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How to Know if Spiritual Director is Faithful to the Church?

Dear Dan, I am hesitant to go to a local priest for spiritual direction because I am worried about his submission, or lack of submission to the Church. He is a good priest but he has st john of the cross3made some confusing comments about abortion and a few political topics etc. Are there simple questions I can ask and a way to ask (that would not be offensive) to help me determine if a particular priest or lay person (a potential spiritual director) is faithful to the teachings of the Church? I don’t want to end up with spiritual mis-direction. This is all far too important to me.

Dear Friend, your question is a happy one because it shows the interest that you have in wanting to grow in your relationship with Christ. You are not satisfied with your present level and you are searching for a guide to help you to grow. I am sure that this desire comes from the Holy Spirit and will not go unrewarded.

The best recommendation that I can give you is from the wisdom of St. John of the Cross as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in number 2690:

The person wishing to advance toward perfection should ‘take care into whose hands he entrusts himself, for as the master is, so will the disciple be, and as the father is so will be the son.'

In other words, look to put yourself into the hands of someone whom you admire for their personal sanctity and life of prayer.

In the formulation of your question, you hint at the fact that your priest may not be this person for you; you are hesitant and unsure about his doctrinal formation and preparation. It is not wise to begin a spiritual direction relationship from a position of mistrust.

Still, this instinct may or may not be accurate. Perhaps the first thing you should do is get to know your priest better. Ask for an appointment to speak with him, or participate in a parish activity that allows you more contact with him. When you engage in this way, you will get to know another side of your priest that you may not be able to see during a homily and that may dispel some of your worries (and hopefully not add to them).

When you finally do have that one on one meeting (that can be in or outside of confession), ask him about your challenges. Are his answers prayerful ones? Do they bring peace? Is there anything that doesn’t seem to ring true with respect Catholic morals and doctrine? Does he recommend prayer and greater self discipline or self denial? Does he push you towards holiness? When you leave, do you feel challenged towards being more generous with Christ? I think that these are the types of questions you should have in mind regarding the holiness and preparation of that person that you have chosen as spiritual guide.

Lastly, in your question you mention that your priest has made some confusing comments regarding abortion and politics. St John of the Cross in the same aforementioned Catechism number also refers to learning, discretion and experience. Again, it would appear that you do not find these qualities in your priest. If you still think these are lacking after coming to know him better, it would be best to look for someone who corresponds more to your needs. Regardless, your instinct to seek a director that is faithful to the Church is a good one. We really cannot be well directed by someone who is not following Christ closely in their own spiritual life.

If, after all this effort, you find yourself unable to find a local priest who can help you, then a devout layperson might be a good alternative for you.

Be encouraged. Your zeal for the Lord will be rewarded if you remain steadfast in your pursuit of Him!

For an opportunity to learn more about spiritual direction and the interior life, click here.

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Art: currently unidentified saint, provenance unknown. Feature image art: Ein ernstes Gespräch (A Serious Conversation), Ludwig Johann Passini, by 1903, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of SpiritualDirection.com, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Kaylan

    I have desired a director for years but most of the pastors I have encountered were either too busy (had to handle several parishes) or did not desire to be a director. For a few years now I’ve come to find going to Mass quite difficult because I never know my state of soul. It makes me uncertain if I should receive Communion. And when I miss Mass, I often question my decision to stay home (for example, I find driving extremely stressful and only go where I absolutely need to for the most part; recently the wind has been bad and when this happens, it makes my long drive to church almost unbearable. I feel as if I will drive the car off the road). I have five children so it makes me more nervous with any of the children in the car. So at times I’ve told myself this is a serious reason to avoid Mass, given the weather condition and don’t go). But situations like this make me feel very guilty. Did I make the right decision? Was I being distrustful of God by not driving in a condition most think is not that bad? Without a director I suffer this type of thinking weekly and it makes me very sad.

    • Dear Kaylan in Christ,

      Your questions are very important. I would set aside the quest for a long term spiritual director at this point and get an appointment with a priest who can help you work through your immediate issues. Simply call and ask to meet with him to discuss a spiritual challenge you are facing. Also indicate that you would like him to hear your confession.

      Be assured you are in my prayers

  • I don’t know if I can be of any help Elizabeth as I’m not a priest or director of anything (just a Catholic mom of 5) but I thought I’d give my two cents. I believe in situations where we are not certain of the spiritual state of someone in authority (in your case the formation director), you could merely follow what they ask as long as it is not against Church teaching. Since you’ve already taken this to the council, you’ve done what you can in the matter. It would be a shame if the devil (if he, indeed, is involved) scared more than half the fraternity away because of this one person. I should think that is what he would want. Yes, we can do spiritual work outside of communities but it does help greatly to be involved in a community. He helps to keep us inspired, just like going to Mass helps us to realize we are not in this alone. We are all part of the Body of Christ. I think I would endure it for as long as I could but it if was causing me great anxiety or if you notice this formation director leading souls away from Truth (like people new to the community), I would take the matter up with those higher than the council. Perhaps even the local Bishop. If you find no resolve after taking these measures, for your own resolve, I’d walk away from the SFO because the amount of stress it causes will only upset your spiritual growth (in my humble opinion). You can always switch over to the Third Order Discalced Carmelites (I recommend Discalced because I have a high regard for St. Teresa of Avila who really reformed the Carmelite Order during her day). I know there is a monastery of Discalced Carmelite nuns in Pittsford, NY. You could write to them to ask more about the lay order. They might know where to contact them directly. OR another good lay order is those associated with Divine Mercy. I’m pretty sure there is a lay community associated with the Shrine. Check their site: http://thedivinemercy.org/

  • Janet Cardin

    Janet,

    I didn’t know there was such a thing as a spiritual director. WOW! What a great thing to have. I’ve always asked angels or Jesus or the God In The Cloud for direction. But to have a human being as a spiritual director is great. I want one.

