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The Priest is In

Priests often are called to support their flocks in times of need. Here’s some advice to help in that role.

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Our God is a God of surprises. Every priest will attest to this truth. At some point in his ministry, the priest is bound to encounter an unexpected invitation from the Lord, who gently and mercifully reminds him that he is in charge, no matter how secure, settled or convinced the priest may feel about the trajectory of his pastoral assignments. In my brief (yet happy) 11 years of sharing in Our Lord’s priesthood, I have already experienced this reality on many occasions, which brings to mind the famous adage: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

The most notable surprise in my ministry thus far has been the appointment by my archbishop to pursue graduate studies in the field of clinical psychology. Being quite happy and content in parish ministry, I honestly can say that this new trajectory was something that I never foresaw. I did not have a background in psychology, nor did I ever express any particular interest in it. Yet, now that I have entered this field of study, I can say that I am incredibly grateful for having had this opportunity. It has been a blessing on both a personal and ministerial level, which are two dimensions that ultimately cannot be separated. In this article, I wish to share how the awareness and application of sound psychological principles are vital in assisting the priest in becoming a “man of communion,” both in his growth as a Christian disciple and in his pastoral care for others.

A Fuller Picture

Clinical psychology is an intriguing discipline, which historically has not been without controversy. Much of this controversy centers on the divergent anthropological assumptions that psychologists have made about the human person within the context of their research. These assumptions have led to various “lenses” through which theorists have viewed human nature. On many occasions, these theorists made very important and novel discoveries. In other instances, however, assertions were made that significantly contradicted the Catholic view of the person. Sigmund Freud, for example, was a materialist who assumed that man did not have a soul. Thus he concluded that biological drives were the bases of all human behavior. Yet, at the same time, his study of the unconscious was revolutionary, which laid the foundations for the development of psychotherapy as a relevant field of study. Peter Kreeft summarized Freud’s mixed legacy: “He died an atheist but almost a mystic. He had enough of the pagan in him to offer some profound insights, usually mixed up with outrageous blind spots.”


In response to the sometimes controversial legacy of these early theorists, there has been a concerted effort among some Catholic and Christian psychologists to develop new clinical training programs that intentionally teach in light of the Church’s view of the human person. One such program is the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS), now part of Divine Mercy University. Founded in 1999, IPS is a Catholic graduate school of psychology that provides students the opportunity to study clinical psychology within the framework of a Catholic anthropology. It is a program that attempts to integrate the truths of faith and science, thus offering the future clinician a richer and fuller picture of the client that he or she wishes to treat.

Pope St. John Paul II affirmed this approach in an address to the tribunal of the Roman Rota in 2005: “Only a Christian anthropology, enriched by the contribution of indisputable scientific data, including that of modern psychology and psychiatry, can offer a complete and thus realistic vision of humans.”

It was a blessing to study at IPS because of this sound integration of disciplines, which has afforded me a whole new range of personal and pastoral insights. Here, I learned in a very profound way that psychology and spirituality are not two unrelated dimensions. Rather, they are meant to be unified into a holistic approach to human flourishing. In order for me to be a truly integrated priest, I must be attentive to both of these dimensions in my own life, so that I may honestly and authentically permit the Grace of God to heal, transform, and operate within my own wounded nature.

Man of Communion

The journey of conversion and transformation is the call of every Christian disciple. The priest, in a very particular way, must embrace this call with honesty, open to the interrelationship of grace and nature within his own life. Within his seminary training, this process is accomplished through the integration of the four dimensions of formation: human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral. The present Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis (2016) highlights the necessity of this integration, with a particular focus on the seminarian’s human formation. Quite often, however, the seminarian is tempted to focus more on his intellectual formation. Psychologically speaking, it is a “safer” route to travel.

‘Stretch Out a Hand
“The role of those who care for depressed
persons and who do not have a specifically
therapeutic taskconsists above all in helping
them to rediscover their self-esteem, confidence
in their own abilities, interest in the future,
the desire to live. It is therefore important to
stretch out a hand to the sick, to make them
perceive the tenderness of God,to integrate them
into a community of faith and life in which they
can feel accepted, understood, supported,
respected; in a word, in which they can love
and be loved.”

— Pope St. John Paul II, address on Nov. 14,

In order for him to truly be effective in ministry, however, he must learn to integrate this intellectual understanding with his own personal human and spiritual development. The apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (1992) and the subsequent USCCB applications found in the Program for Priestly Formation (PPF) both stress this need for integration, with a particular emphasis on the ability to be a “man of communion.” Without the foundational human capacity to relate responsibly and effectively, the priest will fail to become the necessary “bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the human race” (PPF, No. 75).

