An Interview with Michelle Batacan Alexander, LCSW

Updated: Mar 1


by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.


Michelle: My early Catholic formation actually began 64 years ago this month when I was baptized and confirmed as an infant, and presented in dedication to Our Blessed Mother Mary. So, actually, I have been called to profess and defend the Catholic faith since Feb. 27 1957. My true name is Marie Michelle. I learned about my Catholic faith from my parents because they lived their Catholic faith all their lives.


My mother Dr. Rosario Abad Batacan taught me how to pray and among the first words I remember being taught were how to say the sign of the cross and cross myself at 3 y.o. Mom was orphaned at 13 and was raised by her brother, Monsignor Pedro L Abad, a Dominican priest, and she lived at the Discalced Carmelite Sisters' Convent. I remain in awe and gratitude for my parents' inspiring and unfailing practice of their Catholic faith.


Mom's influence and support not only for her own family but also for her nieces and nephews, inspired so many people, including, her Godson, who would later become Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi, and was the first Filipino rector of the University of Santo Tomas. I knew him as cousin Leo. Our home in the late 1960s became a haven for seminarians from Mundelein Seminary and local parish priests who would come for lunch and conversation after Sunday Mass at the Batacans. It was a tumultuous time for the Catholic church as the Vatican II reforms were creating confusion and identity crises for many clergy and seminarians.


Mom and dad hosted lunches, followed by after-meal lengthy discussions, debates, and prayers around social activism, racism, the universal church. In our dining room, hung a tabernacle cover from the Philippines, that was preserved from the cathedral my uncle Monsignor Pedro Abad had the task to renovate and had brought to America during one of his visits. Seated at the table I remember listening and learning from these lively, intense conversations, usually involving philosophy, theology, and scripture.


At 13, I also traveled around the world with my mom, a birthday present for her from my dad. I visited my relatives in the Philippines, and my uncle's church, and the Carmelite convent where mom was raised and met some of the sisters. Then we traveled through Tokyo, Hong Kong, Teheran, Rome, Paris, London, and New York.


Our tours whenever possible were always to stop and pray in the various cathedrals, shrines, and churches, even visiting Pope Paul VI at the summer Castel Gondolfo to join other visitors for the Angelus as well as visiting the Vatican. Mom prayed with us daily as children and modeled living your life as sacrament and prayer and Christ-centered. My early childhood, through high school, undergraduate, and graduate school was also spent entirely in Catholic institutions of learning.


Their focus on Catholic formation, honestly, was not as steadfast, resonant, and true as the examples set by my parents’ lived devotion to faith, family, and profession as healers.


Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your work in cognitive behavioral therapy.


Michelle: I completed my education with a liberal arts degree in French, Government and International relations, and Philosophy. Originally I hoped to become an ambassadress for peace and work in international service. My higher education was at the University of Notre Dame and l'Universite Catholique de l'Ouest. I believe strongly that it is thanks to the influence of studying the works of philosophers and theologians like Jacques Maritain, Thomas Merton, and studies in comparative governments that laid the foundation for my nuanced and resilience-based capacity to assist clients later on in my professional career as a psychotherapist.


Cognitive-behavioral therapy involves listening to peoples' problematic patterns of thought and behavior choices and assisting individuals to learn how to interrupt and reframe depression inducing or anxiogenic thought patterns for example, with suggestions for alternative more effective, and resilient ways of thinking. It was taught, sadly, however, in the 80's to keep talk of religion and spirituality out of the therapy room and the study of psychotherapy.


The consequence of this was that I still prayed for the Holy Spirit to help me in my work, albeit quietly in my heart. In the middle years of my career, I attended a Mission retreat. I met Fr. Faso, and introduced myself, saying, I am a French teacher, choir director part-time in my childrens' parochial school, and I am a therapist in private practice in the community.


Fr. Faso, warmly shook my hand, said Magandang Gabi (good evening in Pilipino) and Salamat (thank you) Then with a warm smile he said, “Bless you and thank you for your ministry.” I responded, "Oh my ministry as a church musician?” Fr. Faso said, "No, your ministry as a therapist." From then forward, the fruits of the Holy Spirit were set free to serve others in the safe, think-out-loud space that was my therapy office. I thought it would be interesting to seek out examples of how Christ modeled and taught us the way for emotional resilience and cognitive behavioral therapy in His life and the scripture passages already there in the Bible.


Dr. Knight: This is a broad category: psychodynamic methodologies blended with the psychology of change, creativity, and emotional resilience, how is this intertwined with the tenets of the Catholic Church in this therapy?


