What can we learn from the passing of Mark Costello?

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

Last week, Oklahomans publicly mourned the death of Mark Costello, who was tragically slain by the hand of his own dear son, Christian. The governor ordered flags flown at half-staff in Mark’s memory in acknowledgement of his dedicated service to the people of Oklahoma as labor commissioner, an office he had held since his election in 2010. As became apparent in the remarkable media coverage throughout the days following his death, Mark was many things to many people.

Mark was a dedicated and loving husband and father. He was a Catholic, passionately devoted to his faith in Jesus Christ. He was a successful businessman and entrepreneur. He was certainly a committed Republican. He was a generous benefactor to many Catholic institutions and other causes that he believed in. Mark was a friend to many, including many who were often forgotten and overlooked.

I have known Mark since 1976 when as undergraduates at the University of Kansas we participated together in a semester abroad in Ireland. When he married Cathy Cerkey in 1982 (in the parish to which Cathy and I both belonged) I was an acolyte for the wedding Mass.

 

The Costellos were among the handful of people I knew when I arrived in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and they welcomed me warmly. Those are a few of the memories I cherish about Mark. The amazing thing is that so many other people in Oklahoma and beyond have their own stories and memories of Mark, many of which have been shared in the course of these days. Mark Costello was a public figure. But, he also was a man, like all men and women, who kept his own counsel about some of the things that mattered most.

Among those things that Mark carried in his heart daily was the burden he felt for his son, Christian. Christian, as most people now know, suffers from mental illness. He was tormented by this illness, as was his family who loved him and suffered compassionately with him. They never gave up on Christian, even when they found themselves helpless to stop his destructive behavior.

Of course, not everyone suffering from mental illness becomes violent; far from it. But, many people who suffer from or suffer with friends and family members afflicted with mental illnesses find themselves isolated and without adequate resources and understanding from the wider community to alleviate the very real suffering of mental illness. As readers of this column will know, this is an affliction that affects far more people than are readily acknowledged. There is still a stigma attached to this affliction.

My hope is that the very public and painful ordeal that the Costellos have endured will help foster greater understanding of the reality and prevalence of mental illness in our communities, in our parishes and in our families. I pray that this awareness will lead to effective measures that bring greater understanding and resources to bear on this problem that takes such a toll on individuals, families and society.

When Pope Francis challenges the Church and all Christians to go out to the peripheries of society, bringing the light of the Gospel to all those in need, he reminds us of our duty to remember and embrace the forgotten ones, the least of our brothers and sisters. Certainly among these we must count those who suffer the stigma, the isolation and misunderstanding of mental illness.