12 Grads On a Mission to Counsel the World

During this time of year--where young men and women across the nation donne their gowns and tassels with big smiles and walk before their friends and families to receive the degrees they worked so hard for over the last four years--many of those undergraduates will find themselves at a loss, unsure of what their next move is, doing things they never expected themselves to do, until they find the light that shines on the journey they’re meant to take. Abby Kowitz, from St. Paul, Minnesota, was one such undergrad. After graduation, Abby headed to Denver, Colorado, to serve as a missionary with Christ in the City, which seeks to encounter Christ in the poor and show Christ to them in return. “While the purpose was beautiful,” she said, “I couldn't help but think that something was missing. What I grew to realize was that, while the poor needed to encounter Christ as well as learn how to sustain their physical needs, mental health issues such as addictions, trauma, depression and anxiety often got in the way. I didn't know how to address those elements. My desire to serve the holistic person in mind, body and spirit is what led me to pursue a degree in counseling.” She searched for two years for graduate-level counseling programs that addressed the human person from a Catholic perspective, until her mother saw a promotion on EWTN announcing the new Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Divine Mercy University (DMU). The rest, as Kowitz put it, is history. This past weekend--Mother’s Day weekend--she made her mother proud again, donning her own gown and tassel as a one of twelve students in the very first graduating cohort from DMU’s School of Counseling. “We are grateful for being at this point of the journey with our first students graduating,” said Dr. Harvey Payne, Academic Dean for the School of Counseling, “that we completed every course, and how well the students have done in their practicum and internships, which is really the proof in the pudding. Without our founding faculty--Dr. Steve Sharp, Dr. Benjamin Keyes , Dr. Matthew McWhorter, and the program development team lead by Dr. Stephen Grundman--there would be no program. They all have gone above and beyond for our program to create and deliver a high quality program for our students.” For many of the students who enroll, including Marion Moreland of West Virginia, the M.S. in Counseling program is a means of adding and improving upon the gifts and services they provide in helping others. Moreland feels that providence helped in leading her to the counseling program at DMU. “Four years prior,” she said, “I was at a parish doing pastoral counseling and grief counseling. I think I had a misguided view of what counseling was versus pastoral counseling-type work, and how that involved integration of faith. When I learned about the Master’s in Counseling, I saw that it was more of what I was looking for.” Another student, Anthony Flores, was formally employed at an inpatient psych unit for about three years, working one on one with different patients. Though he found the experience rewarding, he always felt a sense that he could do more. The potential to be able to walk alongside other people in the darkness and brokenness that they’re experiencing drew him to his degree in counseling and, ultimately, Divine Mercy University. [caption id="attachment_716" align="aligncenter" width="633"] Anthony Flores of Michigan receives his M.S. Degree in Counseling while shaking the hand of DMU's School of Counseling Academic Dean, Dr. Harvey Payne.[/caption] “I’ve always been a devout Catholic,” he said. “It’s such a central core of who I am. So, in terms of moving forward in my life and my career, I wanted to be really intentional about incorporating my faith into my work. DMU made that easy by introducing the Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person (CCMMP), a faculty publication explaining the relationship of the Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the Person with the integrations of Psychology and Counseling. That really became our lense by which we view our clients through. I think that gives us a huge advantage over other institutions or universities that strictly take a secular view and don’t look at the spiritual aspect of people.” One of the requirements of the program that every student must do is be supervised at an approved practicum-internship site for a minimum of 750 hours. After completing their practicum-internships, each student from this year’s graduating cohort received something that many graduates may find hard to come by so close to graduation: job offers. “All of the offers have come through their internships,” said Dr. Payne. “What that means is that the individuals supervising them and the individuals directing the sites have recognized the high quality of their character and their work that they have done as practicum-internship students.” “In the human service world,” he continued, “and true across different occupations, how one fits into the culture of the workplace is a critical determining factor as to whether people want you to stay, and I can’t help but think that that is part of what has gone on. Our students have been able to fit in to a wide variety of settings from hospitals, to private practices, to Catholic Charities, to a wide range of different environments and most not having a specific Catholic-Christian worldview.” Moreland’s internship was with Highland-Clarksburg Hospital--a psychiatric hospital--in her home state. While gaining critical experience through her internship, Marion saw how DMU’s training differed from other graduate programs for mental health professions. “I think what stands out the most is the way we look at people,” she said. “In some ways, it’s employing [a] Catholic [Christian vision of respecting how people flourish], but in a practical sense. Even if you take the faith aspect out of it, our training is more person centered as opposed to technique and diagnosis centered. It’s about ‘who is this individual in front of me’ as opposed to ‘there’s a border line; there’s a schizophrenic.’ It’s more focused on the human side of who we are.” In addition to their internships, both Moreland and Flores attended and assisted with workshops offered through DMU’s Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies (CTRS), becoming certified facilitators. For Flores, that meant a long drive each month from his home in Saginaw, Michigan, to the Virginia campus. But it wasn’t until Flores joined Dr. Keyes and a group from CTRS to Beirut that he understood the true weight and significance of the work of CTRS. He understood why he was pursuing such a career while having breakfast with a Syrian woman he met during that deployment. Flores listened as a woman told him the story of her birthday. She was studying at the university in Aleppo when, all of a sudden, she heard a whistle outside, and then a huge explosion. The large window in front of her shattered and sent her flying back a few meters. As she laid there on the floor, stunned, another classmate came up to her and asked about a question on the upcoming exam, as if nothing had happened, almost completely oblivious and disassociated from the event. Afterwards, they went to a local cafe to call their families and made it home a few hours later, and learned on the television that night that over 100 students had been killed in a missle attack. “As she’s telling me all this,” Flores said, “she’s smiling and laughing about it, as a way for her to deal with what happened and to tell that story. That struck me in such a way that I felt compelled to learn more about that--about trauma--about how, maybe, I can do something for these people that are suffering.” For these students, the M.S. in Counseling at Divine Mercy University has been one of their greatest and most difficult challenges they have ever endured--a real journey full of great challenges, obstacles and setbacks. But, in the end--having overcome those challenges both individually and as a group--this journey towards the first School of Counseling graduation in DMU history has proven to be a rewarding experience that will remain with them for the rest of their days. “Receiving my Master's in Counseling from DMU has been one of the most influential experiences of my life,” Kowitz exclaimed. “DMU has challenged, strengthened, and fine-tuned beliefs I already held as a practicing Catholic while teaching me how to implement them in a very practical and necessary way. DMU has provided me with a tangible set of tools and path to walk in the pursuit of my call to holiness. Through deepening my understanding and knowledge of the human person I am equipped to respond in a truly helpful way to whoever it may be that I encounter through both my clients but also in my personal life and relationships.” “We are all created good and that goodness is indelible,” Dr. Payne said. “Our students are really people that are seeking to grow and be good for the service of others. A number [of people] having some real struggles and difficulties in life that we all have, and keeping their goal in mind and persevering, having grit to persevere to reach their goals. It has been great seeing how each one of the students in their own uniqueness have found their niches, if you will, for how God will be using them in the field of professional counseling.” If you’re passionate about helping those who have witnessed or suffered serious trauma, or help those with serious mental illness, consider the M.S. in Counseling at Divine Mercy University.

Remembering the Virginia Tech Shooting

The small town of Blacksburg in Southern Virginia was, at one point, only that: a small town, nestled along the New River Valley. The trip from the cities of the north will lead you witnessing the significant change of scenery as you cruise down I-81, from cityscapes to treelines, from city streets to nature trails, from Smithsonian Museums to the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the boisterous white noise of a congested population to the melodies of the rural countryside. And, of course, it will lead you to the spirited Hokie Nation. But this little Virginia gem was not brought under the eyes of the new millennium by its quaint charm. It wasn’t Blacksburg’s or Virginia Tech’s spirited community or the university’s technological innovations or successes in science and agriculture, nor was it Beamer Ball that brought it under the spotlight of the world. It was a 23-year-old English major from northern Virginia, and the 32 people he murdered on campus that brought the spotlight to Virginia Tech and an issue that continues to be debated to this day. The beautiful campus and its community was eternally scarred by the violence of that April day of darkness fourteen years ago. Today, there is still a certain, strange air carried on the winds throughout campus that leaves one keeping an eye open and scanning their surroundings, and there’s rarely a day where students do not pass or visit the memorial at the top of the drillfield in front of Burruss Hall: 32 stones for the 