Michelle: It is actually the other way around, the tenets of our Catholic faith are the centering force in my work utilizing the tools of the trade and the technical skills in the field of mental health. An important part of therapy and healing is the result of resilience and creativity. I use the acronym H.O.P.E to cue people to remember that the path out of the darkness of depression is Healthy living, Opportunity vision, Purposeful planning, and Emotional Resilience. H.O.P.E.


My father Dr. George Batacan, was also a psychiatrist, and he taught me so much over the 25 years that we worked together. (He also taught psychiatry at Loyola UniversityStritch MedicalSchool in Chicago). “You must accept and love your patients, warts and all.” “Don’t get stuck in diagnostics and analysis”. This was his way of teaching that one may have clinical acumen, but the basis of the therapeutic healing process is the relationship. He would go on to define agape love. This same unconditional love is the basis of the therapeutic process.


Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you in directing you to provide psychotherapy that is centered in Christ?


Michelle: I speak 4 languages, (English, French, Spanish, and Tagalog). 6 languages if you count music and spirituality. I was called to help people as a counselor 35 years ago. I was also called to serve the Church as a music minister 25 years ago. In March 2020, I was furloughed from my music ministry work with an English parish.


I moved my clinical practice rapidly in March 2020, learning quickly how to provide telehealth counseling.


I was sad at first to have to stop directing the English choir. I continue to serve the Hispanic faith community in music ministry, teaching myself how to record and send music for streamed Masses online. I now counsel people in 4 languages, in 7 countries. Thanks to the gift of language and global technology. I understand now that I was being called to serve and minister online. I used to wonder, why do I have these gifts and abilities to speak many languages, understand many cultures, love to make music, and compose prayers and prayer songs? Now I am thankful and understand why the responsibilities of these gifts are woven into my life.


My current interest and passion are weaving the knowledge base of intercultural ministry, interfaith prayer, and the curiosity and passion in studying the neuroscience of spirituality. There are studies afoot trying to identify where in the human neurological makeup does the soul and spirituality live? My hypothesis is simply this: Jesus told us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. “ (Matthew 18:20). Spirituality lives in the neurodynamic exchange in agape relationship between each of us in the presence of the other, living our lives as prayer and sacrament before God.


The healing of wounds from oppression and racism is accomplished by enlightening our understanding of our common universal humanity, united as one in Christ through agape. It is so evident and important that we open our eyes and hearts to the concept that the global call, in this time of pandemic, is to return to our faith, hope, and love, with the greatest portion of the call being that of the call to love one another, care for one another as one family.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced working in the Church?


Michelle: While working with the homeless community, driving a destitute elder, carrying all his belongings in a black garbage bag, I asked him, “What do you have in your bag, sir?” He smiled and said, “I have all that I need. A set of clothes, a toothbrush, and toothpaste, and my Bible. That’s all I need.” I asked him what his favorite hymn tune was. He began to sing Amazing Grace. We sang joyfully together.


While helping with the liturgy and Eucharistic adoration planning for the recent Diocesan Synod held in the Diocese of Gary, we provided intercultural music ministry and walked following the Eucharist, in procession to the Cathedral of Holy Angels through the streets of Gary. A mom sitting on the porch steps with her children was watching the procession pass by. Her daughter pointed at the monstrance raised and carried by the Bishop as we processed by, and she audibly asked her mom, “Momma, look! Who is that?” Her mom turned to her and smiling, said, “baby, that is Jesus.” The look of delight and joy in the little girl’s eyes was a joyful moment.


Jesus, Others, Yourself, love in that order and you will have JOY in your life.


Dr. Knight: As a mental health professional what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?


Michelle: I practice what I teach. I try to live what I speak. I pray the lauds, mid-day, and compline. I pray the rosary daily. I offer prayers for all of us. I teach in therapy, the importance of learning to recognize the blessings in our lives and try to help people find ways to be a blessing to one another, in relationships, in families, in groups. A duty is a commitment and a responsibility.


The duties that I perform, or pray, are listed there in my logo emblem: Heal, Encourage, Develop, Change, and Protect. Thank you so much for offering us this interview and letting us see all the good works that are accomplished in the area of mental health. My father Dr. George Batacan was also a psychiatrist, and he taught me so much over the 25 years that we worked together. (He also taught psychiatry at Loyola University StritchMedical School in Chicago). “You must accept and love your patients, warts and all.” “Don’t get stuck in diagnostics and analysis”.