The current Program for Priestly Formation also highlights the priestly call to communion through the description of the “threefold progression” of self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-gift as the essential trajectory for the human formation of a seminarian. In surrendering himself to this process through grace, the seminarian allows his own humanity to be configured to the “perfect humanity” found in Christ (PPF, No. 80). Within the context of his faith, the future priest must grow in his ability to understand and accept himself in order to be able to participate in the reciprocal action of love, thus entering the benefits of a sound application of psychology and rooted in the Church’s understanding of the human person. Without the proper understanding and integration of his own cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions as God created them, the future priest cannot fully grow in his capacity to participate in the life-giving dynamisms sourced in the Holy Trinity.

Grace and nature are not two untouchable realities. The natural obstacles to communion are not typically blotted out through prayer alone; nor are they removed through repression and denial. Rather, the seminarian is invited to honestly assess his own human capacities with all of his strengths and weaknesses, through healthy introspection and the development of personal insight. This process is not always easy, but it is indispensable for the life of a priest.

It never is pleasant to become aware of one’s own cognitive distortions, disordered passions and/or destructive habits, but it is a necessary prerequisite to the complete and free surrender of himself to the redemptive and healing power of Christ. St. Paul encourages us to “put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:22-24).

The Counselor in Training

Very early on in my graduate studies I learned an important lesson about the counseling process. Unlike most other disciplines, the counselor does not use any particular instrument in his work other than his own person. He is the instrument of his own trade. The surgeon uses a scalpel, and the artist uses a paintbrush. The counselor, however, through the process of “talk therapy,” assists others through the use of his or her own humanity. In clinical training, one learns about body language, eye contact and verbal tracking. The student learns examples of what to say and what not to say in particular situations, and he or she discovers that the “therapeutic alliance” is a critical aspect of effective psychotherapy, regardless of the type of modality used.

All of these lessons point to the fact that the process of counseling is experienced through the person. It is a human encounter. Thus training in counseling should necessarily involve the development of the practitioner’s own humanity, including such qualities as empathy, emotional intelligence and good communication skills. Some programs even require psychotherapy for all of its students in order to provide them the opportunity to grow in these areas, while simultaneously identifying their potential human barriers to serving others well.

Another important component of clinical training is the lens through which the counselor views the client. People seek therapy for many different reasons. Typically, those reasons center on the relief of various unpleasant symptoms in the cognitive, affective or behavioral realm. In the counseling process, however, there also seems to be an almost inevitable foray into the deeper questions of life, which often are related to the cause of the client’s suffering: Who am I? What is life all about? What is my purpose in life? What will make me happy?

Objectively speaking, these questions seem better answered in the realm of philosophy and/or theology. The scope of empirical science is limited when it comes to explaining metaphysical realities. Quite often, however, the counselor will be placed in a position of offering his or her own perspective on these matters. And while the autonomy of the client is to be respected, the counselor’s worldview still has the potential of unwittingly influencing the direction of therapy, if he or she is not careful. Thus it is critical for the counselor to become conscious of his or her own “lens,” particularly if it contrasts with the lens of the client. Conversely, if the counselor and the client have similar worldviews, and the client wishes to incorporate this worldview into the therapeutic process (as is often the case for someone who seeks pastoral counseling), then this lens can be used as an effective tool.

I believe that these various aspects of clinical training very much parallel the process of the formation of a seminarian. First, the future priest is forming a lens through which he is able to see his people as they truly are — children of God, made in his image and likeness. Second, he is developing and fostering the human qualities grounded in affective maturity and ordered toward love, which ultimately is experienced through union with Our Lord’s Sacred Heart. Both of these elements are essential to effective ministry.

If the priest lacks the ability to see and understand other people’s perspective through empathy, for example, his parishioners will leave his office feeling unheard. If a pastor has trouble understanding and managing his own emotions, he may have trouble running a parish council meeting when the conversation gets heated. If the priest has not learned how to communicate well, he will often alienate the people that he is trying to serve. Ministry is relational. Therefore, if the priest has not adequately developed these capacities to be a “man of communion,” much like a poorly formed clinician, his ministry will be fraught with difficulties and trials that extend beyond the normal challenges of his vocation.

The Priest-Counselor

With the many similarities that exist between clinical training and seminary formation, one may be tempted to conclude that all priests are thus prepared to be counselors in ministry. After all, every future priest, much like a future clinician, is invited to grow in personal and practical insights so that he may be an effective instrument of care for others. But are the two roles identical?

To answer this question, it may be helpful to consider the word “counsel,” whose etymology is rooted in the Latin word “consilium,” which means “plan” or “judgment.” To counsel someone literally means to deliberate and offer advice to someone on a particular matter. With this definition, I would say that all priests certainly are called to be counselors. In and through the Holy Spirit’s gift of counsel, priests are called to give advice and direction to people, particularly in the areas of faith and morals. They are called to help their people judge rightly what to do in various circumstances, with the intention of helping to lead their souls to heaven. Scripture says, “For lack of guidance a people falls; security lies in many counselors” (Prv 11:14).

