The last few weeks our Pastoral Counseling class has read, analyzed and discussed a multitude of articles aimed at the goal of piecing together a response to the question, “What is Pastoral Counseling?” It’s a pertinent question, considering the title of the course, but there’s not a simple answer. Pastoral Counselors may ask themselves, “How am I to guide and care for this soul that is before me?” But don’t Priests, spiritual directors and lay people who are serious about their brother’s salvation ask the same question? Pastoral Counselors may also ask themselves, “How am I to help this person replace their pathology with healthy ways of thinking, feeling and behaving?” But so also do Clinical Mental Health professionals who have no orientation to faith but who value health and well-being. In my mind I have conceptualized Pastoral Counseling as taking the best of psychology and the best of theology and combining them to help bring healing, wholeness and hope to the person before them. For me, the answer of what Pastoral Counseling is can only be answered in light of who the Pastoral Counselor is and what they aim to do.
I believe the most fundamental attribute of the Pastoral Counselor is the foundation of faith in which they rest upon. Whether it is the language they use, the specific therapeutic techniques they implement or the psychoeducation they provide to their clients, Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church must remain at the heart and center of everything a Pastoral Counselor says and does. It is this unique eschatological vision held by the Pastoral Counselor that enables him to affirm at every moment the dignity and beauty of each person before him. Answering the universal call to love the pastoral counselor “reaches out to the community of those who bear the marks of pain-the dispossessed, lonely, alienated, unwanted, divorced, those suffering because of sexuality issues and so on, to serve them in the struggle to become free and responsible and to enable them to grow from and through their pain (Blanchette).”
In order to help others find growth through their pain, a Pastoral Counselor has to be comfortable in allowing their clients to sit in their pain without rushing to alleviate them from it. This requires a spiritual maturity and an understanding of the theology of suffering on the part of the Counselor. The Pastoral Counselor serves as another voice to echo the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he said, “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love (Spe Salvi).” Helping their clients find meaning in their struggles is one of the unique ways Pastoral Counselors can separate themselves from the worldly philosophy of many secular counselors who don’t always see the growth and beauty that can come from a suffering heart.
Pastoral Counselors also seek to enter into the subjective world of their clients so that they may understand their experiences, see how they think and how they feel, contradict their distortions and move them to a place beyond their current brokenness. While this is similar to what Clinical Counselors attempt to do, Pastoral Counselors will do this in light of faith. Where Clinical Counselors may only focus on the temporal aspects of clients struggles, Pastoral Counselors aim to go “beyond a concern for mental health to a concern for the Kingdom of God (Power, 1990).” They take into consideration both the temporal and the eternal. With the limitations of our humanity, due to sin and brokenness, perfect wholeness will not be achieved here on earth, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to become as whole, healthy and healed as we can be during this lifetime. The Pastoral Counselor must never lose sight of this, for although their impact is limited, they play a crucial role in bringing clients into a deeper understanding of the transforming power of God; a power that can take their earthly struggles and make them bearable when they are put in view of eternity and the promises of Christ.
So while I am still navigating through my understanding of Pastoral Counseling, I am assured of one thing: Pastoral Counselors have a beautiful responsibility in directing the sick to their Physician. For as Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mt 9:12-13).” Which is why I believe that as Pastoral Counselors there is no greater mission than to lead your clients into the arms of Christ, the Divine Physician, where they may find healing, rest and peace.