SCRANTON – In addition to the seemingly endless interruptions the COVID-19 global pandemic has had on our world – from a direct impact on those it has affected, to fear of contracting the virus, to separation from loved ones, and an overall upheaval it has caused to our social, work and financial lives – the crisis has also taken a serious, sometimes deadly, toll on the mental health of society.
No one is more aware of that fact than Deacon Ed Shoener.
Ordained a Permanent Deacon for service in the Diocese of Scranton in 2004, Deacon Shoener in 2017 launched his Catholic Mental Health Ministry based at the Cathedral of Saint Peter, where he serves as the parish deacon. He began the support ministry following the death of his daughter Katie Shoener, who took her own life after a 12-year battle with severe depression.
Deacon Shoener is currently president and a founding member of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers.
Since becoming the face and point person for such ministry in the Diocese, Deacon Shoener has emphasized that mental health ministry in the Catholic Church is growing because many people see the need for a ministry focused on the spiritual needs of those living with a mental illness, along with family members and others who love and support them.
Within the past six months, the need has become greater than ever.
“The pandemic has clearly led to greater isolation and anxiety for everyone,” Deacon Shoener said. “For people who are living with mental health challenges, the added isolation and stress has made their lives more difficult.”
The deacon noted that during the height of the COVID restrictions in the spring, the mental health ministry support group gatherings in Scranton transitioned to online ZOOM meetings, but have returned to in-person sessions requiring facial masks and social distancing.
Support ministry for those suffering from mental illness continues to meet on the second and fourth Saturday of the month from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Saint Peter Cathedral Rectory. For family and friends who support those living with mental illness, meetings are held on the first Tuesday of the month at 6 p.m. in the rectory.
In a recent homily Deacon Shoener preached at the Cathedral, following Matthew’s Gospel account of the terrified disciples being tossed in a boat during a raging storm only to encounter Jesus walking on the water towards them, he equated the apostles’ plight with the feelings of helplessness so many are wrestling with at this time.
“The pandemic is not only causing physical, social and economic strains, it is also heaping pressure on the mental health of many people in ways that are hard to see,” he said. “Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, we are shaken by a vast storm that we have no control over.”
Noting that many struggling with the effects of the global health crisis are overwhelmed by its impact on all aspects of life, the deacon remarked, “For others, the pandemic may be manageable, but it may be some other part of life, perhaps a relationship, that is in chaos.”
Following the example of the disciples, who “cried out in fear,” said Deacon Shoener, there is a need to cry out for Jesus.
“You are struggling with the loneliness brought on by the pandemic, you are struggling with the fear brought on by the pandemic — Cry out for Jesus,” he said. “You lost a job and your debt is a burden you don’t think you can bear — Cry out for Jesus.”
“We may fall, we may begin to sink beneath the waves, but He will pick us up,” the deacon continued. “Our faith may be weak, yet His mercy is strong.”
“During these uncertain and chaotic times, we all need to cry out for Jesus,” Deacon Shoener said. “We all need to spend time with Him in prayer. He will speak to us in the quiet moments. We all need to be with Him in His Church. Jesus will pour out countless graces on us to calm the storm.”