After 6 years in a large parish in Atlanta, GA working in youth ministry, I found myself wondering how best to help those coming to me who were wounded and broken. I love my faith, I am a Catechetics and Theology Graduate of Franciscan University and my desire was and still is to be the Lord’s hands and feet in loving His children and pointing them to the Heart of Jesus, the Divine Healer! When families, teens, parents, and other parishioners would come into my office or call me on the phone asking for help, I found myself realizing that all the theology knowledge in the world would not help them. Theology is important, and helped me to be a voice of truth as they came to learn more about our Catholic faith. But in the midst of pain, suffering, hurt, addiction, and grief, they also needed be heard, received, and to have an experience of love and healing. They needed Jesus and they needed help sorting through the fears and blocks to seeing, receiving and trusting Jesus. This is where Pastoral counseling comes into play. As I brought my desire to the Lord to be a vessel to help others heal, I very clearly remember the Scripture verse that came to my heart one day: “Bind up the broken hearted and bring liberty to the captives (Isaiah 61:1)”. Yes, the Lord was calling me to go back to school, and learn how to be a better vessel of His love and healing for others in order to help him bind up the broken hearted and set captives free.
There is so much confusion out there as to what and who a pastoral counselor is. Is a priest always a pastoral counselor? Does one need a license to be a pastoral counselor? Is anyone working in a pastoral setting able to give pastoral counsel? In my own experience I thought this was the case, but when I responded to the Lord’s invitation to come and study for my Master’s degree in counseling, I found myself realizing there’s a lot more involved than what we see on the surface.
I believe pastoral counseling brings together theology and faith with counseling. Pastoral Counselors are trained and often times licensed counselors, who have been educated in counseling, as well as, the spiritual life and are representatives of faith. Pastoral counseling differs from Christian counseling simply because a pastoral counselor is much more than a counselor in a pastoral setting. David Benner in his book Care of Souls describes pastoral counseling as a ‘being-with’ a person. As an opportunity to mediate grace and bringing that person into direct personal contact with God. In his book On Pastoral Counseling, David Benner states: “Pastoral counseling is a process of liberation based on the ministry of Jesus.”
First and foremost as a pastoral counselor, one must look to Jesus Christ, who is our model and shepherd of souls. Scripture shows us that Jesus always met people exactly where they were at. He was compassionate, acted out of an explicit moral context but was never condemning, spoke with authority, invited choice, asked questions, affirmed faith responses, was scandalously inclusive, set limits and took care of himself, dealt with each person uniquely and individually, related in a manner that affirmed people’s value, was never coercive or manipulative, spoke in ordinary language, never minimized the costs of discipleship, dealt at the level of motivation not just behavior, preferred dialogue over monologue, respected but was not limited to cultural norms, demonstrated a holistic respect for the close relationship of body and soul, never allowed his own needs to get in the way of meeting the needs of others, challenged people to never settle for less than God’s best, gave in proportion to receptivity and spiritual hunger, invited engagement not passive receptivity, gave what people needed not what they asked for, identified embedded spiritual issues, allowed people to ignore or reject his help, gave himself, not just advice, accepted the trust people placed in him. (Benner, Care of Souls)
“Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering (Salvifici Doloris, 3).” I believe having a background in theology, a love for the Lord and a desire to be close to Him, as well as, a counseling degree will help me to live this call out in a unique way.
In closing, Estadt in his book On Pastoral Counseling sums it up nicely: “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. Pain becomes an all important call to growth.” Christ is the Divine Counselor and as a pastoral counselor my role is to draw nearer and nearer to Him and to allow His Holy Spirit to fill me daily and to lead every discussion and conversation. I must always have at the forefront of my mind the dignity and anthropology of the human person, who is created in the image and likeness of God, and I must always remind my clients that nothing can ever compromise their worth and dignity. On this journey to healing and freedom, a pastoral counselor is a vessel of Christ’s Truth and Love.