How Spiritual Direction Transformed a Catholic High School

Twenty graduates from this Catholic high school in Maryland have entered seminary since spiritual direction was established there

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Spiritual direction at St. Mary's Ryken in Leonardtown, Maryland, started six or seven years ago, when one theology teacher, John Olon (whom I've written about, along with his brother Rich, here) reached out to a local pastor, Fr. Scott Woods, with the idea of taking a small group of young men to do a shadow day with seminarians at Catholic University in D.C. 

Father agreed, and they took 15-20 high school boys of varied interests, leaving at 5 a.m., so that for the entirety of one day those boys lived the life of a seminarian. They each shadowed a seminarian, went to classes, ate lunch together, prayed together, with the result that this wide variety of boys — including non-Catholics — returned home exuberant. As Fr. Scott recalls, John said to him afterward, “Father, a number of them had some powerful experiences of God's grace! But where do they go from now? They need to build up a spiritual life. What if you come in, you know, just occasionally to do spiritual direction?” Father hemmed and hawed, but finally agreed to come “maybe once every two weeks... maybe... at most. And soon there's a fair group! It very soon expanded so quickly I had to come in twice a week.” In the years that have followed, Father has witnessed the potential spiritual direction has to revitalize individuals, schools, families and their communities in Christ, for eternity

Within spiritual direction, students are given encouragement, direction, and a certain amount of accountability in forming and building their spiritual life. Catholics and non-Catholics alike benefit from these 20-30 minute sessions, receiving encouragement to attend Mass more than once a week, build a prayer life, and develop a personal relationship with Christ. Daily Holy Hours of Eucharistic adoration are encouraged, as well as devotion to the Blessed Mother. Establishing a relationship with Christ as young students is crucial. Fr. Scott Woods and his brother priests help high school students at St. Mary's learn “how to discern truly what is of God from what is of themselves and from what is of Satan. The discernment of spirits needs to begin to happen at an earlier age, because our society tends toward slavery, toward the emotions.” Not only that, but temptations increase in both kind and intensity starting in junior high for most kids. Spiritual Directors teach students “how to use the intellect, how to use, how to exercise the will, early on. To reject what is evil, to choose what is good, and to do so in freedom, so that they have a greater and greater freedom: to recognize and choose that which is truly good.” St. Paul says in Ephesians Chapter 6, “Put on the armor of God.” Therefore, spiritual direction assists young Catholics as they prepare for battle with “powers and principalities,” especially strengthening them with the grace which comes of frequenting the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion.

Despite the typical busy schedule of a high school day, St. Mary's Ryken has managed to incorporate spiritual direction thoroughly. Nearly 250 students of the 700 strong school currently receive spiritual direction on a regular basis. The program grew, under the stewardship of Fr. Scott and John Olon from a handful of students, to the point where not only did Fr. Scott need to find additional spiritual directors, but the school administration saw the need to hire a new staff member to manage scheduling. According to Fr. Scott, the program's popularity is due in large part to the fact that participants often become active recruiters. “We've seen kids recruiting—getting their parents, wanting their boyfriend, their girlfriend, their siblings, also to have it, because when they find how valuable it is, they're like ‘Wow! My mom, my dad, they've not been close to Christ, or they haven't been, so I need to get them.’ So I have increasing numbers of parents wanting to have spiritual direction. It's brought whole families back into the Church.” Entire families now participate in spiritual direction. In fact, parents have even sent their children to St. Mary's because of the spiritual direction program.

Now, thanks to 11 priests and three campus ministry staff members — one of whose responsibility consists primarily in scheduling priests and spiritual direction, spiritual direction is simply part of the school. The only problem is that there is a waiting list! Currently, priests each come in two or three days a week, and spend most of the day giving spiritual direction from 9 or 10 a.m. until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, with the school providing lunch. In addition to hiring staff to schedule spiritual direction meetings, and providing lunch to the visiting priests, the administration has “financially invested in bringing in more speakers, who speak to the student body on Catholic topics as well as investing in really good retreat masters for the faculty retreat.” St. Mary's Ryken has brought in big-name speakers, such as Christ Stefanick, who speak to the student body during the school day and again in the evening for events open to the wider Catholic community. From the spiritual direction program a sturdier Faith life has grown throughout the entire school, and poured back into the surrounding parishes.

Incredible things have begun to happen since Fr. Scott and John Olon initiated this program. Twenty graduates from St. Mary’s Ryken have entered seminary since spiritual direction was established there, and while some of have discerned out, there are currently 11 or 12 seminarians discerning the priesthood, and two women are in convents. The change spiritual direction has brought about is palpable in other ways. There is a group of students and faculty who meet at a local parish for a 6 a.m. Holy Hour, stay for 7 a.m. Mass, and then go out for doughnuts together before coming to school. Says Fr. Woods: “It’s definitely affected the culture of the school... for example, the captains of the football team this past year were the biggest promoters of daily Mass. So our daily Mass would sometimes have 40 or 50 teenagers there because they wanted to be there and encouraged by the captains of the football team.” There is also an RCIA program through the school to accommodate the number of students interested in joining the Catholic Faith.

Many maintain the Spiritual direction relationship after high school, through college, across the world, into marriage and family life. Strong Catholic marriages have formed between people who share a deep love of their Faith. Surprisingly large numbers of St. Mary's Ryken alumni are choosing to come back to the area after college, creating a lively Catholic community of young adults. Certainly spiritual direction has changed the paths graduates take after high school, and it can have an eternal impact as well. Father Woods understands the grave spiritual danger that students face, but believes that:

(Spiritual direction) can have a profound effect. We know now that between high school and college is when most Catholics leave the Faith forever never to return. So if you can get them excited in high school—that encounter with the person of Jesus Christ: it will change their eternity, and it will affect all their friendships. It will affect everything. Because what we've found is, once they've had that encounter, once you facilitate that ability for them to have that encounter, they're much more likely (to keep the Faith) through college and then (we try to) get them into a good environment in college, whether it's a Christendom, an Ave Maria, a (Franciscan University of) Steubenville, or if they go to a University of Maryland, getting them immediately in contact with good folks, like Focus Missionaries. In fact we have kids go to Vanderbilt, we have a girl right now at Harvard, I've got kids who go to the Navy Academy - getting them involved in that Catholic community, really trying to make sure that there's a strong Catholic community to support them. And if you have those two, that combination, the likelihood that they'll remain in the Faith and continue to grow in the Faith is huge. And we've just seen it happen, because most of the kids who then come back, at least we've seen so far, they've stayed active in the Faith.

Building a relationship with Christ through prayer, sacraments and piety, as well as finding support for one's Faith from mentors and peers, these can change lives and eternity. Cultivate good, healthy soil in which the Word of God can grow, among young souls, and fruit will bear unto life everlasting.

Ultimately, Fr. Scott Woods would like others to understand that the success of the spiritual direction program is not due to him, or to any other single person involved. It is due to God's grace, and to the cooperation of many souls with His grace. Therefore no one should be afraid of starting a similar program: “It's not me. It really has been God —it's been the cooperation of myself and John (Olon) and Rich (Olon), a number of teachers and the counseling staff as well as the administration. The Lord has worked through a whole community of people. But it started with one man and then expanded.”