As a Counseling Graduate Student here at Franciscan University, learning how to incorporate our Catholic faith into our counseling is a key part of our education. This semester, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the specialty of pastoral counseling in a class specifically dedicated to explore the unique purpose and role of pastoral counseling in the mental health field.
Our class discussions have covered many topics, including defining pastoral counseling; the roles of the pastoral counselor; the difference between pastoral counseling, Christian counseling, and spiritual direction; and how our unique Catholic view of the human person affects how we would approach our clients in these different settings. These discussions have allowed my classmates and I to reflect on our approaches to counseling, how our morals and beliefs affect our interactions with our clients and co-workers, and how it affects our overall approaches as counselors.
Based on the readings and class discussions so far, I would say that I view the role of the pastoral counselor is to view the issues presented by their clients with Christ’s eye’s. Their goal in counseling helping them to seek healing physically, mentally, and spiritually, as well as in their relationships with God, others, and themselves. If counseling focuses on managing mental disorders and disordered thought processes, and spiritual direction helps a person to both learn to listen to God’s voice in a noisy world and pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their lives, then pastoral counseling is a beautiful combination of the two. First, in pastoral counseling the counselor helps the client to discern whether the origins of their presenting problems are more spiritual or physical in nature, while keeping in mind the ways that spiritual, mental and physical health influence each other. Next, with this holistic perspective the counselor and client are able to move forward in creating a plan for counseling that is both appropriate and helpful for the client.
Pastoral counseling seems to be one of the most comprehensive forms of counseling. It addresses spiritual issues in the client’s life while keeping in mind the influence of the body and intellect on mental health as well. To me, this is important because when someone’s body, mind, or spirit, is hurting, the other parts suffer as well due to the integrated nature of the human person. It is definitely important not to over-spiritualize a person’s problem. After all, if a client comes in suffering from depression you wouldn’t want to spend the rest of the session talking to them about their prayer life and telling them to go to Mass. While prayer and the sacraments are good, you could miss some very important information if you don’t also ask about other things such as their physical health, family situation, and mental health history. Conversely, ignoring a client’s spiritual health also misses a key aspect of the human person. Addressing the client’s spiritual life throughout the course of therapy is very important and useful, and it may even improve or expedite the client’s recovery.
Catholic pastoral counseling has the unique opportunity to incorporate the sacraments, stories of the saints, spiritual reading, and quotes from saints and other holy men and women into the counseling process in appropriate ways. Also, this form of counseling would more than likely take place in a parish. This unique setting would have its own benefits and challenges. Some benefits of counseling in a parish setting would be having the support of fellow Catholics as well as easy access to the sacraments and guidance from a priest. Unless there were multiple pastoral counselors in the parish though, finding other professionals to consult about cases with might be difficult and there could be some isolation as a result.
While not every Catholic counselor will necessarily become a pastoral counselor, we can all counsel in a pastoral manner. By maintaining a holistic view of the human person and appropriately applying the unique gifts and tools available to us as Catholics in our practice, we can help our clients re-gain health, live their lives to the fullest, and become the people God created them to be. As a counselor, this is what I seek for all of my clients, and I believe it is the key to counseling pastorally, no matter what setting you work in.