share an inkling of how much Father John inspired me at a low time in my life. I’m still buzzing from it. And, you know, it wasn’t so much that he was brilliant or profound. It was just that he was so friendly and likable.

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