32 taken from us too soon. April 16th always brings back the pictures of that tragic day: students evacuated from campus, huddled together in a circle at a local church; sheriff officers carrying survivors from the scene by their arms and legs; tearful mothers holding tight the child who just left their nest for the first time; other mothers searching frantically among the large crowds of bloodied faces for their children, praying that they are not one of the many carried away in body bags; President Bush, a father himself, addressing the university, seeking to comfort a confused, sorrowful student body of 25,000; Resident Poet Nikki Giovanni absorbing all that sorrow into her pen and converting it into prose of flourishing inspiration as she cries out, “We Are Virginia Tech!” The date also brings back to remember the student and shooter Seung Hui Cho, who was described as an isolated individual preferring to be by himself. He hardly spoke in class and, when he was called to do so, he spoke barely above a whisper. The content of his written assignments and projects at Virginia Tech caught the concerning attention of his professors, and the videos and manifesto he sent to NBC left people anxiously asking questions about his mental stability. What could have led him to commit such a seemingly random act of carnage? What could have been done to stop it? School shootings have been well covered and documented over the last several years. As a result, studies have shown that there are a number of common risk factors that can indicate if someone is at risk of harming themselves and/or others. Risk factors commonly associated with school shooters include creating or engaging in content--writings, drawings, etc.--depicting violence or violent fantasies, difficulty controlling anger, suicidal and homicidal ideations, social isolation and social deficits, victim/martyr self-concept, paranoia and interest in other shooting situations. “I think those are very good starting points,” said Dr. Suzanne Hollman, Academic Dean and Director of Divine Mercy University’s Psy.D. Program, in an interview on EWTN after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “The research right now is all over the place. But what we do know is that all of these things are risk factors. All of these things can predispose someone to making a decision or planning something that dramatic. A lot of it stems from social isolation--not being seen in the world--and then trying to find these mechanisms to ensure that they are noticed.” After the attack, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine assigned an independent panel to review the events leading up to the tragedy and how they were handled. The panel was also charged with developing a profile and investigating the life of Cho leading up to April 16th, including his mental health records, which showed that Cho displayed all these red flags during his last two years at the university. But the panel didn’t just shed light on the indicators that developed during his final two years. The panel discovered other details in Cho’s life that could also have been contributing factors.    According to their review, Cho was a shy boy who rarely spoke and, when he moved with his family from South Korea to the United States, he became more withdrawn. He allegedly resented the pressure of speaking in public, and would avoid speaking both at home and at school. When called to speak--particularly if his family had a visitor--Cho would freeze on the spot and grow incredibly anxious. He would become pale, develop sweaty palms, and in some cases, begin to cry and resort to nodding yes or shaking his head no.     Cho’s parents tried to urge him to become more involved in different activities and local sports because they worried he was becoming more isolated and lonely. On the other hand, transportation to any event in general was a challenge in itself, as Cho’s parents worked long hours during the week and were not able to take him or his sister to any extracurricular activities. His father was stern on matters of respect, which is something the two would argue about. According to one of the records reviewed by the independent panel, Cho’s father would not praise his son, and one of his writings later included a father-son relationship where the father was always negative. Eventually, Cho’s parents decided to “let him be the way he is” and not force him to interact and talk with others. Doing so may not have been in their son’s best interest. Extreme social deficits is not just a key indicator of a serious mental health issue. According to 2018 Divine Mercy University Psy.D. graduate Amanda Aulbaugh Faria’s dissertation entitled “Mass School Shooters: Psychosocial Characteristics in the Lives of the Perpetrators,” it’s also a common characteristic among school shooters. Nine out of the nineteen school shooters that Faria studied had significant social deficits. One shooter was quiet, was disliked by her peers, walked around by herself and did not participate in class at school. Another shooter suffered significant social anxiety and was seen as “odd, goofy or weird.” Twelve of the nineteen studied also displayed antisocial characteristics. “The negatives have already been identified,” said Dr. Paul Vitz, Divine Mercy University Senior Scholar and Professor, who has recently begun researching school shootings and their perpetrators, from elementary school to high school. “They were depressed, or they came from dysfunctional families, or they were all obsessed with violence. They had a variety of negative