Barbara Zahner Featured in The Valley Catholic

Growing up in Ohio in the 1950s, I always wondered about human behavior; however, discussions of feelings, addictions, and family dynamics rarely surfaced in conversations.

I recall reading a regular column in The Columbus Dispatch by Doctor George Crane, a psychologist and physician, and his insights on human behavior intrigued me in a way that followed me through my adolescence. In high school, I discovered the organization Mental Health America while researching for a term paper and encountering their logo — a liberty bell made from the metal shackles that restrained those forced to live in asylums — which deeply struck my soul. Later, I earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Marquette University.

A Call to Action

The diocesan mental health ministry began in profound grief. In March 2015, three unrelated men from Holy Spirit Parish, ranging in age from 18 to 80, died of suicide. When one of them, a neighbor and the youngest, passed away, I felt as if a cannonball had shot through me. During a Holy Week retreat at El Retiro, The Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos, I spoke with then Bishop Patrick McGrath about my shock and grief over my young neighbor’s death.

From there, I, a parish youth minister, and the late Rich Berryessa (about whom I wrote in the printed 2022 Fall Issue for The Valley Catholic) began a network of diocesan parish-based mental health ministry. With the support of Father Chris Bennett, pastor of Saint Christopher, we applied for funding, allowing us to hold various presentations at diocesan parishes and an all-day workshop at Santa Clara University. At the same time, a pastoral director at Holy Spirit Church and I also began Out of the Wilderness, a suicide bereavement support.

“Listen with the Ear of the Heart.”

In 2018, I collaborated with the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers. Seeing the need for a unified plan for parish-based mental health ministers, Ruth Auten, LMFT, a member of St. John Vianney parish, and I designed and implemented Listen with Ear of the Heart.

The foundational theological document for Listen with the Ear of the Heart is the California Catholic Bishops’ statement on mental health, Hope and Healing. I highly recommend everyone read it. In eight hours of interactive formation and training, we focus on five critical skills for parish-based mental health ministers:

  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Holy listening
  • Praying with
  • Self-care
  • Awareness of self, the other, and the Divine.

To date, more than 100 mental health ministers have completed the training, both here in the Diocese of San José and throughout the country. As a result, parishes throughout our diocese offer various forms of mental health support, ranging from educational workshops, tabling of resources, one-to-one conversations, and liturgies, such as Blue Christmases or Taizé prayer services, to inserting mental and emotional distress in the prayers of the faithful during the liturgy. Two formal programs offered in local parishes are Sanctuary Course for Catholics and Grace Alliance.

The role of the mental health minister

As a mental health minister, I am most inspired by seeing God at work when surprising doors open, and surprising people come forward. Ministering in mental health has deepened my relationship with Christ, my Lord and Brother. My biggest challenge is adjusting my expectations to some of the limitations present in parish-based mental health ministry.

I draw upon my relationship with Christ, the Divine Physician, i.e., the Divine Therapist, as Father Thomas Keating says, to heal me in my fear, to guide me in my direction, to forgive me when I falter, doubt, and sin, and to hold me with tender love. “Behold God beholding you and smiling,” wrote famed Father Anthony Mello. I turn to that image and pray often. I am also aware of the urgent need for mental health services as one in four of us experience mental health distress, and many of us first go to our faith leaders for support and understanding.

For those interested in becoming mental health ministers, I suggest that readers read and reflect upon Hope and Healing as they consider whether they are being called to serve as ministers in mental health ministry. The skills learned in Listen with the Ear of the Heart can be used in all personal and professional relationships. While at the beginning of my ministry, I would have characterized my response to the call to create a diocesan mental health ministry as, “Are you kidding me, Lord? Wrong number!” my view of my own role in the diocese has been transformed to, “I trust. Lead me, Lord. Thank You!”

Note: Parish-based mental health ministry does not substitute for professional behavioral or mental health services. Trained ministers are not licensed therapists or counselors, but they seek to provide spiritual support and resources as recommended by the Diocese of San José.


Association of Catholics Mental Health Ministers:

The Sanctuary Course for Catholics:

National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) of Santa Clara County:

Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services:

Grace Alliance:

Sign up for the ZOOM Mental Health Conference organized by the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers in Mundelein, Illinois, April 25-27.


Barbara Zahner is originally from Columbus, Ohio. She holds a master’s degree from Santa Clara University (SCU) in Pastoral Ministries with an emphasis on Spirituality. Additionally, she completed the Clinical Pastoral Education at Stanford Hospital. She is also a board-certified chaplain who holds an honorable Ph.D. in Public Service from SCU. She and her husband, Richard, thank God daily for their four children, four in-laws, and nine grandchildren, ages 24 to 7. They are parishioners of Saint Francis of Assisi.

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Meet the Author

Barbara Zahner

BCC 3GEN+ Coordinator

Barbara Zahner is the co-founder of parish-based diocesan mental health ministry and Out of the Wilderness, suicide bereavement support.

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