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Pope Francis says seeing a psychiatrist helped him with anxiety when he was younger

By Courtney Mares for CNA

Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio is pictured cooking (CNS photo/courtesy of Maria Elena Bergoglio via Reuters)

Vatican City, Feb 27, 2021 / 08:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis has said that seeing a psychiatrist in Argentina helped him with anxiety when he was a younger priest in an interview published in an Argentine newspaper Saturday.

The pope spoke with an Argentine journalist about his physical and mental health. In the excerpt of the transcript provided by the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Pope Francis said that he has developed ways of dealing with moments of anxiety, such as listening to music by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The interview, which took place in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on Feb. 16, 2019, was published in Spanish on Feb. 27.

In the conversation, Pope Francis looked back at how therapy aided his struggle with anxiety when he served as the Jesuit provincial in Argentina.

“Being provincial of the Jesuits, in the terrible days of the dictatorship, in which I had to take people in hiding to get them out of the country and thus save their lives, I had to handle situations that I did not know how to deal with,” Francis said.

During this time, he said that he consulted a psychiatrist once a week for about six months.

“Throughout those six months, she helped me position myself in terms of a way to handle the fears of that time. Imagine what it was like to take a person hidden in the car – only covered by a blanket – and go through three military checkpoints in the Campo de Mayo area. The tension it generated in me was enormous,” Pope Francis said.

“The treatment with the psychiatrist also helped me to locate myself and learn to manage my anxiety and avoid being rushed when making decisions. The decision making process is always complex. And the advice and observations that she gave me was very helpful. … Her teachings are still very useful to me today.”

Pope Francis said that his anxiety has been “tamed,” compared to what he experienced when he was younger, which he described as “anxious neurosis” and “wanting to do everything now.”

The pope also said that he has learned different ways of dealing with anxieties.

“You have to know how to brake,” he said. “When I am faced with a situation or I have to face a problem that causes me anxiety, I cut it short.”

“I have different methods of doing it. One of them is listening to Bach. It calms me down and helps me analyze problems in a better way. I confess that over the years I have managed to put a barrier to the entrance of anxiety in my spirit. It would be dangerous and harmful for me to make decisions under a state of anxiety,” the pope said.

“It would be equally harmful to make decisions dominated by anguish and sadness. That is why I say that the person must be attentive to neurosis,” he added.

Pope Francis said that he believes that it is also important for priests to have an understanding of psychology for their pastoral ministry.

Since the interview with the pope took place in 2019, restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic have disrupted access to mental health services around the world, according to the World Health Organization, at a time when anxiety and depression are rising.

“I’m convinced that every priest must know human psychology,” Pope Francis said. “There are those who know it from the experience of the years, but the study of psychology is necessary for a priest.”

The pope recalled that reading the book “Be Glad You’re Neurotic” by the American psychiatrist Louis E. Bisch was very interesting and “made me laugh out loud.”

It was not the first time that the pope had revealed his prior experience with seeing a psychiatrist at the age of 42. Pope Francis also discussed it in an interview in 2017 with French sociologist Dominique Wolton.

In the La Nacion interview, Pope Francis also talked about the origin of his lung condition, which was brought on by a flu epidemic when he was a 21-year-old seminarian.

“It was 1957. I was in my second year of seminary … That winter there had been a strong flu epidemic that affected many of the seminarians. Among them was me. But the truth is that my case evolved in a more torpid way. … Upon viewing the X-rays, the specialist found three cysts in the upper lobe of the right lung. There was also a bilateral pleural effusion that caused me pain and shortness of breath,” he said.

After his recovery from the operation to remove part of the affected lobe, he said that he never felt any limitation in his activities.

Pope Francis said: “As the doctors have explained to me, the right lung expanded and covered the entire ipsilateral hemithorax. And the expansion has been so complete that, if he is not advised of the history, only a first-rate pulmonologist can detect the lack of the excised lobe.”

The article also quoted Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, who said that the issue of Bergoglio’s lung came up during the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis.

“When the figure of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires began to emerge as the new possible pope, they began to move to stop God’s plan that was about to come to fruition. Someone who was supporting another “papabile” cardinal, in effect, spread the rumor in Santa Marta that Bergoglio was ill because he was missing a lung,” Maradiaga said according to La Nacion.

“It was at this point that I took courage. I spoke to other cardinals and said, ‘OK, I’m going to go ask the archbishop of Buenos Aires if these things are really true. ‘ When I went to see him, I apologized for the question that I was about to ask him. Cardinal Bergoglio was very surprised, but confirmed that apart from a little sciatica and a small operation on his right lung to remove a cyst when he was young, he did not have any major health problems.”

The final questions in the 2019 interview with the pope related to death. Pope Francis responded that he thinks of death, but is not afraid of it. When asked how he imagines his own death, the pope replied:

“Being a pope, whether in office or emeritus. And in Rome. I am not going back to Argentina.”

