Get Thee To A Therapist

Pope John Paul II constantly proclaimed that strong families make for strong societies.

But a lot of Catholic families are not feeling so strong these days. In fact, many are falling apart — despite faithful adherence to daily prayer and the sacraments.

Catholics, just like everyone else, are struggling mightily with depression, anxiety, mixed-up kids, anger, addictions and failing marriages.

They should not be afraid to seek psychological help, says psychotherapist Gregory Popcak, who is also an author, radio-show host and founder of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, which combines psychology with orthodox Catholic theology.

“Faith keeps people hanging in there, but it's not a convenient excuse for not doing anything about your problems,” he told the Register. “Spirituality plugs us into the power source. Psychology helps the machine run efficiently. If I'm plugged in but all gummed up, I can't work as effectively.”

Popcak also maintains that Catholic rituals and prayers alone can't substitute for healthy relationships in the home, a common issue he sees with clients.

“Too many Catholic families are collections of individuals who live under the same roof,” he says. “Christianity is about intimacy more than anything else. God created us in a community and if those relationships around us are not working, then that's where we need to be living our faith.”

Joe and Cindy, a Catholic couple from central Minnesota who asked not to be identified, found their family life in crisis after their oldest son started drinking and using drugs at age 13. His behaviors negatively affected the whole family.

“We have three other kids and we decided to be up front with them about what was going on,” says Cindy. “I remember saying to one of my kids: This is how we learn to love someone who almost seems unlovable. We didn't excuse his behavior, but we would pray for him when he wasn't there.”

The couple also had to discontinue involvement in Church activities, including marriage preparation ministry, to focus their energy on their son. Cindy found herself resenting that other families that were lax in their faith seemed so well adjusted.

“It just didn't seem fair,” she says. “I found myself asking, ‘Why us, God? We tried to live the life that you asked us to live.’”

At one point it got so bad, recalls Joe, that he was ready to drop his son off at a boot camp.

“Every disciplinary action was a crisis,” he says. “You're always wondering: If I'm more strict, I'm going to lose him; if I'm not strict, I'm going to lose him. It drove me to prayer a lot. I can only be happy about the faith I had.”

While Joe and Cindy relied on their faith, they also sought help from community resources, including counselors and chemical dependency programs. They also started being open with others about their family situation and that got others to open up to them. Cindy says she realized they weren't alone and they've learned not to worry about what other people think.

Their son, now 21, is still struggling with addiction and emotional behaviors, but he's starting to come around and frequently talks to Joe. They've also felt called to a new ministry, working with chemically dependent young men in jail, which has helped their son realize they understand him.

Communicating Is Key

Father James Burns of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is a research professor at Boston University and professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. In his counseling with families and individuals, about one-third of them Catholic, he frequently runs into parents who want to cut off all communication with their wayward kids — a practice that, he says, isn't helpful.

“If Christ had that attitude, there wouldn't have been many sinners or tax collectors with whom he would have been,” he adds. “Rather, he maintained clear definitions about righteousness, and then invited others into it.”

On the other hand, that doesn't mean parents need to condone every part of their child's life, explains the priest. Learning how to communicate respectfully with each other and living a good example, coupled with use of the sacraments and prayers, is the best approach.

“Children will pick up quickly enough whether somebody is just talking the talk but not walking the walk,” he adds. “St. Francis of Assisi said to preach the Gospel and, when necessary, use words. That's a great model for families.”

While the culture can make it harder for Catholics to practice their faith and bring up children according to its teachings, Father Burns doesn't believe we're any worse now than any other age.

“It's hard to know if we're under greater attack now than the early Christians who were in catacombs and were not allowed to practice their faith publicly,” he points out. “That's a pretty serious attack. To a greater or lesser degree, each age has its own problems. Faith allows us to have a better sense of purpose and meaning in our lives and gives us direction. We can use the things that are available to us in our faith, and combine it with what is good in the culture.”

Popcak frequently refers his clients to the sacraments, specifically the sacraments of healing: confession and anointing. He notes that confession can give people the graces to avoid temptations to sin, like despair and hopelessness, which depression can push a person toward.

For moderate and serious emotional disturbances, he says, people should not be shy about asking their pastor for the sacrament of anointing. “We're so used to approaching our pastors as pseudo counselors and don't use them for what they're there for,” he says.

Spending time in Eucharistic adoration and frequently receiving the Eucharist is the ultimate way of plugging into God's power and love, he adds. “Obviously if you really have a true appreciation for what the Eucharist is, it's hard to doubt your worth in the eyes of God.”

Father Burns says the Eucharist is effective in helping us toward right living and helping us understand the meaning of suffering and sacrifice.

“We can't see the cross alone; we also have to see the resurrection,” he says. “The Eucharist reminds us of that.”

Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.


Pastoral Solutions Institute

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