Many Christians have heard of spiritual direction and most people have heard of mental health counseling but far fewer have heard about pastoral counseling. Is pastoral counseling simply getting advice from your pastor or is it something more? There is something more to pastoral counseling and the simplest way to understand the approach is to first explore what makes pastoral counseling distinct from spiritual direction and from Christian counseling and then look directly at what pastoral counseling is.
Spiritual direction is recommended by spirituality experts for all those who wish to grow in the spiritual life and not just those who have some particular problem or issue. An individual places themselves under the direction of a spiritual guide with some level of abandonment and trust. The primary focus is on the directee’s relationship with God and learning how to discern God’s movements in the soul. Both the director and the directee trust that the Holy Spirit is the primary actor. Questions that might be addressed in spiritual direction include how to pray (meditate), how to make decisions with God (discernment), and how to grow in virtue and avoid sin.
Christian counseling addresses issues that are common to mental health counseling such as anxiety, depression, or addiction but with a Christian worldview. This worldview provides clients a sense of trust and ease with their counselor. A Christian approach also allows for prayer, moral challenges, the need for repentance, the possibility of redemption, the use of scripture and other spiritual resources, and places value on forgiveness. This Christian worldview and these tools provide a richer approach for mental health clients. For example a person with anxiety could be comforted by praying with psalms or by learning how to abandon oneself to God’s merciful love. Or, with the right timing and words, a depressed client who believes Church teaching but is engaged in adultery can be challenged to look at how his actions may be contributing to his depression. While pastoral counseling may do similar things and have the same worldview as a Christian counselor, the primary emphasis in pastoral counseling is not a particular mental health diagnosis.
So what is the primary focus in pastoral counseling? I believe it is care and shepherding of souls. Jesus provides the best model for what this looks like. He is concerned with the flourishing of the whole person (physical health, mental health and spiritual health). His deepest concern is the salvation of each person. Thus the pastoral counselor has a particular desire to bring the saving love of Jesus to each client. This will be manifested in different ways. At some times it may look very much like Christian counseling, with a focus on removing psychological obstacles to love (such as depression and anxiety) and at other times it may look more like spiritual direction in focusing on development of a relationship with Christ. The core of soul care is encountering each person as beloved by God and guiding them to authentic Christian flourishing. All of the secular counseling techniques (at least those that do not conflict with Church teaching) and all of the spiritual practices are fair game to a pastoral counselor.
A deeper examination of what a pastoral counseling session might ential would require another post but it is important to understand what makes Catholic pastoral counseling distinct from other pastoral counseling from other Christian denominations. When first encountering authentic Catholic pastoral counseling a person may not immediately notice its most distinct trait: love and respect for the Church as mother. Seeing the Church as truly founded by Christ and entrusted with the mission of passing on the faith makes the Catholic pastoral counselor (CPC) a person who is trustworthy. It also means the CPC is formed in the true worldview of the Church.
This is a worldview which creates a full, rich and useful (because it is true), understanding of the human person. A CPC sees each person as created in the image of God. That means each person has inherent dignity and worth. It also means each person has a free will capable of choosing the good or rejecting it, and an intellect capable of knowing the truth about what is good. This intellectual nature, coupled with a sensing body, is in real contact with the true world through the five senses. Having a body means each person is affected by emotions, which are neither good nor bad in themselves, but can be formed to lead (move) the individual in a virtuous or vicious direction.
Being created in the image of a triune God means each person is created for community and thus only finds fulfillment in a gift of self to others. A CPC also knows the meaning of life for each person, at least in the broad sense, that of knowing, loving and serving God. A CPC knows that each person is created for love, with the destiny of heaven, yet fallen (wounded and capable of sin) and in need of the redemption of Christ. This counselor knows that grace is a free gift and yet the needed response and continual conversion is real and challenging. This graced life of responded to God’s gift is nourished through prayer, living liturgically, Marian devotion, scripture and the sacraments, most especially the Eucharist. A CPC knows that each person is a given a unique mission (vocation) in which they will find their happiness.
This worldview, which Protestants may share parts of, is in its fullness unique to the Catholic Pastoral Counselor. Believing these truths, coupled with living in a deep relationship with Jesus and his Church, allows the CPC to be trusted by Catholic clients and to guide them to authentic flourishing, happiness, and salvation.