Ignatian Spiritual Directors: Surgeons of Souls

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The Ignatian equipping himself for the priesthood is aware that the most powerful sword he can forge for his future  mission – after becoming a man of intense daily mental prayer and fervent personal reception of the sacraments – is that of the ability to be a master spiritual director and confessor.

The two roles are in a way inseparable because the confessor’s duty is not merely to mechanically give absolution and a few clichés of counsel but to be an authentic surgeon of the spirit, enabling the soul to overcome sin, conquer virtue and ascend “Mount Christian”.

At the end of the day when all is said and done, Christianity begins, grows and thrives because of the one-on-one relationship between Christ’s ambassadors and the lay faithful; otherwise just as there are many unfinished statues around the great David, so there are many souls who never reach their full potential for lack of spiritual direction.   Souls know this and cry out “Give us surgeon-priests!”

As Pope St.Pius V said, “Give us authentic confessors – this is the way to the reform of the Christian people”  The Venerable Louis Fiorillo used to say that by preaching the priest casts out the net, but by hearing confessions he draws it ashore and takes the fish.  Pope St.Gregory the Great stated, “The directing of souls is the art of arts”.  The saints knew this –and acted upon it: “If I were at the gates of Heaven and someone asked me for confession, I’d postpone entering” (St. Philip Neri) not to forget St.John Vianney  for whom “The chain that bound him to his confessional was never more broken till his death, after thirty years’ ministry.”( Henri Ghéon).

The day that we priests begin to dedicate long hours in the confessional and give the guidance of master spiritual directors, then the world will see flourishing parishes, a generation of Dominic Savios, Agnes and Cecilias, converts knocking at the doors,  Catholics staying Catholic or becoming Catholic, seminaries overflowing   – and priests fulfilled.

For here the priest knows that he is indispensable and  irreplaceable. He sees souls freed from the powers of darkness, souls growing in holiness,  marriages held together, errors swept away, doubts ended, certainties restored, new paths of action opened. Peace, joy, purpose and vitality rush through his soul. Here the priest sees himself as priest, knows himself as priest and is confirmed in the value of all the sacrifices he has made in order to become a priest.

The priest also experiences in the sacrament of confession the sense of drama and high stakes. As the noble ideals, adventure and risk involved in the defense of  the homeland attract soldiers so likewise in the confessional, the priest experiences the drama of spiritual warfare on the battlefield of souls where the stakes are the highest.  Repeatedly in the confessional through  the visible anguish, desperation, temptations, sins of souls, he recognizes the invisible presence of  “the Sleepless Malice”.  And thus day after day, he has the mission and the privilege of being able to rescue wounded souls and bring dead souls back to life.  Relentlessly  souls call on him to be father, shepherd, warrior and leader. And souls at times return to the priest long after the priest has forgotten the instance to murmur “You have changed my life”. And so the confessional becomes for the priest  the place where “his youth is renewed like an eagle’s”.

You will discover your own spiritual fatherhood and the torrents of love within the priestly heart. The confessional understood as the place of both the absolution of sins and spiritual direction is where the priest exercises his fatherhood par excellence.

You will change not just individuals but society. By becoming a master spiritual director, you will be equipped to do what has always been in your heart since the day you became aware of your vocation: to make a deep difference in history, to change this world for the better in a way hi-tech and genetical engineering can never achieve. In the confessional as a spiritual director, you can  change the world by changing the soul.

“The real crisis is in man himself. The crises which shake human societies are always, first and foremost, spiritual crises: political events and social unrest merely translate into deeds a disequilibrium whose real cause is something far more fundamental. The destiny of the world is shaped in the secret recesses of the mind, through the hidden dialectic of ideals and passions, and the new forces which make old empires crumble are the selfsame forces which each individual confronts in the depths of his own soul, making him the abettor of destruction.” (Henri Daniel-Rops, The Protestant Reformation)

Andre Frossard, the French convert and intellectual once asked Pope John Paul II : “What is the greatest problem in the modern world?” The Pontiff immediately replied with one word : “Sin”-  and sin is resolved in the silence of the confessional. An old man in Rome told me one day: “Years ago politics were different in this country because each morning in that church up the road the Catholic politicans used to kneel down and  make their confession.”

At the heart of Catholicism lies the Confessional. You will build up a strong  Church by just staying in the confessional because when the priest is a true confessor and spiritual director  Catholics discover the experience of the Catholic Church as their home – the place of peace because here is the tranquillitas ordinis [ serenity of order]. If  many of those Catholics who have left the Church in recent years had found an authentic confessor, would they have left? I think not.

“How many are the souls, in distress, anxiety or loneliness, whose one need is to find a being to whom they can pour out their feelings unheard by the world? Tell them out they must; they cannot tell them out to those whom they see every hour. They want to tell them and not to tell them; and they want to tell them out, yet be as if they be not told; they wish to tell them to one who is strong enough to bear them, yet not too strong to despise them; they wish to tell them to one who can at once advise and can sympathize with them; they wish to relieve themselves of a load, to gain a solace, to receive the assurance that there is one who thinks of them, and one to whom in thought they can recur, to whom they can betake themselves, if necessary, from time to time, while they are in world” (JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, “The Present Position of Catholics,” p. 351).