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Drew ChristiansenJuly 30, 2012

At the height of the Reformation, an age we associate with controversy and public disputations, St. Ignatius Loyola invested mightily in one-on-one spiritual conversation. According to the late Thomas Clancey, S.J., Ignatius’ own ministry was primarily that—spiritual conversation. When he was not talking with others, he was writing letters to those who sought his advice or whose spiritual progress he sought to foster. When Ignatius sent theologians to the Council of Trent, his advice to them was to avoid doctrinal disputes and instead exhort people to virtue. The constant desire of Jesuit theologians, he advised, should be “the progress of souls.” Ignatius’ ministry of conversation can serve as a model of both apostolic outreach and pastoral care in our own equally tumultuous times.

Today the primary mode of doing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is the directed retreat, in which the retreatant converses with the director under the inspiration of the Spirit. While God speaks to every person heart to heart, that word needs to be shared in spiritual conversation. In the sharing that word is clarified and freed of self-deception. In spiritual conversation the desire for holiness expands and grows in a spiral of mutual encouragement.

Pope Benedict XVI understands the need for spiritual conversation, in both one-on-one and small group settings. In small communities, he said, speaking to the Central Committee of Catholics last year in Breisgau, Germany, “friendships are lived and deepened in regular communal adoration of God.... There we find people who speak of these faith experiences at their workplaces and within their circle of family and friends, and in doing so bear witness to a new closeness between the Church and society.”

Ministry in the contemporary world demands personal, one-on-one and small-group as well as organizational skills. For parish priests, spiritual conversations will require retrieving the ancient practice of the pastoral care of souls. Modeled by Pope Gregory the Great and focused on growth in virtue, this practice was eclipsed by the juridical model of auricular confession. “The care of souls,” as Gregory understood it, will require listening and accompanying as a “soul-friend” not only parishioners who seek you out but also those pastors may invite because of their evident spiritual aptitude. Spiritual friendship is demanded by the signs of the times.

The Progress of Souls

In our day pastoring also includes evangelizing searchers, the unchurched and the lapsed and tending the dissatisfied and restless within the church. In Jesuit tradition, “the good of souls” is the aim of the apostolate. After his conversion the hermit and penitent Iñigo de Loyola curtailed his penances and moved out of his cave at Manresa, because he saw the good his spiritual conversation did for an old woman in the village. Later, in his enthusiasm to share the lessons of the Spiritual Exercises, he more than once had to confront the Inquisition in order to continue to practice this ministry.

In St. Ignatius’ experience and latercounsel, the good of souls is never a static attainment. He often speaks of “the progress of souls,” meaning the movement away from sin, growth in holiness and ever greater openness to be led where the Spirit of God beckons, even though that call may mean venturing into uncharted territory. The dynamics of the spiritual life are growth or decline, which demands ongoing conversion on the part of the individual and especially among spiritual friends.

For the pastor of souls, the hardest part of spiritual friendship is that not everyone will be led along the same path that we ourselves have traveled. What matters is that we can share where we have been and what we have learned from others’ journeys, listen deeply as to where others are called and be skilled in helping them discern God’s will for them.

The theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., argued that God deals with the soul as person to person, and so God can demand of one what he does not demand of others. The church would be better off if more people grasped that axiom, even if only on an elementary level, so zealous individuals would avoid demanding that others conform to the pattern of their particular vocation or charism. The neurotic need to have others conform to their own preferred reading of the Gospel is the source of many tensions in the church today.

For spiritual friends, however, the axiom that our personal God deals with us as persons involves watching others grow beyond where we may be given the grace ourselves to be and witnessing them being led along trajectories that are strange to us. C. S. Lewis once compared our relationship to God to being thrown into the sea at night. The pastor of souls is sometimes asked to swim, float and tread water in the dark with directees and at last, as day dawns, to be thrown up on shore alongside his soul friends.

Intellectual Conversion

Bernard Lonergan, S.J., distinguished three types of conversion—religious, intellectual and moral—with special emphasis on the intellectual conversion from common sense to intellectual self-awareness as thinking persons. To share the riches of the Catholic tradition with our contemporaries requires that we and they experience a variety of intellectual, political and moral as well as religious conversions.

Within the church both the faithful and the hierarchy need to be weaned from fundamentalism: from both biblical literalism and fundamentalist uses of the catechism. In this visual age, with consciousness shaped by visual media, we need to teach the faith with suitable artistic means—visual, musical, dramatic, lyrical—as the church did in the Middle Ages, but not to the neglect of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Our Catholic intellectual heritage is one of the most important things we as a church can offer to the religious yearning of our times for something better than the childish versions of religion most people hold.