characteristics.” In his own research of school shooters, Dr. Vitz found that one thing common among the shooters is not merely a variety of negative risk factors, but also a lack of positive things in their lives. “None of them seemed to have a goal in life,” he said. “None of them wanted to be a star musician, no one wanted to be an athlete, none of them talked about being businessmen or have success at college. Second, none were involved in any pro-social organizations. None were in scouts or 4-H. None were in a civic society or were helping the poor, none were involved with any of the virtues or active in any faith.” In Faria’s study, many of the shooters were involved with different activities as younger children, but as they grew older into middle school and high school, they began to withdraw from social activities. Others, including Sandy Hook shooter Bill Lanza, had no social interests or did not engage in any social activities from the beginning. “It isn’t just the overwhelming presence of many negatives,” continued Vitz. “It’s the absence of the positives too.” A second factor discovered was that Cho, who had been receiving psychiatric treatment prior to attending Virginia Tech, stopped his treatment before moving to Blacksburg, and the university had no knowledge of his mental health history. According to the panel report, Cho’s middle school teachers noticed suicidal and homicidal ideations in his writings after the 1999 Columbine shootings. On their recommendation, Cho received psychiatric counseling and medication for a short time, and special accommodations were made to help Cho achieve top scores and honors in his coursework all through high school. “Cho exhibited signs of mental health problems during his childhood,” the report reads. “His middle and high schools responded well to these signs and, with his parents' involvement, provided services to address his issues. He also received private psychiatric treatment and counseling for selective mutism and depression.” By the time Cho was preparing to leave home for college for the first time--entering as a business major before making the switch to English--neither he nor his high school revealed that he had been receiving special education services as an emotionally disabled student. As a result, no one at Virginia Tech ever became aware of his pre-existing conditions until it was too late, leaving him to carry on without the critical helped that assisted him to cope and flourish. Since that tragic day in 2007, colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to both help those individuals with anxiety and mental issues. Many have added mental health professionals and university police officers to their campuses; faculty and staff members are being trained on how to spot worrisome behavior and reach out to those students in a preventative manner. Virginia Tech even became the first campus in the nation to be certified by an independent non-profit organization that established rigorous national standards for emergency planning.   A question still lingers: is it enough? That question may never have an answer. But it’s the reverberation of gunshots that still faintly linger in the winds of Blacksburg, and in the tears that stain the 32 stones in front of Burruss Hall that pushes us to keep trying and keep innovating ways to help our mentally ill and, in doing so, trying our hardest to prevent another April 16th. If you’re passionate about helping those who have witnessed or suffered serious trauma, or if you want to help those with serious mental illness, consider the M.S. in Psychology, M.S. in Counseling or Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology at Divine Mercy University.   Work Cited: “Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007, Report of the Review Panel”. Presented to Governor Tim Kaine, Commonwealth of Virginia, August 2007. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/VTReviewPanelReport.pdf Faria, A. A. Mass school shootings: Psychosocial characteristics in the lives of perpetrators (Doctoral Dissertation). Divine Mercy University, 2018. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2100701144). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2100701144?accountid=27532 Friedman, Emily.  “Va. Tech Shooter Seung-Hui Cho's Mental Health Records Released.” ABC News, 19 Aug. 2009, https://abcnews.go.com/US/seung-hui-chos-mental-health-records-released/story?id=8278195 Hausman, Sandy.  “Lessons Learned at Virginia Tech: What Went Wrong?.” WVTF, 13 Apr. 2015, https://www.wvtf.org/post/lessons-learned-virginia-tech-what-went-wrong#stream/0 Langman, Peter. School Shooters: Understanding High School, College and Adult Perpetrators. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2015. O'Meara, Eamon. “Virginia Tech shooting may have changed how mental health was treated.” ABC WDBJ7, 14 Apr. 2017, https://www.wdbj7.com/content/news/Virginia-Tech-shooting-may-have-changed-how-mental-health-was-treated-419513643.html Potter, Ned and David Schoetz, Richard Esposito, Pierre Thomas. “Killer's Note: 'You Caused Me to Do This'.” ABC News, 7 Apr. 2007, https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=3048108&page=1

Stigmas Still Scare People From Counseling

