More than two years ago, Archbishop Gregory Aymond launched the opening salvo in what he called the “New Battle of New Orleans” against violence, murder and racism.
Part of the Catholic response to the local community’s social ills has been regular prayer and an outreach effort that provides mentors for at-risk children and skills training for single parents who may need help in rearing their children.
Another piece of the puzzle is saving and strengthening marriages and families. To meet that ambitious goal, the archdiocesan Family Life Apostolate has established the Catholic Counseling Service, low-cost family, marital and couple counseling imbued with a Catholic perspective.
The new director of the counseling service, Mario A. Sacasa, is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as assistant director of the Family Life Apostolate. A Nicaragua native who fled the civil unrest in his country to immigrate to the U.S. with his family as a young child, Sacasa said saving marriages is a sacred responsibility.
“If we can save one marriage from the brink of divorce, we’ve done our job,” said Sacasa, 32, married for nearly 10 years and the father of three boys ages 8, 4 and 2. “If the Lord is merciful to us and grants us success and we can say we’ve done that more times than not, then I think we’ll be real happy and we’ll be meeting our marker.”
Two locations, more coming
Right now, the Catholic Counseling Service operates out of a Metairie location (110 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Suite 420). On Sept. 1, the service will open at the Northshore Pastoral Center in Covington (69090 Hwy. 190 East Service Road). There are plans to expand to other parts of the archdiocese in the coming months.
Sacasa ran a private counseling practice in Tallahassee, Fla., for the past five years and assisted in an inner healing retreat for seminarians last year at Notre Dame Seminary. When a seminarian heard that Archbishop Aymond was planning to hire someone to expand the Catholic Counseling Service, he emailed Sacasa and asked if he wanted to be considered for the opportunity.
“They found me, and I’m very grateful and very humbled,” Sacasa said. “They wanted to bring someone in who was Catholic in faith and in practice.”
Sacasa, who officially started July 2, says his initial focus will be meeting the needs of the eight clinicians, many of whom are graduates of Our Lady of Holy Cross College and the University of New Orleans and who have master’s degrees in family counseling and are earning required hours toward licensing.
“We want to make sure we hold up our Catholic identity,” Sacasa said. “Certainly, not everyone who comes to see us is Catholic, and we’re not here to proselytize, but our stance is that the church is here to help. We want people to know, whether they are Catholic or not, that the church is here for them.”
Counseling is affordable
Currently, the one-hour counseling sessions will cost a maximum of $30, and even that fee is negotiable if someone has difficulty paying, Sacasa said.
“We’re not here to make money,” Sacasa said. “We’re here to let people know that the church is here to help them in their marital distress and in difficulties with their families.”
Sacasa said the Catholic faith can contribute to marriage counseling because it emphasizes human dignity as a gift from God.
“There is an inherent respect for everyone who comes into our office,” Sacasa said. “Our faith compels us to respect the person, regardless of who they are, as made in the image and likeness of God. Secondly, while we absolutely respect and understand that people have to make their own decisions, we want people to know that if you’re going to come to us, you’re going to have somebody who’s going to encourage you to keep working on the relationship. Our stance is we want your marriage to get back on track.”
Quite often one spouse in a troubled marriage will have a greater desire than the other to work on the relationship, Sacasa said. But if both spouses can come to the table, miracles can happen.
“Personally, I’m an eternal optimist,” Sacasa said. “That’s one of my faults, which I graciously accept. I’ve found that when the couples come in, if you can really align yourself with the spouse that kind of has one foot out the door and build a relationship with that person and earn their trust, then you can understand what it is they really want and why it is that they want to leave. In my years of doing marriage preparation, I’ve never met a couple that gets married to divorce. Nobody ever wants to get to that point, and when they find themselves at that point, people are always surprised. I think, by and large, people want to work on their relationship.”
There are situations of abuse or compromised safety – situations the church does not tolerate, Sacasa said – in which the couple should separate.
“That goes back to the respect of the person,” Sacasa said. “Certainly, in those situations, we have to help the people and get them safe.”
Since many marriages are at stress in the first five to seven years, Sacasa said it is critical to provide a safety net. Parishes can do their part by “preaching the truth and showing the beauty that exists in marriage,” Sacasa said.
“When people really come to understand the beauty that is prevalent in the church’s catechesis on marriage, it blows your mind, and it becomes a marker for you to say, ‘I want that,’” Sacasa said. “I think it starts by letting the beauty of marriage shine and encouraging and blessing the couples in the parish.”
For more information on Catholic Counseling Service, call the dedicated phone line in the Family Life Apostolate office at 861-6245.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.