By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Paula Sapienza didn’t know that spiritual directors existed until she was in her 20s.
“The first time I heard about spiritual directors, the thought popped into my head that it would be the greatest job ever,” she says.
Of course, people don’t become spiritual directors when they’re in their 20s, and Dr. Sapienza was busy pursuing a graduate degree. But the thought stayed in the back of her mind as she went on to teach at Fairfield University.
When she moved to Denver, she approached Fr. Stephen Yavorsky, SJ, about doing the Spiritual Exercises. She felt called to become a spiritual director and wanted to confirm that this was a genuine invitation from God. After completing the Exercises, she was sure.
“I have never looked back and thought it was the wrong choice,” she says. “I have only been reconfirmed over and over again. It’s such a gift. Being a spiritual director is a job made in heaven for me. I know it is what God is asking me to do.”
For Susanne Chawszczewski, director of campus ministry at Saint Louis University (SLU), the seed of her vocation was planted at the graduation ceremony at Saint Louis University, when she completed her Ph.D.
“At my graduation, they talked about the Magis (the Jesuit concept of doing more for the universal good), and it really struck me that, with the gifts and skills I had, I really needed to do something more with my life,” she said.
She got a pastoral studies degree while working at a Catholic nonprofit in Milwaukee. Then, with her skills in student development and pastoral ministry, when the campus ministry position opened up at SLU, “I knew it was a perfect fit.” She has been at SLU for eight years.
Susan Friedrichsen, executive director of the Ignatian Spirituality Center (ISC) in Kansas City, Mo., was introduced to Ignatian Spirituality when the oldest of her three sons became a student at Rockhurst High School (RHS) in Kansas City. Tom Norman, at that time a pastoral leader for RHS faculty and staff, offered parent volunteers a brief introduction to Ignatian Spirituality. Intrigued, Ms. Friedrichsen later made the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life. “I made the Exercises, and two years later, I was guiding,” she says.
She went on to gain her certification as a spiritual director and a master’s degree in Christian Spirituality.
Chawszczewski, Friedrichsen and Sapienza are just three of dozens of women serving as retreat leaders and spiritual direction ministers in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. Women serve in these ministries throughout the province, in retreat houses, spirituality centers and schools.
“We have wonderful, capable people throughout the province doing great work,” says Fr. Ron Boudreaux, SJ, provincial assistant for pastoral ministries, who oversees both parishes and retreat centers for the province. “It is really encouraging to see. Lay people can be every bit as effective as Jesuits. After all, Ignatius began giving these retreats as a lay person!”
Not having a collar can make a difference, these lay women admit, but only for a small percentage of the people who come for spiritual direction.
“I still encounter a few people whose view of church authority may have roots in clericalism, but it’s not often,” Dr. Sapienza says. These people still want to talk to “Father,” an option that will be increasingly uncommon as the number of priests available continues to decline. Fortunately, this province is blessed with numerous lay people – men and women alike – who are responding to God’s call as spiritual companions and retreat leaders.
“Our lay companions are able to reach people who, if we had to depend only on Jesuits, would not be reached,” Fr. Boudreaux said.
Lay partners ensure accessibility in another way, too: all three women continued their ministries throughout the pandemic. Sacred Heart Retreat House remained open the whole year, sometimes with only one or two retreatants. The Ignatian Spirituality Center pivoted to offer virtual retreats and spiritual direction by phone or computer. SLU’s campus ministry staff found socially distant ways to offer retreats and one-on-one spiritual direction.
“Our office has a focus on cura personalis,” Dr. Chawszczewski says, referring to the Jesuit emphasis on care for the whole person. “Particularly in this time of pandemic and racial injustice, it is more and more important to connect with students one-on-one in spiritual direction and spiritual conversations.
Joy in Ministry
If you want to see someone’s face light up, ask one of these women to talk about her ministry. It’s clearly more than a job; they are called to do this work.
“I love introducing people to Ignatian Spirituality,” Dr. Sapienza says. “Seeing their reactions: ‘Wow, you can pray this way! Wow, Jesus is really showing up! Wow, discernment is an awesome tool!’ It is a treasure in the church.”
