A Q&A with a Catholic seminary psychologist

In 2020, Saint John Vianney College Seminary launched a new initiative: to provide more accessible counseling for each seminarian “so he can grow in self-knowledge and self possession so that he can make a free gift of himself to God in love,” according to Rector Fr. Jonathan Kelly. Today, Catherine Mollner MA, LP, SEP and Dan Stokman MA, LPCC — both top-tier counselors who are also devout Catholics, come one day a week to meet with SJV seminarians.

“We do evaluations with each seminarian at the end of each semester,” Kelly said. “I have been really impressed with the men who have met with Catherine. They have grown in self-knowledge and made the most of all the resources provided to them.”

We sat down with Mollner to learn more about her and her role at the seminary.

Q: Give us a little background on your career and credentials.

A: I am a Licensed Psychologist with 30 years of experience in mental health. I earned a Master’s at St. Mary’s and have pursued specialized training in models of therapy that integrate the multi-faceted aspect of our humanity including thoughts, behavior, emotions and the body. I incorporate my training in these therapy models in my work with the seminarians.

Q: What is your role with Saint John Vianney College Seminary?

A: I provide on-site therapy sessions for the seminarians. Sometimes being away from home and the transition to college is difficult. Strategies that were useful previously may no longer be effective. Often, we can “know better” but struggle to “do better” consistently when approaching the difficulty only at the level of thinking and doing. Through integrating all aspects of the human person, I enjoy helping the men heal from past hurts or struggles, gain freedom, cultivate joy, and work their way through difficult circumstances. I also meet with the priests [on staff] once a month to provide information about mental health issues and discuss the intersection between formation, spirituality and psychology.

Q: Why is it so important to have an in-house counselor on-site at the college seminary during these times?

A: While I am happily surprised at how effective psychotherapy can be virtually (online), sitting in a room together facilitates a deeper and more connected experience. Additionally, many barriers are removed with being on-site, including ease of scheduling and transportation. I’m just a walk down the hall. I think being on-site increases comfort level and overall makes the process of seeing a therapist less daunting.

Q: How does it work practically?

A: The priests meet regularly with the seminarians in formation meetings and spiritual direction. If something arises and they think therapy would be useful, they provide contact information, and the seminarian reaches out. Generally, 50-minute therapy sessions take place once every two weeks for a semester. Information discussed during therapy is confidential.

Q: What has been your experience thus far working with the seminarians?

A: I love being here! Clearly, the men are well loved and supported. The therapy is supported by their faith and love for the Lord. I enjoy integrating the teachings and traditions of the Catholic faith into the conversations I have with the men. At a conference for psychotherapists it was said, “If it is true, it is Catholic, and if it is Catholic, it is true.” Frequently during a session, I will suggest something informed by my training as a psychologist, and we will talk about how what we are exploring in therapy is similar to what has been presented in [philosophy or theology classes or spiritual direction with priestly staff].

Q: In what ways does this mental and emotional health impact the men’s future as potential priests?

A: The journey of formation, discernment and the vocation of priesthood requires emotional, relational and spiritual maturity to live freely, fully and resiliently. One way to think about mental and emotional health is by how well we can recognize and accept the reality that exists … which may differ from the reality we think should exist. And then how gracefully we can shift from Plan A to Plan B. This ability is facilitated by discovering and operating from our authenticity and knowledge of the truth that we are created in the image and likeness of God. This awareness provides the foundation of mental health and the platform for continued growth to cultivate vocations.

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