What happens when we’re confronted with a problem? What do we do when we have an issue we’re trying to fix at work or trying to solve a problem in our schoolwork?  What do we do when we can’t fix something at home--a jammed window, a dislodged door, a flat tire on the car? What can we do when we’re having difficulty figuring something out on our own? Clearly, the expected solution would be to look for help from the outside. We reach out to our supervisors and co-workers to help address issues or to help complete projects at work. We research online for do-it-yourself remedies, or hire a specialist to fix problems with our home or vehicle. We call upon our professors, tutors and academic peers to conquer the hurdles of education. In facing our most personal troubles, we typically call on those closest to us or people we trust for guidance and assistance. We lean on our spouse, family and close friends for support when facing a personal crisis or emergency; we look to our pastors and ministers for spiritual guidance, and mental health counselors to help overcome mental or emotional blockades.     Or we don’t. We may continue to go solo, taking breaks away from the task before returning to find the solutions ourselves, or we may give up and move on to different things. Still others may choose to endure or continue enduring whatever issue they’re facing, refusing to acknowledge the possibility of needing help facing the issues they face. For some, asking for help is difficult. For some us, admitting that we need help feels like a sign of weakness and uselessness, which can be detrimental to the individual, especially in the case of mental health issues.   [caption id="attachment_578" align="aligncenter" width="540"] The hit show “The Sopranos” circulates around a New Jersey mob boss’s sessions with a psychiatrist, highlighting the perception of weakness as well as the dangerous suspicions of spilling crime family secrets to outsiders.[/caption] According to the National Alliance on on Mental Illness (NAMI), millions of people face mental illness and mental health challenges in the United States each year, and the stigma that surrounds mental health--the fear and the lack of understanding, which can lead to isolation, shame, harassment, and even bullying and discrimination from others that can turn violent--can still be felt.   “When my husband asked me to keep his secret, I didn’t hesitate,” said Carolyn Ali in her New York Times piece, Alone With My Husband’s Secret. Carolyn and her husband worked to battle his depression on their own, taking care to avoid telling their families and loved ones. But the secrecy and the severity of his depression wreaked havoc on the two. As Carolyn attempted to navigate their way through the channels of the mental health system, her husband dropped out of the master’s program he was enrolled in and spent the majority of his days sleeping. When they did tell their family, he downplayed the severity of his depression and, after mustering every ounce of energy to appear upbeat through birthday gatherings and Christmas dinners, would crash for days once they returned home, utterly depleted. For Carolyn, maintaining the secret of her husband’s depression was costly for her as well. “Because it was his illness,” she wrote, “and he didn’t want to talk about it, I felt as if I had no right to talk about it either. So outside of my family and a few close friends, I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I didn’t talk about my frustrations in trying to find him proper medical care. I didn’t talk about how helpless and hopeless I felt as I tried to lift his mood. And I definitely didn’t talk about that leaden, sickening feeling I had every day after work as I pulled open the front door of my apartment: I’d check every room one by one, not knowing what I would find.” Two years after he spoke about his depression, Carlyn’s husband began to recover from his depression and, today, he is open about his history of mental illness and challenges the stigma himself, recognizing the impact the silence had on him and Carolyn, both individually and as a family. Today, the grip that the stigma of mental health seems to hold has been loosening in the U.S. A 2017 report from the Barna Group showed that approximately 42 percent of adults in the U.S. have met with a counselor at some point of their lives, and at least another 36 percent saying they’re at least open to seeing a counselor. That being said, the fear of seeing a counselor is still prevalent to this day. Dr. Benjamin Keyes is the Director of Training and Internships for the Eastern States for Divine Mercy University’s School of Counseling, Director for the Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies, and has spent his career helping people in the U.S. and around the world recover from traumatic or stressful situations while providing organizations with counseling and training, including Charlottesville Virginia following the of the White Supremacist Rally. “The stigma of having to go see a counselor or a psychologist is the perception of being seen as crazy or psychotic,” he said. “People think this true with their family, at work or the other people they may see on the day-to-day. The reality is that there are a lot of reasons as to why people meet with counselors.” Dr. Keyes has also worked with many individuals whose jobs put them in stressful environments and situations regularly, including firefighters and members of the military and police forces. “There’s a perception of ‘going to the shrink,’” he said, “and there’s a fear that this stigma may have a negative effect on their careers or hurt their chances at promotions so they may be more inclined to avoid counseling to avoid that appearance.”     