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Pope Francis demonstrates humanistic approach found in psychotherapy

September 29, 2015

"Each one of us has to respond as best we can"

-Pope Francis

During his recent visit to the United states, the Pope's public role has been described in many ways: rock star; teacher; and the people's Pope.

Probably all of us could add other designations, such as the forgiveness Pope or even the celestial Pope because his departure from the United States coincided with the rare lunar eclipse of what is known as the blood moon. It seems as if the dark side of the Jungian shadows of our lives needs to be illuminated and treated.

So much reminded me of psychotherapy that I would also emphasize him as Francis, the psychotherapist Pope.

Why? To be successful in helping people, psychotherapists have to establish a therapeutic alliance and be able to apply that to people of all aspects of life. Pope Francis illustrated that.

We know that in psychotherapy, and even psychopharmacology, the relationship between the clinician and the patient is the most important variable. Caring and compassion are the essential components.

Perhaps the model of that kind of therapeutic relationship was Carl Rogers (1902-1987). He was the founder of the humanistic approach, one centering on being a therapeutic mirroring of unconditional positive regard.

Do we not see the reflection of Carl Rogers in Pope Francis?  Other celebrities draw the attention and light of the crowds to them. This Pope, though, not only draws attention and adulation to himself, but especially when he smiles, seems to reflect the attention back to the enormous crowds, back to the people.

If you compare pictures of Pope Francis and Carl Rogers at similar ages, they look eerily similar. We know by some of his comments over the years that Pope Francis knows something about psychiatry. Was it then possible that this Pope knew something about the therapeutic message of Carl Rogers, or was this just a parallel development on the part of both?

On his visit, Pope Francis tried to touch people from all walks of life. For every visit to the elite and politicos, there was a visit to the homeless and others dispossessed, including a prison in Philadelphia. Though psychotherapy is applicable to all, it has had a tendency to be most available to the well-to-do. Here, we should follow the Pope's model.

Unwittingly, like other religious leaders and psychotherapists, I've tried to emulate the example of Pope Francis. I always thought that whatever relative success I had as a clinician was as much due to how I felt about —and treated—patients, than my technical knowledge and skills.

I suppose that is why some patients in the group waiting room of our community clinic asked if I could be their psychiatrist because I smiled when I came out to get my patients. I suppose that is why I wanted to treat the rich some but the poor more, those of any religion speaking any language, and immigrants from any country. I suppose it is also why I tried to emphasize the strengths of the staff I led.

Yet, as I say this, I know Pope Francis would be too humble to say such things about himself. And, goodness knows, I failed at being humble many times. Perhaps the Pope also feels failure at times when he struggles to resolve contentious  issues of the Church, such as the abuse scandals of recent years.

Whether you are Catholic or not (I'm not), all of us in behavioral healthcare can absorb something of therapeutic value from Pope Francis. I guarantee that if you do, your system will work better, your staff will have less burnout, and your patients outcomes will be better.

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