Literalist Catholics (more than 40 percent of Catholics are biblical literalists) will be easily misled by the media, which are fascinated by contradictions between Scripture texts and modern cultural assumptions. And, though everything is possible with grace, without some degree of intellectual conversion literalists will also lack the needed human skills to mature in their faith.

Ministry that relies excessively on fundamentalist appeals to a select few church documents will fail to engage the intellectual challenge of unbelief. It will also fail to connect with skeptics whose lack of faith rests on the rejection of childish versions of faith. It may also sow seeds of unbelief among serious and devoted Catholics who in their faith-life will be held suspect unless they make do with something much less intellectually sophisticated than what they are accustomed to in their professional lives and their entertainments. Even more it will deny the faithful, whatever their level of religious development, the opportunity for a mature faith born of serious questioning and probing discussion and nourished by the wisdom of the centuries. Without intellectual conversion on the part of both faithful and clergy, evangelization in the postmodern era will be stillborn.

Political Conversion

Political conversion is an awakening to the need of political involvement in the exercise of social responsibility. This is not politics in the narrow sense of competition for office, though it can include that, but rather politics in the sense of living and working as if institutions matter. A distinguishing part of the Catholic theological tradition is its understanding that the life of society is sustained and enhanced by institutions. Political conversion is essential for what Pope Benedict in his encyclical letter “Caritas in Veritate” called “political charity.”

Political conversion is an uncommon phenomenon among those to whom politics does not come naturally. In our day it may be more difficult than ever. Politics has been degraded by constant exposure in the 24/7 news cycle and its reduction of retail politics to sound bytes, “horseraces” and titillating “gotcha” interviews. All over the world, people have become disillusioned with politics as a path to change. The Occupy Wall Street protests are only the latest grassroots rebellion against the status quo. Last year India saw successful hunger strikes against government corruption, and Israel saw its largest domestic demonstrations ever against the collusion of government and business that has eroded the life of the middle class. In Europe, not only the Greeks but other populations, including the British, anxious over austerity plans, are rising up against the economic and financial establishment.

At the same time, the post-World War II prosperity and the stagnant but relatively stable economy of succeeding years have created a materialist culture focused on consumer satisfaction and hedonistic distraction. Apart from horror at an occasional outrage or annual recognition of “CNN Heroes,” mass entertainment fails to reinforce the nobler values in our society. Instead pettiness, jealousy, deception and manipulation are portrayed again and again as the way people are. Popular culture does not prepare people to ambition great things for the common good. The picture of life in the daily media shows a war of all against all. This is not a context where the church’s social vision receives a natural hearing. It is not a world where mobilization for justice will come about without an enormous amount of work. But to evangelize our culture, political conversion of some sort will clearly be necessary.

Communities of Moral Discourse

The starting point is to realize the church’s potential as “a community of moral discourse.” The church is one place in our society where people discuss moral issues. In focus groups for the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a coalition to which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops belongs, our religious leaders learned that men and women look to the church as a natural forum to explore moral problems. But they also discovered that pastors were not prepared to lead these discussions. They were afraid of divisions in the community and of inadvertently fostering dissent in the church.

But through group discussion in dioceses like Houma-Thibodeaux in Louisiana and Cleveland, Ohio, the church has reconciled divided communities and liberated them to move ahead with shared solutions to local and regional problems. In Houma, the issues concerned loss of farmland and marine estuaries due to coastal erosion and surface subsidence resulting from oil drilling. In Cleveland, the issues were the results of urban sprawl: loss of farmland and open space, traffic congestion, water and air pollution among others. Churches could convene discussions because their congregations included people on all sides of the issues. The churches’ role was to be a convenor. Solutions arose from within the group.

Pastors do not need to conduct these discussions themselves or mediate differences. They need to sponsor and bless them. Dioceses may have people on staff who can assist these processes, and talented professionals who are members of the congregation can be able leaders. The point is to liberate and empower people to talk things through themselves. A practical approach with a local focus can help make room for progress. That was the secret of success in Houma and Cleveland.

There is a warrant for assemblies of Catholics to take on this task in the Second Vatican Council’s mandate to read the signs of the times (GS, Nos. 4 and 11). Pope Paul VI spelled out what scrutinizing the signs of the times should mean in his apostolic letter “A Call to Action” (1971). He wrote:

It is up to Christian communities to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to them, to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment, and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church.