OSV file photo by Jim Olvera

Despite the necessity for this type of pastoral counsel, however, the priest should never consider himself to have the same competencies as a professional counselor unless he has been trained accordingly. A professional counselor is someone who has learned to offer advice and direction related to very specific areas of psychological functioning. Thus the priest must have enough self-awareness to know the limits of his own competency and be willing to refer his people to trusted professionals when necessary.

It would be imprudent, for example, for a parish priest to assume that he can “cure” a parishioner who is suffering with bipolar disorder simply through giving advice. Likewise, it could be very dangerous to treat clinical depression or panic disorders simply through the prescription of certain prayers. While it is true that the priest often is the first person approached in times of suffering, he must, in humility, always be willing to share the responsibility of care with other professionals when necessary.

Importance of Connection

Early in his ministry, every priest is likely to encounter a sobering reality about human nature: Everyone suffers. No matter how people may appear on the outside, when a priest begins to hear their stories, he realizes that everyone is carrying a cross. More often than not, these crosses are manifested in dysfunctional family or peer relationships, which may include experiences of abuse, abandonment or simply feeling unloved. These experiences can have devastating psychological consequences.

‘Hope and Healing’: A Pastoral Letter
On May 1, the bishops of California released
“Hope and Healing,” a pastoral letter focused on
“caring for those who suffer from mental illness.”
The following is a short excerpt. Read the full
document at cacatholic.org/hope_and_healing.

“The work of caring for the mentally ill extends
beyond our institutions and facilities — whether
hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities or, sadly,
prisons and jails — and into our communities, parishes,
neighborhoods and homes. This means rolling up our
sleeves and getting involved in the lives of others:
helping them, accompanying them, understanding them
and, thereby, showing them the love of Jesus Christ.
Bishops, priests and deacons need to remain close to
the real daily problems of ordinary people, to be
available and always ready to assist.”

Most mental health professionals will assert that the feeling or perception of isolation is one of the greatest causes of psychological suffering. Human beings are relational by nature, created in the image of a Triune God who has loved us into existence. We are made by love, for love. When that nurturance is either distorted or altogether deprived through sin or other forms of human weakness, particularly if it came through a parental figure, it often can lead to significant cognitive, emotional and/or behavioral struggles within a person’s life.

In addition to the above-mentioned psychological factors, the experience of isolation can often have significant consequences on the faith life of an individual. Without the foundation of human love, it can be difficult to believe in the “realness” of God. In many cases, even when there is an intellectual understanding of God’s beneficence, it can be quite challenging to accept his love within one’s own heart. This experience is all too common, and it is rooted in the psychological development of unhealthy shame. It is a shame that falsely teaches the self that “I am unworthy to be in relationship.”

Dr. Brené Brown insightfully describes this phenomenon in her best-selling book “Daring Greatly” (Avery, $17). She defines shame simply as “the fear of disconnection.” When people negatively judge their own worthiness based on a variety of extrinsic factors, they will more likely keep others at arm’s length. Consequently, they will feel alone and isolated because they haven’t truly let themselves be seen and loved by another at their deepest level. As a man of communion, the priest-counselor has great potential to help people who struggle in this way, particularly if he has been willing to honestly address the shame that he has experienced in his own life. Through his empathy and compassion, he can be an effective witness to the truth and power of God’s personal love, especially if he has allowed that love to transform his own heart.


The priest never should underestimate the very important role that he can play in the lives of those who suffer. Even though he may not be clinically trained, the priest can be a powerful instrument of communion through his counsel and his pastoral care. To the degree that he is invested in his ministry, he will help to lead his people into healthy, loving relationships — with God and with others. Through his very person, which is sacramentally configured to Christ, the priest serves as an icon of the fatherhood of God. He is ordained as a sign to the world that God is still present, calling his children to life in abundance. The presence of a faithful and loving priest, who has truly learned to be a man of communion through his own humanity, can make God real for the people that he serves.

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As our culture increasingly exalts the American “virtues” of self-reliance, self-expression and all things technocratic, the priest continues to stand as the unwavering sign of God’s healing presence in the world. Through the healthy integration of psychology with his own spirituality, the priest will become a bridge between God and his people, teaching them that they are not alone. Through his counsel, he will communicate faith in the midst of doubt, hope in the midst of suffering and love in the midst of hatred and division, thus fulfilling the Lord’s Great Commission to proclaim the Good News wherever he is called.

FATHER KEITH CHYLINSKI, M.S., M.A., M.Div., is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He is a faculty member and the director of counseling services at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.

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