Deacons Gain Foundational Skills in Spiritual Direction Class

Posted on July 29, 2021

While “spiritual direction” might be a known concept among seminarians and priests, many lay people are not familiar with the practice or might not fully understand its purpose and value.

“I always say there is only one spiritual director in the whole world, and that’s the Holy Spirit, but we’re often not well attuned to what the Spirit is doing in our own lives because we’re distracted, we have things going on or we may not like what the Spirit is nudging us to look at,” said Father John Kartje, rector of Mundelein Seminary and veteran spiritual director. “Spiritual direction is a time-honored tradition in the Church of one person accompanying another, helping them to become more aware of what the Holy Spirit is doing in their life — particularly how that is being manifested in the person’s prayer life.”

Training future priests to provide spiritual direction as part of their ministry has long been a standard part of the curriculum for seminarian formation, but the past spring semester was the first time that Father Kartje taught the class himself. The enrollment for this course comprised fourth-year deacons who were mere months from their ordination to the priesthood.

“Pope Benedict XVI once told a group of priests that people expect them to be a spiritual guide, and I’ve never forgotten that,” he said. “Every parish priest should feel capable and qualified for accompanying someone in that way.”

“I know they found it to be a powerful experience, and I think some of them may have been surprised at how effective they were.”

Father John Kartje

To be an effective spiritual director, a priest must be able to listen attentively and identify how the Holy Spirit is working through the experiences, especially when their parishioners don’t necessarily have the theological vocabulary to articulate such things for themselves.

“A director has to learn to listen to someone talking about their prayer or what’s going on in their family and distill out the spiritual movements from the more human or emotional movements,” Father Kartje said. “They’re not mutually exclusive — they’re woven together — so that takes time.”

The course began by exploring the academic approach to spiritual direction, with the deacons navigating through readings from St. John of the Cross and Jesuit and Carmelite traditions related to the practice.

But then things got a lot more practical. Father Kartje asked each student to record a 10-minute interview with another seminarian who was not taking the class. The conversation had to relate to a spiritually significant event or prayer experience in the interview subject’s life. These recordings became the “textbook” for the rest of the semester, with the deacons analyzing the conversations as if they were part of authentic spiritual direction sessions.

“They really were very attentive and adept at noticing some of these movements of the Spirit — ‘this is what spiritual resistance looks like’ or ‘this is what affective joy looks like,’” Father Kartje said. “I know they found it to be a powerful experience, and I think some of them may have been surprised at how effective they were.”

Deacon Michael Kelly of the Diocese of Yakima said the class offered him a challenge that he is excited to accept after ordination.

“I think the most important thing I took away from the class was confidence,” he said. “After weeks of teaching us the material in a really personal and engaging way, Father John adjured us all strongly to get out there and give spiritual direction our best shot.”

Given the importance of the subject, Father Kartje is attempting to sprinkle elements of spiritual director training throughout the formation curriculum so that seminarians gain experience even before they take this class in their fourth year of theological studies.

“What we’re starting to do with first-year seminarians is develop exercises and practicum models where they’re engaging in meaningful spiritual conversations,” he said. “Learning how to listen with a discerning heart is 90 percent of what needs to be achieved by a good director, and that’s something we can start working on at the beginning of a seminarian’s career. It’s as much of an art as it is a skill.”

Deacon Elliot Zak of the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana said the course helped him understand the importance of becoming an effective spiritual guide for his eventual parishioners and encouraging them to have a vibrant prayer life.

“The faithful have a hunger for God and express that in a variety of ways, but at the crux of their longings and questions to priests is this: Teach me how to pray and show me how to follow Jesus Christ in the spiritual life,” he said. “For this reason, being immersed in the spiritual life and being willing to guide people in the spiritual life is a weighty responsibility for the priest of Jesus Christ.”