Sacrament of Healing for Communal PTSD

In his new book, The Francis Factor and the People of God, Marist priest Fr. Gerald Arbuckle advances an evocative theme: Communities and cultures experience wholesale trauma that goes unhealed. Events like September 11, the assassination of President Kennedy, the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and natural disasters have an impact that goes beyond the often fatal consequences felt by those in the direct line of the traumatic event. The shared pain injures large swaths of people and alters their communal emotional trajectory.

Specifically, cultural trauma is an “evasive and overwhelming event that is believed to undermine or overwhelm one or several ingredients of a culture or the culture as a whole” (p. 82).
Among the symptoms:

  • Collective sense of fatalism
  • Numbness and lethargy
  • Chronic nostalgia for the past
  • Persistent silencing of dissenters
  • Scapegoating
  • Rise of fundamentalist movements
  • Widespread breakdown of social and political trust
  • Pervasive cynicism
  • Collective loss of hope for the future
  • Internal feuding
  • Excessive individualism
  • Widespread bullying at all levels

These symptoms could tackle a community, church, or country. Indeed, they have, and some of us may be experiencing them today. Arbuckle asserts that such cultural trauma can be the result of a cumulative series of losses over time. In our church, what could these be? Pope Francis’ repeated calls to end clericalism suggests that greater respect for and inclusion of the laity and less status-seeking from deacons, priests, and bishops are in order. Women clamor for their voices to be heard. In our country, we wrestle with economic injustice, poverty, racial divisions, and threats from within and outside of our nation.

Regardless of the causes, if we have been traumatized, how can this be addressed or even healed? Despite the efforts of our well-intentioned elected leaders, we still are a very divided country. Perhaps we are in need of grassroots religious movements to emerge to help us heal. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the Gospel out of his church and into the streets to advance racial equality.

Through the years, popes and bishops have led prayer services, repented, and asked forgiveness for the various sins of the church. These have helped in healing, though more is needed. In the church, we have the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. When we are sickened by trauma, we need grace. We need someone to anoint us with the oil of words that acknowledge the pain and suffering we have encountered. This is leadership, and we look for leaders to make such grace real for us.

St. Francis de Sales once wrote: “Often say in the midst of trials, ‘This is the way to heaven; I see the port ahead, and I am sure that storms cannot prevent me from reaching it.’” The trial of trauma is too grave for simple words, but perhaps they offer hope until the storms subside, the sun shines again, and we are gifted with our collective anointing of grace to address whatever traumas we encounter.

On today’s 97th anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul II, a man who begged forgiveness for the church’s sins, let us pray that we can find healing when we need it most.