After a seven-year hiatus, the Diocese of Little Rock has resumed the School of Spiritual Direction to educate students how to grow in their faith, who will in turn help others do the same.
The School of Spiritual Direction’s director, Father Daniel Velasco, said a committee was formed three years ago to discuss resuming the program. Father Velasco was named director of spiritual direction formation for the Diocese of Little Rock July 1, 2022, when he was named pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.
Father Velasco said the purpose of the program is to help people “grow their relationship with God so that they can be companions for people who want to deepen their life of prayer.”
“This is a discernment process also,” Father Velasco said. “Just because somebody signs up and starts doesn’t mean that they will finish. It’s also a discernment because (the role of) a spiritual director is a vocation within a vocation. Not everyone is called to be a spiritual director.”
The bilingual classes began in September and will be held monthly through May. The first cohort is set to graduate in 2026. Each year, a new cohort is added.
The program is split into three academic cycles: cycle A, B and C. At the end of cycle C, the cycles begin again so all students will have attended the same classes by the time they graduate, regardless of when they entered the program. Each cycle consists of both academic courses and prayer themes.
The Sept. 15-16 session focused on the differences between counseling and spiritual direction and included an introduction to spirituality.
The class of 12 students and five instructors also attended Mass and participated in small group sharing, silent prayer and spiritual direction practice. The program also has a retreat component, in which third-year students will lead a retreat for second-year students.
Some of the prerequisites for joining the School of Spiritual Direction include Scripture knowledge at a collegiate level as well as the completion of some form of the 19th Annotation Retreat in Daily Life.
The School of Spiritual Direction works closely with the diocesan Office of Faith Formation. Director Jeff Hines said his office often refers people interested in ministry to Father Velasco. He said recent Church events have led to an increased interest in spiritual development among Catholics.
“The recent Synod on Synodality made it clear that people in our diocese are seeking more opportunities to deepen their relationship with Christ in response to their encounter with Christ in the Eucharist,” Hines said. “Spiritual direction has historically been an important way for people to do that. Bishop Taylor recognized that we need more people who are trained and qualified to be spiritual directors to meet this need. Another reason is that our recently ordained priests have raised spiritual direction as a need for their parishioners who are seeking to deepen their relationship with Christ.”
While there are only 12 students enrolled, Father Velasco said he hopes more will follow in coming years. He said he is optimistic because this year’s class filled quickly with little advertising. Students are a mix of laypeople and clergy, with eight English-speakers and four Spanish-speakers.
Student Yolanda Berumen, secretary at St. Joseph Church in Conway, said she hopes when she completes the program, she’ll be better equipped to serve the Hispanic community.
“I hope to work with the Hispanic community because we are in such need of this,” Berumen said. “In the English community, yes, there's a lot, but I think in our Hispanic culture, we don't have any of this. And if we do, I mean, we just see the crucifix, but we really don't see (Christ) as a human being. And I think that's what most of us are lacking. So for me it's just to have my community, the Hispanic community and work with them to give them what I’m receiving.”
With Berumen translating, Lupita Alvarez, a member of St. Edward Church in Little Rock, said, “It was a difficult decision (to enroll in the program). There was a lot of discernment. (I) had a lot of prayer time, and now here I am, anxious to know more about my spiritual life.”
Taffy Council, perpetual adoration coordinator at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton, said she was invigorated just attending the first sessions of the School of Spiritual Direction.
“I immediately had the feeling of being a child at Christmas, waiting to see what was in my stocking,” Council said. “There was excitement — excitement based on the unknown.”
Other students include:
Deacon Sergio Aguilar, St. Vincent de Paul Church, Rogers
Deacon Fabio Cruz, St. Vincent de Paul Church, Rogers
Deacon Lawrence Fox, St. John Church, Russellville
Deacon Charlie Kuehl, Immaculate Conception Church, Fort Smith
Deacon Joe Lukacs, Christ the King Church, Little Rock
Deacon Angelo Volpi, Christ the King Church, Little Rock
Ann Miskin, Christ the King Church, Little Rock
Nancy Unverferth, St. Joseph Church, Conway
Molly Walchuk, St. Joseph Church, Conway
Father John Marconi, a senior priest and leader in the School of Spiritual Direction, was one of five priests selected in the 2010s to be trained as spiritual directors. Training followed a program on Ignatian spirituality.
“This particular program … has spiritual exercises that now the laypeople are getting involved in,” Father Marconi said. “And so that’s how it all got started. Once we started having more spiritual directors, there were more people wanting to be spiritual directors.”
Father Marconi said the increase in popularity in Ignatian spiritual exercises also sparked a greater interest for people to become spiritual directors.
“These are 12 candidates out of 25 that applied,” he said. “We just felt like we could only take 12 at this time. The next year we’ll start year two with this group, and then we’ll get another 12 or so for year one. And then this group will start year three … and then we’ll start another group for year one and we’ll keep it going as long as there’s a desire.”
Upon graduation, students will receive a certificate of completion and will work in their parishes and communities to help parishioners with their faith.
For Father Velasco and program facilitators, the ultimate goal of the School of Spiritual Direction is to equip students to be spiritual directors for those in their communities who want to deepen their relationship with God.
“Spiritual directors will help those brothers and sisters who are serious about further exploring their relationship with God, spending time in prayer and growing that love that God has for us,” Father Velasco said. “These spiritual directors will show everyone that they are prepared to be companions on that journey with them.”
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