By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 25, 2013
ATLANTA—As the church marks the feast of Our Lady of Good Counsel, members of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association feel a special connection to their patron.
Therapist Sandra McKay in the late 1990s hosted other Catholic counselors in her home near Atlanta. The group talked about professional development and reviewed clinical cases, but also included prayer. Local clergy encouraged them as they initially met as a guild of the Catholic Medical Association. In 2002, Archbishop John F. Donohue approved the organization as a Catholic lay group.
Around the same time, in other parts of the country, other therapists pursued similar endeavors. Connections were made with others through the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. What began locally became the national Catholic Psychotherapy Association five years ago.
McKay said the local group first got together to encourage each other in their faith. And Our Mother of Good Counsel was selected as the patron because there is a long history in the church of popes and saints turning to her for guidance, said McKay, who graduated as a nurse from Emory University in 1969, and is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She attends St. Matthew Church, Winder.
“Every day I put more trust in God, Jesus, and his mother. I put my clients in their hands,” she said.
Our Lady of Good Counsel is a title given to the Virgin Mary. A painting, said to be miraculous, dates to 1467 in a church in Genazzano, Italy, 30 miles from Rome. Over the centuries, prayers, and appeals to Our Lady grew among saints and popes as the devotion spread around the world. The Augustinian order contributed to the spread of this devotion internationally. The feast day is April 26.
The painting, which is also known as Our Mother of Good Counsel, shows the Christ Child leaning so close to Mary their cheeks almost touch. His left hand grasps the rim of her dress, indicating the intimacy of nursing, according to the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, Ohio.
McKay said she sees “compete trust” in Jesus’ looking at his mother, the same spirit shared by the organization.
“If we are going to do this from a faith perspective, we have to enlist her help,” said McKay, the director of the Holy Family Counseling Center, in Duluth.
What Is Psychotherapy?
Psychotherapy treats people and gives them tools to deal with stress and unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. It is also called “talk therapy,” although it may be combined with medication.
For a CPA member, that means counselors “integrate our Catholic spirituality into our vocation as therapists,” said Dr. Thomas Spudic, who is the current CPA president.
It involves using mental health techniques but also drawing on Catholic ethical principles to plan interventions. Psychotherapy serves the needs of individuals, couples and families for a variety of issues, from anger management to sexual addiction. A Catholic therapist may be particularly valuable to people struggling with marriage.
“We don’t mandate to a client how to live. They have to make their own decisions. It’s a free will choice,” said McKay.
The counselors draw on the knowledge of the church to treat people, she said.
Spudic has spent more than 30 years helping people. He’s found sharing a faith perspective with clients an enriching tool.
The goal is to “attempt to help people integrate their emotional and spiritual lives,” he said.
“People want to live happy emotional lives. They also want to live their faith. The Catholic Psychotherapy Association realizes that is a need,” said Spudic, who has a practice in Roswell.
The CPA mission is “to support mental health practitioners by promoting the development of psychological theory and mental health practice which encompasses a full understanding of the human person and society in communion with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.”
The Catholic Psychotherapy Association has about 230 members from across the country. About two dozen members work around metro Atlanta and meet regularly. Its first national conference in Dawsonville attracted about 75 people and it’s grown since, said Spudic. A 2013 conference is scheduled to be held in Dallas, Texas, in November.
Spudic admits he was initially skeptical about a national organization when there are already Christian organizations for counselors, but he has come to see its value.
The bond among the members by sharing prayer is very powerful, he said.
“It is one of the highlights of what we do,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience to realize one is not alone,” he said.
Dr. Gerry Crete will be presenting, along with others from the Holy Family Counseling Center, at the Dallas national conference later this fall on trauma.
He worked in private schools before starting with the center.
“I was really excited about working for a Catholic group. We created a little community,” he said, as he waited to see a client at Christ the King Cathedral.
And for clients, “You are meeting a spiritual need that therapists often ignore,” he said.
Faith and therapy have not always mixed and can be a source of conflict in the profession. The Catholic therapists said they do not denigrate therapy without a faith component, but offer this dimension to clients who want it.
“It’s not that we are promoting Catholic psychotherapy anymore than anyone would promote Catholic physics or Catholic algebra. We are integrating a Catholic worldview and sensitivity to what we do,” said Spudic. “Our job is never to proselytize, but it is to attempt to meet the person where they are at.”
Crete said there is a distinction within the profession between “issues of faith and the hard science of psychotherapy.” But, he said, spirituality can be an important part of a client’s life.
And McKay said studies show clients who share a common language of faith, values, and background with a therapist can receive better help.
“The Catholic faith has a massive amount of answers for human happiness,” she said.
For more information, visit www.catholicpsychotherapy.org.