Summary: This presentation would like to focus attention on Spiritual Formation in the Church as an answer to the Universal Call to Holiness. It will address how the School of Mary has been tackling this since 2003. The conclusion it proposes is that of a Residential Project of Formation of Formators for future generations, to help the Church handle better the Universal Call to Holiness.
This presentation consists of four parts:
I- Spiritual Formation
II- Contents of Formation
III- The School’s Fruits
IV- Transmitting Spiritual Formation
I- Spiritual Formation
1- The Universal Call to Holiness
On 21st November 1964 the Second Vatican Council, published one of its most important documents: The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. Its Chapter 5 declared that all members of the Church were called to Holiness regardless of the state of life. In many regards, this constitutes the most powerful statement or declaration of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, previously the Church tended to function in practice with two “classes” of faithful: first, the saved ones, those who just make it by avoiding Hell, but who still might have to go to Purgatory, and secondly, the Holy Ones made up of Priests and Monks/Religious. Lumen Gentium’s declaration of course rejects this classification.
It is important to acknowledge that since we are dealing with a Call, it occurs, in real time, at a certain point in our life: early, mid-life, or even toward the very end. This makes our life divisible into two periods: before the Call and after the Call. However, are we all always and everywhere capable of hearing Jesus calling us to follow Him? Life before the call in this light, becomes a life that prepares us to hear this call. Catechesis and a full commitment to one’s Christian life are major conditions to free the way for us to hear Jesus’ call.
2- To Answer the Call: Spiritual Formation
To be able to properly answer the call of Jesus to stand up and start to follow Him depends on a Formation we need to receive. We cannot improvise our response or the Formation. With this in mind we can fully appreciate the role that the bimillennial Wisdom of the Church plays here to help us answer the Call. It cannot be stressed enough that it is important to benefit from the richness of the Church formation-wise. This is what we do usually when we enter religious life, for formation needs a place where it can be received; a place where a doctrine, methods, practices, discernment and accompaniment can be supervised.
Religious Formation vs. Spiritual Formation
When we enter a monastery, we receive two formations:
a- to religious life (traditions and practices of the Order) and
b- to spiritual life.
These two elements are needed for any new order to be funded and approved by the Church and require first, a Rule of life (a style of religious life) and secondly, a proven doctrine capable of leading us to perfection.
Note: The immense spiritual richness of the Church often stays behind closed doors, the door of the Noviciate room. But from this it is easy to understand that we need to “open this secret room” – the room of God’s secrets – to all the non-consecrated faithful who are reminded that they are also called to holiness. It is obvious that, on the one hand we cannot claim that all are called to holiness, yet on the other hand deprive people of the secrets of Spiritual Formation.
The Work of the School
This is what I have been doing since 1995: with religious, seminarians, nuns, monks and since 1998 with lay people. This formation has also taken place in different countries: in the Middle East, France, Italy, United Kingdom, and in five languages. The School of Mary and this formation was made official from 2003 onwards.
Formation in the School of Mary presents itself first and foremost in a fundamental course: the Solid Foundations Course. It is a long course (48 hours of teaching), challenging, but extremely rewarding. We have never stopped giving it year after year. This course is the real gateway to Spiritual Life and Spiritual Formation. Its reference is SF 000 on the website. Afterwards, many other courses are offered, to help deepen what was given in a concentrated way in the Solid Foundations Course.
Not only this, but the formation follows three important stages of spiritual growth that occur right after hearing Jesus’ Call to follow Him. Each stage has a list of courses that supports the correspondent phase of growth.
Browsing through the website will reveal the richness of the Formation offered there. Courses, often in pre-recorded videos, articles and books are on offer. Also, Tuition and Spiritual Direction are offered. All is left to the freedom of each person’s rhythm of study and choice.
II- Contents of Formation
The main ideas governing the School’s choice of syllabus when it was shaping the Formation to be offered were as follows:
- A solid basis, common to all, avoiding cluttering people’s minds with non-essential elements, avoiding the famous division of spirituality in the different schools, while taking what is needed from different schools, Masters and Doctors of the Church.
- A practical teaching.
- A renewed understanding of the Scriptures.
- A direct approach to Christ.
- A more accurate understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the different essential types of prayer.