This was his way of teaching that one may have clinical acumen, but the basis of the therapeutic healing process is the relationship. He would go on to define agape love. This same unconditional love is the basis of the therapeutic process.


Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be in the field of mental health what does that entail? What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ?


Michelle: The call to ministry as a psychotherapist is a call to serve those suffering grief and sorrow, those in despair, those who feel disconnected and lost, those who feel hopeless, those who are internally torn and fragmented with the invisible wounds of trauma, those battling terrible confusion and agitation, it has been my path through my professional life.


The tools of my trade, are my calming voice, my patient, listening presence, and my compassionate heart, used to create a trusting, confidential safe space. The principles of my discipline or profession, call me to follow a code of ethics, which, in truth, are extrapolations of Christ’s call: cf John 15:7 - 13. Love one another as I have loved you. Agape.


Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you in directing you to provide psychotherapy that is centered in Christ?


Michelle: I speak 4 languages, (English, French, Spanish, and Tagalog). 6 languages if you count music and spirituality. I was called to help people as a counselor 35 years ago. I was also called to serve the Church as a music minister 25 years ago. In March 2020, I was furloughed from my music ministry work with an English parish.


I moved my clinical practice rapidly to provide telehealth counseling, having to learn how to setup and offer video telehealth. I was sad at first to have to stop directing the English choir. I continue to serve the Hispanic faith community in music ministry, teaching myself how to record and send music for streamed Masses online. I now counsel people in 4 languages, in 7 countries.


Thanks to the gift of language and global technology. I understand now that I was being called to serve and minister online. I used to wonder, why do I have these gifts and abilities to speak many languages, understand many cultures, love to make music, and compose prayers and prayer songs? Now I am thankful and understand why the responsibilities of these gifts are woven into my life.


My current interest and passion are weaving the knowledge base of intercultural ministry, interfaith prayer, and the curiosity and passion in studying the neuroscience of spirituality. There are studies afoot trying to identify where in the human neurological makeup does the soul and spirituality live? My hypothesis is simply this: Jesus told us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there. “ (Matthew 18:20).


I believe that spirituality lives in the neurodynamic exchange in agape relationship between each of us in the presence of the other, living our lives as prayer and sacrament before God. The healing of wounds from oppression and racism is accomplished by enlightening our understanding of our common universal humanity, united as one in Christ through agape. It is so evident and important that we open our eyes and hearts to the concept that the global call, in this time of the pandemic, is to return to our faith, hope, and love, with the greatest portion of the call being that of the call to love one another, care for one another as one family.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts in the mental health profession?


Michelle: Yes. I believe that each of us has a mosaic of gifts that we create a piece by piece, in the artisanry of leading a Christ-centered life. When I speak to graduating classes about choosing the path their future will take I share this concept. The etymology of the word job, comes from the Old English gobbe, meaning a pile of stuff, to be moved from one space to another. The etymology of the word career is from the Old French word, “carriere”, a word from astronomy used to describe the path of a heavenly body across the skies.


The etymology of the word ‘profession’ comes from the Old Latin, profesare, to proclaim and stand as a public witness to a set of principles and beliefs. So I encourage students to remember that whatever path their lives take if the focus is that is not a job or a career, but a calling to proclaim the values and tenets of our faith. Parenting is not a job, or a career, yet, it can truly be d a vocation and profession. Imagine if Mother Mary had not heard the call to be Christ’s mother, and lived it as a profession of faith!


Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview? About being centered in Christ in the mental health profession?


Michelle: Well, I often tell my clients, that it is my job to work myself out of a job! When we can all be Christ to one another, I will be joyfully unemployed, as we will care for each other’s mental health.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church besides ZOOM and Facetime therapy?


Michelle: I believe that there is a strong call to improve our powers of discernment and hearing God’s voice; there is a challenge to change parochial, compartmentalized thought patterns in institutions in order to responsibly answer the call to sacrifice our self-interest for the greater good, health, safety and love of God’s people; an additional challenge which extends beyond zoom church, is the conscientious awareness that the church is alive and vitally important beyond the walls of the sanctuary, and the face and needs of God’s people is changing. There are an estimated 220 million ‘third culture kids’ now, I’m a baby boomer third culture kid who was met with racism and institutional oppression. This generation of children is growing exponentially as cultural borders and barriers are dissolved by globalization. It is a call to stop silo and parochial thinking in our Church institution and recognize that we must truly live our catholicity, and be our universal church.