Like many Catholics who have had therapy, I was riveted to learn that Pope Francis had sought the help of a psychoanalyst for six months when he was 42. He made the disclosure in a book based on 12 in-depth interviews with the sociologist Dominique Wolton, just published in France.
“For six months, I went to her home once a week to clarify a few things,” he told Wolton of his sessions. “She was a doctor and psychoanalyst. She was always there.”
The relationship was clearly close, as a good relationship with a therapist should be. “Then one day, before she died, she called me,” the Pope recalled. “Not to receive the sacraments – because she was Jewish – but for spiritual dialogue. She was a good person.”
The Pope’s disclosure comes as relief and comfort to me. I also began to have therapy in my early 40s, and hitherto a bit of me has worried about the decision. Was I in some way being disloyal to my faith by seeking help beyond the confines of the spiritual guidance provided by my priest and my local church? Should I not be turning to God, rather than a smiley lady in the chair opposite?
Pope Francis’s admission has helped me to grasp that the choice is not binary. It is possible, and indeed helpful, to combine faith with therapy. God’s forgiveness and compassion can be experienced through and with the help of human interaction. At a stroke, Francis has challenged the perception that Catholics who have therapy are weak. Therapy has come home.
This revelation is the culmination of a gradual shift in attitudes within the Catholic Church towards psychotherapy since the 1970s, not to mention within society as a whole. Counselling is now a part of some priestly formation programmes, especially before admission to a diocese to see if candidates are suitable for this demanding role. By 2008, the Vatican issued guidelines on the use of psychology in the training of priests, which it said could be useful.
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