The pope went on to explain how discerning the signs of the times should be a widely shared effort:

It is up to these communities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in communion with the bishops...and in dialogue with other Christian brethren and all men of goodwill, to discern the options and commitments which are called for in order to bring about the social, political and economic changes seen in many places to be urgently necessary.

To proceed, what is needed is trust in the body of the faithful, the gumption to stand up to those who complain through back channels and malign the results of open discussion with higher authorities, and higher authorities who refuse to listen to that kind of gossip and discipline subordinates who do.

Listening in Holy Conversation

Robert Lentz’s contemporary icon of Saint Ignatius Loyola depicts him as a spiritual guide, his finger across his lips, signaling the need for silence and listening. In our hyperactive, overly connected society, spiritual friends must become acquainted with silence in order to hear the Spirit speaking within and in the world. We need to cultivate silence to listen deeply to one another. Silence provides the soil in which the Gospel can take root and the air to hear the whispering Spirit as it blows. As we undertake the new evangelization with searchers and the disaffected as well as with zealous souls longing for holiness, pastors of souls who seek to be spiritual friends, more than easy words, will need to be familiar with silence.

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Lisa Weber
11 years 11 months ago
Spiritual conversation has been a life-altering part of my journey in church.  The problem is that authentic conversation is against the unwritten rules of the Church, particularly for women.  When spiritual conversation carries a high price, not much of it happens.

The Church tends to blame society for its problems, but the problems within the Church are almost insurmountable.  An unwritten rule against dialogue ensures stagnation, but what isn't growing is dying.  And what I see when I look around in church are empty pews and an aging congregation - and no one seems particularly alarmed by that.
Nancy Walton-House
11 years 11 months ago
I agree that dialogue, which requires deep listening, is essential for spiritual and political conversion, for human growth and development, problem solving and innovation in any sphere of life.  Let us all commit and re-commit ourselves to advocating such a life-giving approach.  Without it, we are likely to remain stuck in harmful ways.  How wonderful that Saint Ignatius understood this need so well over 500 years ago. 
11 years 11 months ago
Hardly ever does one see a priest, quietly at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. There is little else that’s more faith-sustaining for a layperson, that to see a priest at prayer, perhaps fingering his rosary beads, or simply sitting before the tabernacle when he doesn’t have to be there, conversing with the Lord. The quick answer as to why one hardly ever sees a priest personally at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is because, “he’s too busy” too busy with everyday things of life, like saying Mass, hearing confessions, other ministerial activities including encouraging laity to spend more time in personal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament!

And of course, busy finding time for a little relaxation, quite legitimately, as “all work and no play does make Jack a dull boy!” Yes, priests need time to relax, to unwind as do we all. But they must also find time for quiet prayer before the Blessed Sacrament encouraging laity by their good example to do the same and also thereby strengthening their own Faith and making vibrant their own spiritual resources.

 “Heart And Soul” points out, “For parish priests spiritual conversations will require retrieving the ancient practice of the pastoral care of souls.” Yes, that does seem to have vanished. Many priests simply don’t feel comfortable giving spiritual advice, because I believe many priest believe that psychologists could better handle the problem. Yes, sometime.

 We laity must do our part too, by praying daily for priests. After all is said and done, “No one can give what he doesn’t have!” If the priest is not in touch with the Lord through personal, private and quiet conversational prayer, he cannot successfully through spiritual conversations with the laity offer the pastoral care and guidance being sought. And we laity to benefit from pastoral care must also be prayerful in heart and soul. The Holy Spirit speaks one language to all, priest and laity.
Michael Olson
11 years 11 months ago
This is a very good article, much needed in our time.  Many in the Church are not prepared to deal with the profound  spiritual experiences "even good Catholics" have encountered by way of NDEs (near death experiences), and other spiritual experiences,  during which what they encountered beyond this time-space realm does not fit what they expected, having learned about their spirituality in a context that was formed and controlled by Church doctrine. Oten these experinces are expressed not as "a loss of faith" but as a profound expansion and  deepening of their understanding of their eternal, immediate relationship with God.  

"The theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., argued that God deals with the soul as person to person, and so God can demand of one what he does not demand of others. The church would be better off if more people grasped that axiom, even if only on an elementary level, so zealous individuals would avoid demanding that others conform to the pattern of their particular vocation or charism."

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