Experienced Coach of the Spirit, The Anchor, July 19, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting into the Deep
July 19, 2013

A few years back, I was asked by a Midwestern bishop to preach the annual retreat for his priests. After accepting, I proposed a theme — Pope Benedict XVI on Priestly Prayer— that he thought would be great for his men. He told me that his Vicar for Clergy would call me that week to work out the details.

When the Vicar phoned, we discussed travel arrangements and other small stuff. After mentioning that the bishop had informed him about the retreat theme, he interjected, “I don’t care what you preach on as long as one of your conferences is on the need for priests to have spiritual direction.”

I politely replied that Pope Benedict had said only a few brief things on the spiritual direction of priests in his many talks to clergy, and that I doubted there would be enough there for a 45-60 minute conference.

“It really doesn’t matter to me whether the topic coheres at all with the rest of what you’re going to say,” he answered, “but I just want one of your talks to be on priests and spiritual direction, okay?”

It was clear to me that, regardless of my previous interaction with the bishop, there wasn’t room for any negotiation, so I simply stated, “Well, I’ll do the best I can.”

I soon discovered the wisdom behind this priest’s holy intransigence.

Many of the deeper issues impacting the life of priests in his diocese flowed from so few of them having a spiritual director, a priest or religious whom they could see regularly to check on the health and progress of their interior life.

Without such an experienced guide of the soul to keep them accountable to prayer and the sacramental life, accompany them through personal and pastoral struggles, give opportune confidential counsel, and prod them toward greater love of God and neighbor, many priests were falling into bad habits that were impeding their priestly vocation and work and sometimes endangering it altogether.

Since then, whenever I preach retreats or days of recollection for priests or seminarians, I always include a conference on spiritual direction, since I’ve become convinced that the problems identified by the Vicar for Clergy are not isolated to his own diocese.

Those preparing for the priesthood always receive spiritual direction in seminary. Most newly ordained priests intend to continue receiving this spiritual personal training after seminary. Over the course of time, however, either because they’re reassigned far away, or their spiritual director is transferred or dies, or they have trouble finding someone nearby whom they deem trustworthy in the spiritual life, they find themselves going without.

They end up, to their detriment, trying to guide themselves. St. Bernard of Clairvaux comments about the wisdom of self-direction were eventually converted into a famous aphorism about serving as your own lawyer. “He who constitutes himself his own director,” the great abbot declared, “becomes the disciple of a fool.”

If priests aren’t receiving good, regular spiritual direction, it likewise becomes much harder for them to be able to give good guidance to others, whether to brother priests, deacons, religious and consecrated souls and lay people seriously seeking holiness. Receiving solid guidance is a necessary apprenticeship to help lead other souls to God.

That’s why the Vatican Congregation for Clergy’s Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests stresses how important spiritual direction is for the renewal not only of the clergy but of the whole Church.

“Along with the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” the document states, “the priest must also exercise the ministry of spiritual direction. The rediscovery and extension of this practice, also in moments outside of the administration of Penance, is greatly beneficial for the Church in these times.”

It goes on to say that spiritual direction is crucial for “identifying and sustaining the vocations to the priesthood and to the various forms of consecrated life” as well as to the formation of conscience and the reinvigoration of authentic spirituality among all the faithful.

Good spiritual directors are, in short, a real treasure. Their patient, behind-the-scenes work of spiritual accompaniment may not get a lot of notice in the Church here on earth, but I believe that they will be among the most venerated in heaven.

On June 21, a priest whom I consider one of the great spiritual directors in the country was called home. A Boston native, Fr. Ron Gillis spent most of his priesthood in the Washington, DC, area, where he died of colon cancer at 71.

Like most of the priests of Opus Dei, Fr. Ron specialized in spiritual direction, spending a large part of his 46 priestly years guiding people of all ages and states of life to form a plan for their spiritual life conducive to growth in holiness in the midst of their daily duties.

He was constantly preaching retreats and giving days of recollection, offering spiritual guidance to people at pivotal moments in life.

For 37 years he was the chaplain for Oakrest Academy in McLean, VA, and guided thousands of high school girls in the discernment of how God was calling them to holiness and mission.

For 32 years he was a spiritual director at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland where, according to Rector, Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, he guided over 600 seminarians and priest faculty members toward God. The Rector noted that he used to judge all spiritual directors by how they compared to him. Fr. Ron was particularly good with seminarians experiencing doubts, he said. “There are priests today,” he affirmed, “because he intervened in their lives.”

Fr. Ron also gave regular spiritual direction to dozens of priests and prelates in the DC area.

I first met Fr. Ron in 1990 when I was working for a Congressman in northern Virginia and was looking for someone to help me in my discernment of the priesthood. His infectious joy and enthusiasm, laughter, constant encouragement, patience, and sound advice always left me strengthened and spiritually uplifted.

When I returned to work in DC in 1992, he again took me on. It was from him that I first heard of Bishop Sean O’Malley’s appointment to Fall River. Having observed the Capuchin’s renowned work at El Centro Católico in DC in the 1970s and early 80s, Fr. Ron was ecstatic that the future Cardinal was being sent to help the Diocese of Fall River heal after the Fr. Porter scandals. That impression of his reverence for Bishop O’Malley  was one of the reasons why I eventually applied to become a seminarian in the Diocese of Fall River.

When I was doing my philosophy studies at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, I was again fortunate to have Fr. Ron as my spiritual director, as he continued to inspire me to aspire to be not just a priest but a holy priest. And on many occasions since, when I would see him, we’d pick up right where we left off.

Since his death, many of the priests who received Fr. Ron’s spiritual guidance and friendship have been exchanging stories. It’s amazing how similar our experiences were. Fr. Ron was such a great teacher, preacher and director that so many of his pithy and deep insights have now become part of our own priestly hard-wiring. Those of us who give direction to others all admit that we seek to pattern ourselves, to the degree possible, on how he guided us.

When I was putting together a 2007 Seminar for Priests on Spiritual Direction, I asked Fr. Ron to give one of the talks. Many priests came just to hear Fr. Ron’s synthesis of the art at which he excelled. In the days after his death, I listened to the recording of his talk several times.

With characteristic humility he began that talk, “With regard to spiritual direction, the fundamental idea to remember is that the Holy Spirit is really the Director.”

Fr. Ron was a good and faithful student-instrument of that Director. Now it’s time for others to step up to the plate to cooperate with that Director in guiding others to live by His holy inspirations.


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