“The gift of the Spiritual Exercises… they’re so practical!” says Ms. Friedrichsen. “People can grab onto them right away, and they’re so helpful. I love to see the lightbulb go off when people grasp how simple it is: ‘It’s as simple as don’t listen to that thought; but this thought is definitely from God.’ Showing people there’s a way to get through life in freedom. It’s easier said than done, but it is pretty simple.”
Dr. Chawszczewski echoes the joy of sharing Ignatian Spirituality, specifically with college students. “Students who have gone on our Ignatian silent retreat have had profound experiences,” she says. “That’s the beauty of Ignatian prayer and the Spiritual Exercises: they appeal to a wider group than just the Catholic students. There’s something about self-examination and personal reflection. The Examen really speaks to a lot of those students. Who wouldn’t want to look at what your day was like? ‘How have I done today? What can I do better tomorrow?’ It’s very practical.”
This practicality of Ignatian discernment has a strong appeal for these three Ignatian women.
“The first principle and foundation (“God created human beings to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by doing this, to save their souls …”) captures it for me in my daily life,” Dr. Chawszczewski says. “It provides a foundation not only for me personally, but for how I do my work, how I supervise others, how I have difficult conversations, how I help people discern things in their lives.”
She loves passing that foundation on to students. “You can’t teach the Exercises; people have to experience them for themselves,” she says. So, the campus ministry office makes sure all of their activities include some form of Ignatian Spirituality. “We hope our students gain some nuggets – ways to pray, etc. – that will encourage them to pursue the Exercises on their own.”
Ms. Friedrichsen says the lessons of the Exercises guide her daily life as well, including her role as a parent.
“As a guide of the Spiritual Exercises, I have learned to help people notice God’s activity in their prayer and in their lives because I trust that God is always present and always active. I trust that God is there, no matter what,” she says. “This is true, too, with my adult children, especially when they share their worries and anxieties. I trust God is with them and help them to notice those moments when God is drawing them into God’s dream for them. Being a prayer guide has freed me up to move from a parenting role to becoming a companion to my adult children as they journey through life.”
A Call to Conversion
In a letter to the Society of Jesus, Father General Arturo Sosa proclaimed an Ignatian Year to run from May 20, 2021 to July 31, 2022, with the theme of “A Call to Conversion.” He wrote, “Together with our friends and the whole Church, the universal Society wants to remember that privileged moment when the Holy Spirit inspired Ignatius of Loyola in his decision to follow Christ, and to deepen our understanding of this pilgrim way in order to draw fruit from it.”
This message of conversion rings true with these women grounded in Ignatian Spirituality.
“Ignatian Spirituality is all about conversion,” Ms. Friedrichsen says. “That’s what the Spiritual Exercises experience is, to become whole and reconciled with God. And then you are a whole different person in the world. You engage with people differently. People encounter a different way to be when they encounter you. Societal conversion begins with a person.
“The Universal Apostolic Preferences say, ‘Show the Way to God through the Spiritual Exercises.’ That’s exactly what we do,” Ms. Friedrichsen says, “but we are also participating with God in converting our community.”
“I love the image of Ignatius as the pilgrim,” Dr. Chawszczewski says, noting that the motto for SLU’s office of campus ministry is With you on the Way. “I think the Ignatian Year can be a pilgrimage for people. If you consider the Ignatian Year as a pilgrimage toward conversion of the heart in the same vein as Ignatius did, it could be a really beautiful part of it.”
“Conversion always starts with love,” Dr. Sapienza says. “Love is what gives me the freedom to ask for forgiveness and to ask for the grace to be freed from disordered attachments. In the end, if I really have experienced that love of God, I know deep in my heart that I want that conversion. I want that transformation.
“The gift is that we’re doing it in community,” she says. “Your conversion is my conversion. My conversion is your conversion. As we allow God to wash away those sins and free and transform us, we’re all being brought together, closer in relationship with one another and with God. Start with that love of God, and people open up to its transforming power.”
Pope Francis is fond of saying that the Spiritual Exercises are not just for Jesuits. These three women – and the countless other lay colleagues who serve in spiritual direction and retreat ministries – are true companions in this spiritual ministry that gives life and joy and peace to so many people. They are a gift to the Society of Jesus and to the Church.