Journeys of Healing – Sr Mary Trainor RSM

Sr Mary Trainor RSM, 13 January 2022

When Sr Mary Trainor rsm discovered the work of this blogsite, she said that it “warmed the cockles of my heart!” She can certainly identify with ministry on the margins and was eager to share her experience alongside people with mental illness and intellectual disability. After many years of teaching music and pastoral care, Mary was sent to Bloomfield Psychiatric Hospital and Riverside Intellectual Disability Service in 1982. These were located in Orange, in the west of New South Wales, where she still lives. It started as an experiment, to see if a woman could fill the vacant Chaplain’s role. Finally, following Church and Health agreement, they affirmed her suitability and even paid a stipend. That appointment lasted 22 years and was “the most wonderful opportunity my provident God could have given me.”

Mary has written a book about her experiences: Lighting a Candle, which sheds some light on pastoral needs and approaches. Unlike hospital or prison situations, people with mental illness or intellectual disability now live in the wider community, and this poses unique challenges and opportunities for chaplains. Mary’s ministry did extend to hospitals at times, ranging from institutionalised care, to acute care, to community support. Networks of families, friends, caregivers, neighbours and parishes are all part of such ministry. Mary also located the ministry within a multidisciplinary team including health professionals and support services as well. Yet the specific area of pastoral care, attending to a person’s spiritual needs, was extremely important.

Mary shows both a great love of her ministry and a deep knowledge about the many forms that mental illness and intellectual disability can take. Part of her calling is to reduce the associated stigma, and to invite others to be like Jesus with the ‘leprosy’ of our day. Within the wider category of pastoral care, I would like to focus on what Mary has said about the liturgical needs amongst this wider ministry. Some liturgical needs can be addressed by anyone who has been trained and authorised, and some require ordination.  

‘Trevor’* experienced a great number of trials in his life, including intellectual disability, epilepsy and schizophrenia. He was almost illiterate, unmarried and disconnected from most of his family. When Mary met him, she discovered that he was Catholic, but had not received the sacraments apart from Baptism. So she mentored him through Reconciliation, Holy Communion and Confirmation, as well as many ups and downs for years. When he became seriously ill, Mary visited him a few days after the priest’s Anointing. Mary gently discussed his journey home to the Father-God they had often talked about. She took his hand, kissed him goodbye and entrusted him to God. As he died, Mary realised that “the healing that had eluded him all his life was finally complete.” (pg 27)

Mary reflects that the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing can bring so much healing, both spiritual and physical. They are powerful accompaniments to other forms of healthcare and psychological support. And they can connect people with God and also with the Church. As such, she believes that their ministration should be allowed beyond the current restriction to priests and bishops. While Mary has seen much good come from the Catholic Rite of Reconciliation with the people she walks with, a lot of groundwork must be done and it is part of a much bigger journey and process.

In another sphere, weekly liturgies used to be carried out at the hospital Chapel, followed by Holy Communion rounds to the wards. However, Mary found that at Riverside with the intellectually disabled, “we were offering a form of worship and religious practice they could not understand.” (pg 61) After some time, they developed a format of ritual called ‘Christian Hour’. It involved God-songs, prayer time, story time and activity time. After searching unsuccessfully for suitable musical material, Mary wrote her own hymns that connected with the community and taught the Good News in a memorable way. They were compiled on a CD called Good Time God Time. The celebrations also included a prayer focus, with appropriate items that expressed something of the scriptural themes. This worked well for 16 years.

However, after people started to leave full-time institutions, Mary found a need for relevant liturgy in the community. What emerged were ‘Christian Community Meetings’, coordinated jointly by Catholic and Anglican chaplains. Separate Meetings were held for those with intellectual disability and for those with mental illness, and the services were tailored to meet their needs, and followed by supper. To her surprise, each week there would be new attendees, as the word spread quickly. Despite Mary’s initial hope to integrate these with local parishes, the Meetings gave a sense of safety and homeliness that was not available elsewhere. Nevertheless, they did provide an opportunity for parishioners to become involved as volunteers.    

Finally, Mary’s ministry was much more than these specific actions and services. It was, and is, part of a whole-of-life commitment of accompaniment. Her role as a Sister of Mercy and a Chaplain is to exercise the “Sacrament of Presence” to those she meets. In Mary, people truly experience Mercy: “knowing God’s loving kindness and sharing it with others.” (pg 26) 

* Not his real name.

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