The Word Among Us

June 2024 Issue

Building a Culture of Community

The St. Dymphna Way

By: Tommy Tighe

Building a Culture of Community: The St. Dymphna Way by Tommy Tighe

How often do you feel alone?
How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
How often do you feel that there is no one you can turn to?

These questions from the UCLA Loneliness Scale and other surveys like it are being asked more often by counselors all over the country. Recent studies have shown that we are in the midst of an epidemic of loneliness. According to a 2022 Gallup study, only 39 percent of adults in the US said they felt “very connected to others.”

In my work as a marriage and family therapist, I see firsthand the impact of loneliness and isolation on mental health. People who lack support are more likely to feel hopeless, anxious, and depressed. They are also more likely to feel that things can’t possibly get any better. Improving connections to others and helping to bring people out of their social isolation can often be a key step in moving them forward on a journey of hope and wellness.

Given the impact of loneliness on our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, it’s clear that we have to do something. But what? St. Dymphna, a seventh-century Irish saint, provides guidance that can help.

St. Dymphna’s Playbook. A combination of history and legend tells us that Dymphna was the daughter of a Christian mother and a pagan king who reigned over the small kingdom of Oriel (in Ireland). Her mother’s example of holiness affected Dymphna deeply and moved her to take a vow of Christian chastity. But the woman became sick and died when Dymphna was just fourteen years old.

While Dymphna was overwhelmed by her mother’s death, her father’s grief at the loss of his wife led to such a downward spiral that friends became concerned about his mental health. So they recommended he remarry as a way to move forward. He agreed, but vowed only to marry someone who had the beauty of his deceased wife. His friends scoured the land to find a woman of matching beauty but came up empty. This led the king to fall deeper into a madness that made him focus his desires on Dymphna herself. He was unceasing in his efforts to convince her to marry him, but she pushed back and eventually escaped with her spiritual director to Geel, Belgium.

In Geel, Dymphna decided to use her resources to build a hospice for the poor and sick. According to some versions of the story, the hospice specifically served people with mental illnesses. This would have been revolutionary at the time, given that most individuals with mental health conditions were denied treatment due to superstition and the false belief they were demon possessed.

Friends of Dymphna’s father eventually heard of an Irish woman spending considerable wealth to help the less fortunate in Geel. Her father tracked her down. When his efforts to convince her to come home failed, he had her spiritual director killed in front of her. But when Dymphna continued to resist, her father responded by beheading her with his own sword.

Some traditions hold that many of the patients who witnessed Dymphna’s death were miraculously cured. As this story spread, Geel became a place of pilgrimage for those suffering with mental illness, neurological disorders, and cognitive differences. Pilgrims flocked to her burial site, more cures were reported, and Dymphna began to be venerated as a local saint.

The Call to Community. In addition to the example of her sanctity, St. Dymphna’s example of care for those suffering from mental illnesses continues to transform the lives of the people of Geel. A 2016 story from National Public Radio describes her influence:

For over seven hundred years, residents of Geel have been accepting people with mental disorders, often very severe mental disorders, into their homes and caring for them. It isn’t meant to be a treatment or therapy. The people are not called patients, but guests or boarders. They go to Geel and join households to share a life with people who can watch over them. . . .
That acceptance of mental differences has become something of a tradition in Geel. It’s at the heart of the boarder program, and some observers think it’s also responsible for the system’s success. Around the world, many different experiments have been attempted over the centuries to provide humane care for people with mental illness. . . . Geel is the one that endured.

So the question becomes, how can we bring a little bit of Geel, Belgium, into our homes and faith communities? How can we bring this spirit of St. Dymphna into our own lives?

Speaking at a conference on mental health in June 2021, Pope Francis offered an especially powerful answer when he urged people to build a “culture of community.” Addressing the incredibly urgent issue of mental health, he said that we believers are called to take action. Such a culture would help to “fully overcome the stigma that mental illness is often tainted with.”

Pope Francis isn’t alone in this call to community. According to the journal Psychiatric News, “Communities of faith can promote resilience and the experience of belonging and being celebrated within a community, crucial to buffering against the risk of suicide.”

Answering the Call. Clearly, each of us has a role to play in building this culture of community. So how can we answer that call?

We can start by becoming intentional listeners to people around us who are suffering, especially those in our homes, in our parishes, and in our communities.

In our homes, we can do it by checking in on the mental and emotional well-being of those in our immediate family, extended family, and community of friends. It can be as simple as making a phone call, sending a text, or stopping in for a spontaneous visit. We can take steps to ensure our homes are welcoming to those close to us who are experiencing mental health symptoms. We can also take steps to learn more about mental and emotional health and options for support in our communities in order to be able to be ready to help when someone needs it.

We can also do it by purposefully spending time with our parish community after Mass instead of rushing to the car. We can do it by being there for people when they need someone to listen. We can do it by opening up and sharing our own experiences so that fellow parishioners who might be going through a similar situation can realize they aren’t alone.

Parishes are, in fact, the perfect places for fostering this culture. Working with our parishes to start support groups, communities of sharing, and grief-support networks can go a long way toward creating the kind of environment where people can find healing and solace. We can also get involved in outreach to people who are isolated from the parish community for various reasons. This might include bringing Communion to those who are unable to attend Mass or creating a ministry that provides rides to and from Mass for those without transportation.

Something we don’t often consider is that the parish is frequently the first place someone turns to when they are in the midst of mental and emotional pain. This makes it vital for each and every one of us to ensure our parishes are equipped to help, both by explicitly being places of welcoming and safety for them and by being ready to provide the necessary resources and connections to services that offer help beyond what we can do.

The Grace of Kindness. Perhaps the easiest of all, we can work to build a community that speaks with kindness about suffering, mental illness, and loneliness. We can create an environment that is welcoming, supportive, and actively fights against stigma related to mental illness.

We can follow the example of St. Dymphna and walk alongside those who are suffering when they need the support the most. We can bring a little bit of Geel, Belgium, right into our own worlds wherever we are right now.

If each one of us does everything we can to reach out to those who need us, no one will have to feel alone again.

Tommy Tighe is a husband and father. He spends his days working as a marriage and family therapist and his nights making memories with his wonderful family. He’s also the author of Saint Dymphna’s Playbook: A Catholic Guide to Finding Mental and Emotional Well-Being, available from and How To: Catholic Family, Nurturing Faith in the Messiness of Everyday Life, available from