Outside the U.S., the stigma of mental health still holds an even tighter grip, causing thousands of people around the world who need treatment for mental health issues to avoid seeking treatment altogether. Mental illness has a long history of being stigmatized around the globe, from being considered a sign of demonic possession in its early history, to being seen as a shortcoming or a sign of weakness today. For instance, in Korea, the concept of mental health simply does not exist. “In Korea, there is no such thing as mental health,” said Jin-Hee, a Korean-American mental health professional in an interview with the University of Washington’s Forefront Suicide Prevention center. South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and it’s been attributed to pressures relating to conformity for those in their 20s and 30s, loneliness, cultural dislocation, and lack of social connection for the elderly. But there’s still an aversion to accepting mental health treatment. According to Jin-Hee, depression is perceived as a sign of personal weakness instead of a clinical issue in Korea. Instead, it’s seen as a burden on a family’s reputation. “One is seen as ‘weak’ if they have a mental health issue,” she said. “People with mental health issues are seen as ‘crazy’ and the issue is something that must be overcome.” In Africa, the absence of treatment is the norm rather than the exception. In the face of many other challenges like conflict, disease, maternal and child mortality and intractable poverty, the importance of mental health is often neglected or overlooked typically due to a lack of knowledge about the extent of mental health problems, stigmas against those living with mental illness and beliefs that mental illness cannot be treated. The proportion of people with mental illness in Africa who don’t receive treatment ranges from 75 percent in South Africa to over 90 percent in Ethiopia and Nigeria.   “The stigmas are very pervasive in places like Eastern Europe and Africa,” said Dr. Keyes, “but the church in these nations and elsewhere is really making the inroads to address this, with pastors and clergy receiving education and counseling training to help their congregation and countrymen. Education goes a long way in rectifying these stigmas.” Research shows that tens of millions of people throughout the world will at some point in their life experience a mental health illness or disorder. It’s estimated that only half of those people will receive treatment, and the stigma and silence of mental health is a critical barrier that holds them back, leaving the individual without the critical help they need, and their loved ones--their spouses, siblings, parents and children--from receiving the essential support they need. “There are many different reasons people receive counseling,” Dr. Keyes said. “Some may be trying to help or save their marriage. Some may need an outlet for their anxiety while others go to address and treat depression. As counselors, we try to normalize the experience as much as possible.”   “If I could go back to that fall morning in our kitchen,” Ali said, “I would tell my husband this: ‘I know what you’re going through feels unbearable. It breaks my heart. I so desperately want to make things better. But we can’t keep this between us. We need as much support as possible to get the help you need. You are not alone.’”

Why Are We Keeping Christ in Christmas?

You’ve likely heard this slogan: keep Christ in Christmas. It’s the mission statement for the Knights of Columbus when they begin selling themed Christmas cards and bumper stickers, sending the proceeds to various charitable causes. It’s their annual effort to promote the true spirit of Christmas. It’s a slogan that’s typically echoed across social media, occasionally coming close to starting interweb and personal wars between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” wishers. It is a movement to shift from an engrossment with materialism that intensifies in the weeks leading up to the holiday itself, and return to the light of Jesus Christ and the spirit of giving. We see it in giving gifts to others without expecting or asking for anything in return: gifts for children we’ve never met, their names hanging from the angel tree in the back of the church; gifts of donated food or funds or clothing for the homeless; the gift of bringing the spirit to the home bound, or simply providing the gift of assistance to those who have difficulty helping themselves. The Christmas season is also arguably the most highly anticipated and most festive time of year in the world, and everything gets a lot busier. Our lives become filled with Christmas pageants, recitals, home decorating, caroling, movie marathons, lots of holiday marketing and lots and lots and lots of shopping. Whether you’re a “Merry Christmas” person or a “Happy Holidays” person, it’s difficult to ignore that today’s fast-paced, consumer world creates a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety that can lead to a dreading of Christmas, a day which should be a holy, joyous occasion. “I think what people bemoan about the fast pace is not so much the fast pace, but precisely the materialism of it,” said Fr. Robert Presutti, Divine Mercy University’s chaplain and the director for Spiritual Direction Certificate program. “Unfortunately materialism itself, whether it’s Christmas or not, is deeply unfulfilling. It’s deeply frustrating because we were made for so much more than these material values. When you take Christ out of Christmas, what happens is just increased frenzy activity. I think the fact that people feel the way they do at Christmas is not so much about Christ being taken out of Christmas; He’s