Why Not Spiritual Direction?

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Considering all the other problems the Catholic Church faces in the United States – from plummeting rates of Mass attendance, of Catholic marriages, and of infant baptisms to increasing government encroachment on individual and institutional religious liberty – the dearth of spiritual direction for the laity may look like a trivial matter.

I’m here to tell you it’s not.

The Second Vatican Council solemnly taught that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” – they are called, that is, to holiness (Lumen Gentium 40). Yet half a century later, it appears that only a handful of laywomen and men make use of this standard tool of the interior life, spiritual direction.

This is, among other things, a symptom of a bigger problem that’s long plagued American Catholicism and now is growing worse in the face of a rising tide of cultural assimilation sweeping Catholics into a secular culture radically hostile to Catholic beliefs and practices. The problem is spiritual shallowness.

Catholicism in this country has always been an activist enterprise, good at organization and building things but lagging in interiority. In Testem Benevolentiae, his 1899 letter to Cardinal Gibbons condemning Americanism, Pope Leo XIII deplored the American tendency to “extol the natural virtues” at the expense of supernatural ones. If anything that tendency has intensified since then.

When Pope St. John Paul II’s second pastoral visit to America was approaching in 1987, I recommended to my employers at the U.S. bishops’ conference that its thematic focus be the sacraments. After all, I noted, the sacramental system is a beautiful and distinctive feature of the Catholic Church. But the powers-that-be opted for institutions instead—schools, hospitals, charities. Perhaps they were right. Institutions arguably were then and continue to be the distinctive feature of American Catholicism.

But, you ask, supposing all that’s so, what has it got to do with spiritual direction for the laity?

Just this.

In Christifideles Laici, his landmark 1989 document on the laity, Pope John Paul put “recourse to a wise and loving spiritual guide” – spiritual direction, that is – on his list of necessary elements in the formation of lay people. And in another crucial contribution to the discussion, he stated clearly what the formation of the laity, with direction a key part of it, is intended to do: “The fundamental objective. . .is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live it so as to fulfill one’s mission.” (Christifideles Laici, 58)

Vocation is the key word here. The central purpose of lay formation, John Paul is saying, is to help lay women and men discern, accept, and live out their personal vocations. In this discernment process, spiritual direction, if not indispensable, is at least highly desirable.


Like the neglect of spiritual direction by the laity, failure to grasp that lay people have vocations – a general vocation to live the life of a Christian lay person in the world together with unique personal vocations, those irreplaceable personal roles in God’s redemptive work to which each of them is called – is part of the legacy of clericalism. It is high time and then some that all of us got over it.

And it’s hardly less important to put aside the idea that discerning a vocation is a once-in-a-lifetime activity or at least something to be done only rarely (when choosing a profession, for instance). On the contrary, since the unfolding of personal vocation happens throughout the course of one’s life, so also discernment must be continuing and ongoing.

“We are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us,” Newman says in a sermon titled Divine Calls. But Christ’s call comes ordinarily through the people and events of everyday life. The purpose of spiritual direction is to help us hear clearly and respond faithfully to this day-in day-out summons to the following of Christ.

Taking it as fundamental, then, that the purpose of direction is to assist people in discerning and responding to their vocations as they come to them day by day, what specifically is spiritual direction about – what’s the subject matter?

In truth, it could be just about anything, but a few typical possibilities do stand out: establishing and maintaining a plan of life, a program of regular activities aimed at maintaining and deepening one’s friendship with God; acknowledging and taking steps to eradicate some deep-rooted personal fault; spiritual reading; concrete elements of the apostolate – participation in the mission of the Church, that is; and, of course, specific issues of faith and morals when and as these arise.

Spiritual direction is help, assistance. It does not take the place of free choice. A director may offer suggestions and point out options, but the right of those receiving direction to make their own free choices must always be respected. In this sense, spiritual direction is an adjunct to, not a substitute for, the responsible exercise of freedom of self-determination.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine that there’s a large multitude of American Catholics out there yearning for spiritual direction who will leap at the opportunity if it is offered. But as matters now stand, most people never hear a word about it, much less have it recommended to them. Speaking about spiritual direction, providing realistic ways of receiving it, and pointing to its benefits could produce surprisingly positive results over time. It’s worth a try.

Conventional wisdom has it that the future of Catholicism in America can be summed up as smaller but better. If so, there is a need to get to work now forming a body faith-filled lay Catholics committed to the ideal of holiness as proposed by Vatican II and to the smaller but spiritually stronger Church of the future. Spiritual direction for the laity has an important part to play in that.


*Image: The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Return by J.J. Tissot, c. 1882 [, France]


Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press).