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    • Agnes, you are so right. But what else can we do as tiny sheep with families to feed, parents to take care off and taxes to pay? Let’s continue to pray for this troubled man and for our dear, sad Church. It’s like everyday I hear or yet another piece of filth thrown at Our Mother, when will it end? Or are these signs of the days of Noah for the faithful to take heed? I don’t know, but something is happening or at least some of my fellow sheep and I are restless like something is not right. I will trust in the Lord.

  1. How many times do we have to read of this episode in his life? What is the purpose of recounting this repeatedly? A number of answers come to mind, but in the end it comes down to nurturing a non-existent personality cult. I am not edified. I am not interested.

  2. I’m okay with anyone seeing a psychiatrist at any time in life when they believe it necessary in order to be healed of some mental or emotional malady triggered by chemical imbalances, etc. But it should be a Catholic psychiatrist who is grounded in the faith and views his/her practice as a means to glorify Christ, not as a means to get rich by prescribing medications for everything and using humanist/atheist techniques for counseling, etc. I can tell you that, having originally worked on a PhD in Psychology – later I reduced it to an MS in order to have a life – those who are teaching and those who are learning in today’s institutions already have a bias toward “science” that leaves out God – the true God and His Truth – for a “science” that is focused on liberal agendas, such as LGBTQ, abortion, feminism, etc. Beware who you allow to influence your mind. Be sure that your mind remains surrendered to Christ, setting your mind on those things that are heavenly and of His kingdom, as St. Paul instructs. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind according to that which glorifies God, as St. Paul also instructs us.

  3. First he went to psychiatrist, then he went to protestant “healer”, then he went to shamans to be healed.
    We all know how that worked out.

  4. The Holy Father , willing to let himself be seen as someone who knows what it is to suffer and seek help in available prudent means ; thus being a compassionate healer which is what most of psychology is about ; the gift of compassion , highly valued by our Lord Himself , in holding the image of the Samaritan as the good neighbor and He Himself , in The Passion , desiring to elicit same from us to thus help us to get over ways of self will and its hardness of hearts .

    More than 7 years since The Church came together , in compassion for the suffering from the violence in Syria responding to same with a day of fasting and prayer , as requested by the Holy Father , for Sept 7th , 2013 .

    Let us hope that there is enough in many , to reciprocate in a similar manner , for the upcoming first ever Papal trip to Iraq, land of Abraham , as an occasion to offer the love and gratitude we owe to the Most Holy Trinity for all that has been in our lives through our blessed Fathers and for the Reign of His Kingdom of peace and holiness to manifest more in all the lands .

  5. Peter Kolvenbach, SJ [Superior General 1983 – 2008] told Pope John Paul when the idea of elevating Father Bergoglio to the episcopate came up that Father Bergoglio was emotionally unstable and temperamentally unreliable. Given the psychological intervention was unsuccessful perhaps some remedial theology could have been applied to the situation?

  6. Seeing a psychiatrist has helped me as well. And just because I do does not mean I don’t go to confession or pray the rosary. This stigma against getting professional help for mental health problems is one of the reasons our society is in the poor state it’s in, and why there are so many damages human beings (not to mention suicides).

  7. Getting counselling can be very helpful. It can also lead people astray. These days, counsellors facilitating transgenderism is a real danger.

  8. God gave us people with great minds who can help those with mental health problems, and medications that do the same. There is no conflict between being a faithful Catholic and seeking help for psychiatric illnesses, any more than there is for seeking help for physical ailments. Such a bizarre irritation so many Catholics have towards their fellow faithful who want help outside of the Church for these problems.

  9. I wonder how many of the persons writing negative things about the pope would have had the courage to risk their lives during the junta period in the Argentine. It is that period which likely provides the clue to Francis’ dislike of those labeled “conservative”. The word means a very different thing in his country, he likely thinks of the archbishops who were blood brothers to members of the junta, and of the military chaplaincy which kept silent about the torture and murder of young people. He is a flawed man, no doubt, like us all, but heroic actions deserve to be honored, and personalities understood and respected. This is one interview I am glad he gave.

  10. How, in the broad reach of the history of Christianity, is this man’s history of psychiatric care relevant to the spread of the Gospel?

    Did Jesus reveal the innermost search of his heart, mind, and soul toward his Father? No? Did Mary reveal the details of her sorrow at experiencing the death of her Son? No? Did this pope never learn prudential discretion? Apparently not.

  11. I have to agree with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen on the subject of psychiatrists…you can easily find this opinion in his writings.

  12. Sadly, we remember the incidence where he slapped the woman’s hand and the pulling of his hand away when people were trying to show respect shows a worrying example of which any good psychiatrist would have a field day with. Also his shaking fists and culminating of those who love the traditional rite, which apparently one source states original can be traced back to his dropping of the Missal at Mass as an altar boy! This poor man needs help both psychological and more importantly spiritual!

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