being taken out of human activity period. I think it’s a symptom of a much larger problem.” Perhaps, according to Father Presutti, we should try to disengage Christmas from the rural, slow-paced culture with which it has been historically associated, like a country setting where there’s plenty of space and snow is coming down. What does it mean to live it in the middle of a city? What does it mean to live Christmas in the middle of a lot of hustle and bustle? “When you think about the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph didn’t have a quiet time. They were going from place to place with quite a bit of stress. And yet, they were completely focused on it being totally for the Lord. And when the Lord came, that was the joy of Christmas,” said Fr. Presutti. Amidst everything that the season brings in our lives, do we leave any room to journey towards Bethlehem? Do we ever find ourselves capable of lowering our “Keep Christ in Christmas” shields, turn off the carols and marathons and remember how it all began and why we should be overjoyed? As we embrace, inhale and consume the season and spirit of Christmas in today’s world, what happens to us when we allow the Son of Man to be a part of it as well? “It’s something more radical than just keeping Christ in Christmas,” Fr. Presutti said. “I don’t know if illuminating the activity is going to somehow make Christmas more spiritual. But it is, in a certain sense, putting Christ in the center of the activity. Why do we go through the trouble of celebrating at Christmas parties? Why do we go through the trouble of actually making ourselves a little more tired to buy gifts? It’s because there’s a value--something so deep in this Christmas season-- that it’s worth it, and that becomes fulfilling.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2005 Angelus address for the third Sunday of Advent, reflects on how the world has turned away from the true spirit of Christmas, citing how our consumer society suffered a sort of commercial ‘pollution’ that risks changing Christmas’s intimate, authentic spirit, marked by recollection, moderation and joy. Benedict also shares that, to break through chaos and commercial pollution, all we have to do is turn towards the crib: “The crib helps us contemplate the mystery of God’s love that was revealed in the poverty and simplicity of the Bethlehem Grotto,” he says. “The crib can help us understand the secret of the true Christmas because it speaks of the humility and merciful goodness of Christ, who ‘though he was rich, made himself poor’ for us (cf. 2 Cor 8:9)’. Jesus’ poverty enriches those who embrace it, and brings Christmas joy and peace to those who, like the shepherds in Bethlehem, accept the angel’s words: ‘Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes’ (Lk 2:12).” “Go back to the root,” Presutti said. “Don’t live Christmas the way modern culture has over the last 200 years; go back to the root. What is this Advent season? It’s a time of preparation to receive the greatest gift of all. We’re not celebrating, we’re preparing.”   The Advent season and the approach of Christmas compels us to keep in mind two things. First, that Christ came to us over 2,000 years ago out of pure love. He came to us incarnate as fully God and fully man, and that he entered into our world, with all its associated ugliness, pain, discomfort, cruelty and sin, solely for the sake of us. Secondly, is that Christ told us that he will come again. “Some writers have also stated that in preparing for Christmas,” said Fr. Presutti, “we’re actually also preparing for the second coming of Christ. We’re orientating our lives towards the Lord Jesus. By preparing to celebrate His birth, we’re also preparing for our final encounter with Christ, and it also prepares us for Christ who comes to us today in many different ways.” Let’s go back in time for a moment. In the winter of 1914--the fifth month of World War I--hostilities were at a standstill. After the Race to the Sea and First Battle of Ypres, leaders reconsidered their strategies, leaving their troops to maintain their positions in the trenches. In the days leading up to Christmas, British, Belgian and French soldiers laid down their weapons, left the trenches and approached their German enemy, exchanging gifts of food, cigarettes and other items. The truce also allowed the sides to bury their fallen comrades, who laid dead on the land between the two sides. The truce took different forms across the battlefields. One account described a British soldier getting his hair cut by his pre-war German barber; others spoke of pig roasts and kickabouts with makeshift soccer balls. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled the Christmas Truce beginning in song. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols,” Williams wrote, “and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started singing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymns to the latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this really a most extraordinary thing -- two nations both singing the same carroll [sic] in the middle of a war.” After over 100 years, the Christmas Truce--which has been immortalized and fictionalized in novels, films and even an opera entitled Silent Night--is still remembered as a Christmas miracle and a true testament to the power of hope, humanity, and good in each of us, even in the truly darkest hours of our history. “Somehow,” said Fr. Presutti, “the presence of Christ guarantees what’s good, authentic and well appreciated in human culture, period.”

