As Debbie Eckert walked up the steps toward the altar at Morris Hall Chapel at St. John Center in Little Rock, she could not hold back tears as she received her graduation certificate as a spiritual director. It was the end to a long journey of studying theology and spiritual exercises, but it’s far from over for her or the 30 other participants — they have some selling to do.
“It’s about drawing more people to Jesus,” Eckert said. “To me, I’m like a salesman for Jesus.”
A June 11 Mass marked the completion of the diocese’s first class from the School of Spiritual Direction offered through the Faith Formation Office. Thanks to the three-year program offered in both English and Spanish, the diocese has 24 new certified spiritual directors trained in the Ignatian tradition to work with individuals who seek guidance in their personal faith. Seven other students participated in the program but didn’t earn their certification. The class included lay women and men, deacons and one retired priest, Father Robert Dienert.
“Both groups have been fantastic, super dedicated to their studies, to their prayer life. It really has been a great group of people to work with,” said Deacon Chuck Ashburn, recently named the assistant director for development and academic advising in the Office of Vocations and Seminarians. He was previously director of the Office of Faith Formation and Permanent Diaconate Formation. “They’re really what made this program so successful.”
At its core, spiritual direction helps someone find out where they are on their faith journey and helping them grow in that faith, said Eckert, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Conway.
“I had been in spiritual direction myself. It had benefited me so much personally, it has given me such freedom,” Eckert said. “You want other people to experience that freedom, that relationship with Jesus.”
Diocesan vocations director Msgr. Scott Friend and assistant vocations director Father Rubén Quinteros concelebrated the bilingual Mass along with Father Dienert. Ashburn said the program was the “brainchild” of Msgr. Friend, who gave a homily that both quizzed the new directors on what they’ve learned and gave them advice for the future.
“We come to a place in our life where God calls us to be a voice for him, to help enrich, to help come to him. He’s chosen us,” Msgr. Friend said, adding that God is the guiding force in all spiritual direction. “We’re not capable of doing anything without God being there to give us the grace to do it.”
There are few dioceses who offer spiritual direction programs, most falling to religious houses like St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Ashburn said.
The shortage of certified spiritual directors in the state made it difficult for men in the diaconate formation program, which requires candidates have a spiritual director. The need for trained people was also apparent when the diocese hosts a three-day silent retreat, which supplies a spiritual director for every four participants.
“It always has a waiting list to come to every year,” to the retreat, Ashburn said. “This year we filled up with as many people as we could take before it was even advertised,” with 30 people.
Though there are several methods used in spiritual direction, the group followed the Evocative Contemplative Method based on Ignatian spiritual exercises. Students met once a month from September to June, with the first two years focused on academic formation and learning spiritual exercises. Their formation also included silent retreats and supervised spiritual direction. Their final year was a practicum.
“Spiritual direction is something any Christian should really at least look into, someone who is able to help them walk through their spiritual journey and give maybe an outside look at where God is working in their lives,” Ashburn said. “Pope Francis says every Catholic should have a spiritual director.”
The diocese had previously announced it would start another class in the fall, but those plans are currently on hold, Ashburn said. Those receiving certification must receive continuing education and remain under supervision to maintain their spiritual directors status. For now, directors, like Roberto Perez, are grateful for the opportunity and ready to bring what they’ve learned to their parish.
“Hope is in the Father, in Jesus, the Holy Spirit to make this work a gift for the community,” said Perez, a parishioner at St. Barbara Church in DeQueen. “I feel gratitude for the love that God has in our diocese, in all parishes.”
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