Spiritual Direction

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From Pope Francis

Letter to Priests on the 160th Anniversary of the death of the Holy Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney (Aug. 4, 2019)

Brothers, let us indeed acknowledge our weaknesses, but also let Jesus transform them and send us forth anew to the mission. Let us never lose the joy of knowing that we are “the sheep of his flock” and that he is our Lord and Shepherd.

For our hearts to be encouraged, we should not neglect the dialectic that determines our identity. First, our relationship with Jesus. Whenever we turn away from Jesus or neglect our relationship with him, slowly but surely our commitment begins to fade and our lamps lose the oil needed to light up our lives (cf. Mt 25:1-13): “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4-5). In this regard, I would encourage you not to neglect spiritual direction. Look for a brother with whom you can speak, reflect, discuss and discern, sharing with complete trust and openness your journey. A wise brother with whom to share the experience of discipleship. Find him, meet with him and enjoy his guidance, accompaniment and counsel. This is an indispensable aid to carrying out your ministry in obedience to the will of the Father (cf. Heb 10:9) and letting your heart beat with “the mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). We can profit from the words of Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one… One will lift up the other; but woe to the one who is alone and falls, and does not have another to help!” (4:9-10).

Nature of Spiritual Direction

  • Priests are used to accompany lay people, but priests also need to be accompanied by someone who lives the same vocation. SD is a very personal means of accompaniment, tailor fitted to a Priest’s needs.
  • With an SD, we are assured of someone who can understand us, to whom we can express our inmost thoughts.
  • Even without any crisis present or looming, Spiritual Direction is needed by the Priest to respond better to his vocation to holiness in the ministry. Hence, Spiritual Direction is much different from crisis management or crisis prevention, which at times may require special interventions beyond Spiritual Direction; though of course, crisis management may at times also be included in Spiritual Direction.
  • Having an SD can be compared to a tennis player having a coach. If he only plays in a local club on weekends, he can just learn on his own. But if he wants to play in national or international tournaments, he needs a coach to guide him – not only because he might be playing against the rules of tennis, but for him to bring out the best of himself.
  • The idea of having an SD could also be compared to a medical student learning anatomy: he can try to dissect a cadaver on his own, but it would be best if he is guided by a professor.
  • In a way, having an SD is like having a mirror. Without a mirror it would be difficult to know whether we have groomed ourselves well enough.
  • St. John Crysostom: “One immediately understands the faults of others, but recognizes his own with difficulty; a man is impartial in the causes of others, but is perturbed in his own” (Catena Aurea, vol III, p. 132).
  • Look for a Priest SD whom you know is prayerful, whom you could truly trust, who goes to SD himself, and who commits to be available to receive you for some 15 minutes at least twice a month.

Suggestions on Receiving Spiritual Direction

  • SD is a conversation between two brother Priests. It does not require ceremonies or formalities whatsoever, and may be done anywhere at all, even walking down the street. If done regularly, SD could normally last less than 15 minutes.
  • It is the directee who makes sure that he actually meets his SD. In case one of them has to suddenly cancel their meeting, it is the directee who takes the initiative to set another appointment, rather than waiting for the SD to do so.
  • The directee also takes the initiative to open up his thoughts and his soul, and proposes courses of action. He does not wait for his SD to always tell him what to do, much less wait for his SD to guess what is going on in his life. The SD would often simply confirm the directee’s ideas and proposed courses of action seen in prayer, or suggest on how to improve or focus on some point brought about by the directee.
  • Topics for discussion basically include those matters that one thinks about often during the day, whether positive or negative, joys or sorrows, successes or failure, lights or shadows. This is because problems may cause us to worry, successes might make us proud or compare ourselves with others. We also present to our SD how we deal with them.
  • Success or failure in key points of our spiritual life should also be opened up, especially the following: prayer life, faith, vocation, holy purity, spirit of sacrifice, fraternity and service towards our brother Priests, apostolic zeal, poverty and obedience.
  • The more serious concerns should be mentioned first. This is like carrying several loads from one place to another: as soon as you reach the place, you put down the heaviest load first. SD should be done with humility and a “savage sincerity”, without hiding or sugarcoating any point, but also without exaggerating (to gain the SD’s pity or admiration, a sign of pride).
  • In SD, we talk about things that we have done or wanted to have done, or things going on in our life. We talk about the state of our soul, emotional situation, attitude towards certain matters, and also, our physical health if there are some concerns.
  • With an SD, we are assured of someone who has the grace of God, the grace of office, able to listen to, understand, guide and accompany us. This would also help us lessen the temptation to loneliness, complain unnecessarily due to our lack of spirit of sacrifice, talk ill about others, or, due to our need to be consoled, understood or listened to, open up to just any person or persons who happen to be interested in listening to us. Such persons who are not our SD’s might not even understand our vocation, wonder why we do not open up to a fellow Priest, or even relay those delicate matters to others; we cannot be naive regarding these matters, as they have happened and can happen to any Priest.
  • Prepare for SD by presenting the points first to God in front of the Tabernacle.

Suggestions for Giving Spiritual Direction

  • The Spiritual Director guides the directee not according to his own spirit, but according to God’s Spirit. Hence, rather than forming the directee according to one’s personal preferences, spirituality, theological approaches, pastoral methods, etc., he forms him in accordance with the Scriptures and the Church’s teachings. If the directee lives a certain spirituality (in an association for Priests, or personal devotions), the director should encourage him along those lines, rather than make him conform to his own spirituality.
  • The directee has complete freedom to confess with the director or not. He may also change his spiritual director anytime, which should not cause any hurt feelings between them. But for the directee to make this move, he should pray over it well, and if appropriate, consult with the SD himself. This is because the reasons for a planned change of SD might simply be because of a misunderstanding between the two, or perhaps an objectively wrong move, that if explained by the SD, might help clarify some points to the directee.
  • Give little goals for the directee to struggle in, as going up on an inclined plane: prayer life, vocation, spirit of sacrifice, studies, use of time, diligence, etc. Even little things express one’s love for God and consideration for others: time of preparation before celebrating the Eucharist, punctuality in daily activities and not only in special appointments, cheering up those who might be sad or discouraged, etc.
  • The SD is above all not only to keep the directee from harm’s way, but to prompt him to do greater things for the Lord and for others. There might be times when professional help might be needed (psychologist, psychiatrist, programs to treat addictions, etc.); in these cases, the SD should not hesitate to consult professionals (taking care to maintain confidentiality), and facilitate the directee’s actually getting help. This might need a lot of convincing, or even pressure, but if the SD prays about it and, especially when the crisis is manifest to others, consults with the Bishop, then such pressure for the good of the directee would be in order.
  • If outside an SD session, the SD has thought of some points for his directee, but which are not that urgent, it would be better to discuss those points during the next SD session, rather than outside, and much less when others are around. The directee may approach his SD anytime if he has some urgent concerns.
  • Journeying with a brother Priest is the greatest apostolate for us Priests, as we help our fellow apostles. It is the greatest pastoral work, as what can be more pastoral assisting a fellow pastor in his growth? Helping a brother Priest continuously grow in his vocation means helping the thousands of persons he serves also grow in their own vocation as Christians.
  • The best way for a Priest to be a good Spiritual Director is by going to spiritual direction himself. A good Confessor is a good penitent. A good director is a good directee. This is the only way one can appreciate how it means to be guided, and therefore know how to guide – based on actual personal experience, rather than from books or sessions (which, of course, may also help, but only as an addition).