DMU Residency Converges on Sterling Campus

Although it won’t officially open until next fall, Divine Mercy University’s new campus-in-progress in Sterling, Virginia, served as the host facility for this fall’s residency for the Master’s in Counseling program. This was the first residency hosted at DMU’s future home just off of Old Ox Road. It was also the largest cohort that DMU has ever hosted, with 38 students from all over the United States converging on Northern Virginia. The residency went from October 10th-14th and, for many of the students, this was the first opportunity to meet their DMU instructors and each other in person. “I met my professors online before I met them in person,” said Dawn Costanzo, a counseling student from Front Royal, VA. “We had already established a relationship by interacting through Zoom sessions, emails, and assignment feedback. When I did meet them in person, I felt that I already knew them.” “It was reassuring to see peers classmates, cohorts there,” said Travis Speier of Nashville, TN.  “It was a pretty unique way to get to know everyone. I felt like I was on retreat with the atmosphere endowed, anointed, and in a sacred space.” For Anthony Coppage of Dothan, Alabama, meeting his classmates and professors in person was a refreshing and defining moment in his online education journey. "Flying out to D.C.," he said, "waking up each morning in a dorm setting, and riding on a bus with classmates to participate in the application of my online education in a very hands-on way was extremely welcomed. The physical presence of both my cohorts and professors cannot be understated.  We were able to share experiences and connections that would not have been possible through modern technology. I believe many life-long connections were forged during those wonderful four days." The residency component of selected courses is required of students in the Master’s of Counseling program, and takes place on three extended weekends (Wednesday-Sunday) within the duration of the program. While at the new campus, the students, faculty and attending support staff engaged in a number of group discussions presentations, including a panel discussion made up of faculty members discussing professional ethics and hot topics in the world of Catholic counseling, allowing the students to learn how to navigate between the roles of faith and counseling. "I think the best part of the residency was meeting the faculty," said Edith Ray of Louisiana. "I was encouraged by their example of love for us as students and I felt like they truly are committed to supporting me in my future graduate studies. In addition, I was inspired by their obvious love for their vocations to counseling and teaching as well as to their clients." [caption id="attachment_520" align="aligncenter" width="633"] In October, 38 students in DMU's Master's in Counseling program met in person for the first time. It was also the first time the residency was hosted at the university's new campus.[/caption]   On Friday and Saturday, the students divided into groups of three and jumped right into skills development workgroups. “I was shocked that we would actually be practicing clinical techniques so soon in program,” said Speier. “We were given scenarios to act out and basic techniques to practice on one another. I was shocked considering how soon we were, but it really was a good experience. During the workshops, each group was visited by faculty, who would sit in and observe as the students played out their scenes and offer feedback, pointers and identifying weak spots for improvement as the sessions progressed. “For me,” said Speier, “it was an experience that was not easy: the idea of being a counselor and wanting to talk to people, hear their story, what they are dealing with. The experience of being the one counseling--asking open ended questions, keep the client discussing, summarizing what was said, demonstrating cohesion--was personally the hardest role to play.” Despite the challenges, each student was able to take the skills and techniques they were learning in class and actually apply them in a counseling session setting, receiving positive feedback and critiques from the other students. “I found it difficult to think about open ended questions,” Speier said, “finding myself thinking about what my next question would be while the person was talking, struggle to stay present. That was tough. The role of the supervisor was about trying to hone in on objective manifestations seen, where bodily, emotional, verbally or even spiritual signs were noticed while other two are counseling each other. It was very interesting to see body language from that perspective.” "The workshops and especially the roleplay were my favorite aspects," said Coppage. "I was able to absorb a lot more in person from interactive discussions. Roleplaying was a personal and profound experience where I acquired a real taste of things to come. I could really sit down and understand my strengths and weaknesses as a future counselor." On Sunday, the final day of the residency, each student received a one-on-one evaluation from one of the many faculty members on site--highlighting strengths to continue developing and weaknesses to address--leaving the students with the confidence of knowing where they stand and what they need to improve on as they continue their journey.   “The residency provided an opportunity for us to practice these skills in-person, to receive feedback from our peer clients and from the professors,” said Costanzo. “I left the residency more comfortable in my role as a future counselor and more confident in my abilities to help others. I'm grateful that this opportunity to practice helping skills comes early in our sequence of classes; it was an opportunity to confirm my commitment to becoming a counselor.” "There is nothing like the personal and physical application of intellectual knowledge," said Coppage, "and my first residency experience is one that I will always truly cherish and remember throughout my career." For Speier, even with the packed schedule throughout the extended weekend, the information and pointers discussed during the residency’s workshops--honed in on by the faculty addressing the global need for good, well formed clinicians--left him with a stronger understanding of the gravity of the counseling profession. “With Dr. Keyes’ trauma program,” he said, “the stories and experiences they shared over the years, I became more and more aware how much of a vocation this is. It's not just about my desire; there is a good possibility that God has something to do with this. These are lives-- people's lives--we have a chance to engage in a very unique way and enter into a sacred space. That relationship is profound, with a feeling of awe and being in presence of something awesome. That feeling was nurtured throughout residency and grew.” Learn more about our M.S. in Counseling by visiting  https://divinemercy.edu/.
About DMU
Divine Mercy University (DMU) is a Catholic graduate university of psychology and counseling programs. It was founded in 1999 as the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The university offers a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology, Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling, Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology, and Certificate Programs.