  • Voice

    There are many challenges with Spiritual Direction vis a’ vis the priesthood. Just because one is a priest, does not mean he possesses the competency to be a spiritual director. Priestly formation is not the same as being formed to be a spiritual director. Indeed, priests are commonly viewed as having a plethora of abilities by virtue of wearing a collar (administrator, educator, spiritual director, etc.), and they do not possess these abilities. I MEAN NO DISRESPECT TO THE PRIESTHOOD. I am simply expressing the true reality. Availability and willingness (of priests) is a common issue. Orthodoxy another. There needs to be more candor here about the odds of finding competent, available, orthodox spiritual direction in the Church.

    • I hear this a lot from those who are not in spiritual direction. Even so more than 2,700 of our readers have a spiritual directors… Seek and you will find.

  • Jay

    i’m already subscribed but the subscription box still pops up whenever i click the link sent to my email. how do i keep it from showing up?

  • St. Teresa of Avila says we must seek and seek till we find one whom can give you good answers. Don’t give up for your desire to live Christ is sure worth the search. God bless you.

  • Jennifer Lee

    When I came back to Catholic Church, I interviewed all the priests as well as listening to their homilies. Although I live in Santa Monica, I found Fr. Colm in Beverly Hills (which is about 30 min drive) and it was wonderful. They retired him but I still visit him for guidance from time to time. Since I do prison ministry, I attend the chapel on Sundays inside the prison. But thru Saint Pio, I found another priest, Fr. Martin at St. Gerard. Jesus said, seek, you shall find. That has been the case in my life.
    St. Andrews Abbey in Valyermo has become my ‘home’ although I am not an oblate. God is truly good to us !!!

    • MelissaStacy

      Hi, Jennifer, I’m in So. California and have heard about St. Andrews Abbey. One day I would like to go!

  • Mary@42

    Thank you, Dan for this Post. As you know, this old gal got herself a very good, well trained SD. However, it eventually turned out that Jesus was, in actual fact, not sending me an SD. He knew my SD would soon have problems with his Congregation and he would need a refuge. And when the crisis hit, the Sisters of Mary Immaculate requested me to give him a place to stay in my Home until the Cardinal had resolved the problems with his Congregation.

    Living with me, automatically suspended his role as my SD. Sadly, subsequent state of affairs became quite problematic and he had to leave my Home. But I sincerely thanked Jesus that He had to run to my humble Home for shelter when a crisis hit this Congregation. It was also Jesus’ way of giving His Servant an opportunity to obtain motherly and caring advice on how to deal with the destabilizing situation he had suddenly encountered. I was there to offer him the encouragement and the moral support he needed during that difficult time and not to despair.

    I am daily praying to Jesus to – this time – send me a Spiritual Director. I have no doubt anyone who is seeking to grow in their Spiritual Life, a Spiritual Director is a MUST. So did Jesus tell Saint Faustina Kowaslka – His Secretary and Apostle of the Divine Mercy. To me, the sure way of getting a good God-sent SD is through Prayers. I am confident The Holy Spirit will bring one to you soon.

    Having lived and worked among the Clergy, men and women Religious, many of them are my very good friends, especially the ones at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, where I worked for ten years. I am praying hard that Jesus will guide me to the one He has chosen for me. I also ask you on this Website to pray for this Granny to find that SD like “yesterday”!!!!!. I am lost without one, even though I know Jesus is there with His Inspirations. But it is reassuring when He is guiding me through the SD whom He has granted the Virtue of Discernment to be able to understand me the way He Himself does and, hence be His Instrument in guiding me in my Journey to Eternity.

  • BeMo

    A year back I spent a few days at St. John’s Abbey (Minnesota) in a personal retreat. I was seeking a Spiritual Director and had two meetings with a priest from the Abbey. When I left the Abbey I recall not being satisfied with the conversations we had. As I remember, his comments where lacking the zeal one would expect to find in a priest. I did not continue to seek him. Just a couple of weeks back I saw in the news a priest advocating for same sex mariage infront of other catholics at a church in the twin cities. There he was, the same priest I had talked. It all clicked in my head.

    As I read your article I can relate to the process of discerning who could be a good SD for me. One of the major considerations in choosing a good SD is how much that person is is able to get me out of my comfort zone and closer to Jesus’s zone. How he can get me out of myself and challenge me to be honest about the truths that the Church present to us.

    I found such a spiritual director. And I found him by asking others, by letting people know I was searching for the best trainer I could get and by accepting the fact that being good at something would require the tough love that only great spiritual directors can give.

    When I first met with him I knew I had succeeded because of three things: 1) His unwavering commitment to the teachings of the Church and his expectation that I too get there, 2) his advocacy of the sacraments as cornerstone of the spiritual life (Confession -as much as needed, and The Eucharist) and prayer (lots and lots of it and if possible infront of the Blessed Sacrament); and, 3) The vibrant community around the parish where he presided.

    In the end we can all discern who is really good at what they do, whether it is sports, business or any other activity. A good trainer is one who also knows these standards of greatness and uses them as guides for others. If the direction given does not have such an inspiration (and we have many, many great examples in the Church) and the “training plan” doesn’t make you give it all and experience the sweet pain that comes from a grueling practice… Well, keep looking and asking others, but also remember number 2 above.

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