- Lectio Divina and Prayer of the Heart: in wanting to offer the essential and most nourishing parts of Spiritual Life, we had to look at the Mass in a deeper way, opening ways to benefit from the Divine Food that the Lord gives us in it: His Word and His Body and Blood. Hence the importance of Lectio Divina and the Prayer of the Heart (Contemplative Prayer) that prolong the two liturgies of the Mass. In this way, the Mass itself structured the teaching in the School of Mary.
Note: we cannot compare the Spiritual Formation one needs to receive after hearing Jesus’ Call to follow Him, with the Fourth Part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is on Prayer. Adult Formation and a serious commitment to implement it are of the utmost importance to allow us to hear Jesus’ Call. However, Spiritual Formation like the one we receive at the School of Mary goes infinitely deeper than this.
In order to understand the spirit of the school one can say that it is at mid-distance between the University Classroom and the Retreat Chapel – or if you prefer, the Noviciate room of a monastery.
III- The School’s Fruits
1- New Teaching
It is a huge challenge to offer the salt of Spiritual Life as it is to everybody, lay and religious. Experience shows that the struggles are very similar. Both have benefitted from the School’s clarity and teaching, as is aptly illustrated upon hearing both experienced nuns and lay persons saying: “never heard this before”. It is very challenging to offer a long course like the Solid Foundations Course, and despite this many have followed it and asked for more courses.
This teaching is vitally needed.
2- The Change, Transformation, Thirst
What strikes most is the change that people experience in their lives. The teaching is practical, i.e. aiming toward an implementation of what is taught: “tell me what to do in order to grow spiritually”.
Seeing their lives changing, the way they attend Mass, the way they pray, the way they understand their own faith, Christianity, is the greatest sign and reward one can expect.
Meeting the Risen Lord on a daily basis, not being able to spend their day without listening to Him in an hour of Lectio Divina is a common fruit observed. The exterior aspects of life might not change, but the way they look at them, the way they experience their faith changes everything. Meeting the Risen Lord on a daily basis transforms our life, step by step.
3- Necessity of a Serious Commitment
The Solid Foundations course is a challenge and whoever undertakes it wholeheartedly sees the tangible results of this practical doctrine of the Church.
IV- Transmitting Spiritual Formation
1- The Spiritual Formator
The nagging question that we in the School of Mary hear is: what are we leaving to our children and grandchildren? This is the most important question I think: the legacy. Just books? Just articles? Just videos? Or living Formators.
We in the School of Mary think that “Spiritual Formation” is essential, that it is not a luxury, and that in order to transmit it we need living persons, imbued with the living spiritual tradition of the Church and being capable of transmitting it, all over the world.
The “Spiritual Formator” is simply the unavoidable essential ingredient of the process of transmission.
Note: The Spiritual Formator is much more than a simple Spiritual Director. He or she covers a much wider spectrum of work and influence. He or she teaches spiritual life, how to practise it; the spiritual director, meanwhile, checks out if everything is working well and gives advice. The formator gives the basis on which the spiritual director leans. Spiritual direction is definitely not mere private tuition.
2- The School has Started a Formation Course
In the School we have started to form Formators in Spiritual Life. Right now, for instance, formation is being given online to help the candidates to learn how to teach the backbone of spiritual formation: the Solid Foundations Course, SF 000.
3- A True Vocation in the Church
We in the School feel that it is important to leave Formators for future generations, and we consider that there is a special mission in the Church that should develop, a vocation: that of the Spiritual Formator. In fact, we cannot continue to leave the Noviciate room with its treasures hidden behind closed doors. Spiritual Formation is for all – and should be available to all. There is no question that being a Spiritual Formator is a real and specific vocation in the Church.
4- Making it Residential
We would like to enthuse young adults (18 to 40 years old) to train to become Spiritual Formators.
We would like to offer them residential training to become Spiritual Formators. This training would last a minimum of three full time years.
Such an endeavour, however, needs sponsoring, exactly as occurs in a Seminary or in a Monastery or in a religious convent: youngsters are full time there and do not pay anything for their formation. It is offered by the Church.
5- Not a Religious Life, but a Service
The difference here is that there is no commitment to a religious life, but it leaves the young person after three years of formation free to work in his or her diocese or join the leaders’ team in the School of Mary.
If this makes sense to you, and if you want to support this work, if you want to sponsor a youngster or more than one, please do come and talk to me afterwards or just pick up a card and write to us.
14th September 2021