Seminary psychologist earns award

Counseling an important part of priestly formation at St. John Vianney

Nissa LaPoint

As a psychologist helping to form Denver seminarians, Christina Lynch is like a stethoscope in God’s hands working to heal their hearts, she said.

“I listen to their heart as they tell me their life story,” said Lynch, the director of psychological services for St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. “I listen to their hearts, but God is the divine physician. He’s the healer.”

Lynch was recognized for her achievements and work as a conduit of healing for young men preparing for the priesthood. In May at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., Lynch was presented with the first Distinguished Alumni Award by the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS)—where she was also the first student to receive her doctorate—for her contributions to society and excellence in the field.

Paul Vitz, professor emeritus of psychology at New York University, presented the award at an IPS graduation Mass when Lynch also delivered the alumni address to the graduates. She was also recognized for her continuing leadership as president of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association.
The award and her work for St. John Vianney Seminary is exemplary, said seminary rector Father Scott Traynor.

“What has been established (at the seminary) under her leadership is a model for seminaries around the country,” Father Traynor said. “Those unique contributions she’s made are recognized by IPS in offering her that award. It’s duly deserved.”

Christina Lynch delivers an alumni address during a graduation ceremony in May in Washington, D.C.

Christina Lynch delivers an alumni address during a graduation ceremony in May in Washington, D.C. Photo provided


Journey to the seminary

Lynch’s path to become a licensed clinical psychologist did not begin with the goal of helping seminarians. Initially, she sought a doctorate in psychology to help heal post-abortive women. She counseled women for a time when she opened a home for them with her husband in California. Then her eyes were opened to a call to help serve men studying for the priesthood, she said.

“In formation, what I realized was if you can help one priest or one future priest know himself through the eyes of the Lord and help remove any human obstacles in that area to open their spiritual life … then they can serve and be healing instruments, not only for their parishioners, but especially for people who are struggling with post-abortion syndrome,” Lynch said.

Her journey led her to St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, where more than 100 men are studying for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Denver and other dioceses. She said for nine years her focus of offering psychological healing based on Catholic anthropology is aimed to help young men “know themselves and have a more intimate relationship with the Lord.”


Fostering human growth

While in seminary, men are formed to grow spiritually, intellectually and apostolically, in addition to receiving human formation, Father Traynor said.

“In the seminary you have a lot of people who are contributing to the formation of the future priest,” he said. “The counseling services we offer fill a critical role in that human formation. This is one of the real challenges in priestly formation is this human formation and how the Church understands it.”

The counseling role Lynch offers aids men in growing humanly.

“Everyone knows grace builds on nature,” he continued. “Chris Lynch, in her counseling services, offers what we can call human growth counseling—how to help a man in his various human qualities to grow and be healthier so that grace has the healthiest foundation in his natural capacities to build on.”

Part of that human formation involves helping men see themselves as made in the image of Christ. Lynch said modern secular culture can damage a healthy self-identity.

“The culture forms us to believe that our identities are based on what we do, what we feel, and what we think,” she said. “When in reality the only identity we’re created to be is a beloved child of the Father. If we knew that and believed that these other labels or identities wouldn’t confuse us as they do in culture today.”

More than 80 percent of the seminarians at St. John Vianney seek her aid—counseling is not mandated for the men—to understand how cultural distortions may manifest in their lives and take them to prayer so Christ can heal.

“They come totally on their own,” Lynch said. “Having that open door policy which remains confidential within formation—it gives the man an opportunity to take responsibility for his own formation in a more offensive rather than in a defensive approach.”

The valuable program Lynch offers seminarians, and her own dedication to the Church, is a model for others, Father Traynor said.

“Chris has a deep love for the Church, love for the faith and reverence for the priesthood,” he said. “You put that all together and she’s an amazing person.”

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.