A new program hosted through the Franciscan University of Steubenville is making its debut this year with the promise of increased accessibility to spiritual directors in the future.
The school of spiritual direction is a three-year training program which officially opened this fall semester.
It all began when former Director of Evangelization Robert Siemen felt called to meet what he noticed was a growing need on campus.
“I started working with some households on campus, being an intent advisor and then giving spiritual direction,” Siemen said. “Through that, I saw more and more of a need for spiritual direction on campus.”
Siemen, now the director of the school of spiritual direction, was trained with the Oblates of the Virgin of Mary as a spiritual director in a five-year training program.
“It has produced a lot of fruit in my life, in my relationship with the Lord,” he said. “It has taught me how to pray and pray with Scripture.” This awareness in Siemen made him desire to bring what he had learned and experienced to others who felt called to join in the same ministry.
Siemen wants to educate people so that they can meet the needs of the Franciscan students.
“So many students on our campus desire spiritual directors,” he said. “The students just want to be walked with in their faith life. So, I want to train people to walk with them in their lives: with the stickiness, the messiness, the dirtiness, the brokenness, the joys, the blessings, the growth, the holiness, in all of it.”
But the program is not only meant to accommodate university students. Siemen hopes they can be of service to many others in the area.
“We want to cause a rebirth of faith outside of the university as well as in the university,” he said. “Our goal is to someday provide spiritual direction for any student, faculty or staff member who wants it here on campus. That’s a huge a goal. But that’s okay.”
When he first presented his idea to the university, they decided to allow him to give it a try.
“The university took a huge risk,” said Siemen. “They let us do a pilot program and helped us with that.”
The program received a very positive response, enrolling 18 people in the pilot program in the 2018-19 academic year. Because of the success in the first year, permission was given to officially launch a school for spiritual direction. Siemen was named director in June.
The mission statement of the school of spiritual direction, Siemen said, can be summed up in the motto “heart speaks to heart” from St. John Henry Newman.
“We want to train spiritual directors to facilitate a heart in common with the heart of Jesus Christ,” said Siemen. “Everything that we do promotes that we have a vision for helping people to be authentic with themselves, with God and with others. We believe that through that authenticity, that intimacy, that it will lead to holiness and an encounter with the heart of Jesus Christ.”
The school teaches Ignatian spirituality as well as the theological foundations for spiritual direction. It also includes teaching on Scripture, morality, masculine and feminine identity in prayer, psychology and many other aspects necessary to spiritual direction.
“The program is very heavy on education, forming the directors,” said Siemen. “But then it also gives them formation in very practical experience.”
It is hard to give authentic spiritual direction to another if you are yourself unprepared, Siemen said. The program offers the opportunity to practice giving spiritual direction so that the students in the program will be prepared to meet the needs of others.
The students are educated on the necessary subject matter, but prayer is also an important aspect of spiritual direction, Siemen said.
“You can never really practice it,” he said, “because spiritual direction is through prayer.”
The school currently has a variety of students enrolled. These include priests, deacons, religious brothers and sisters, married couples, lay people and even evangelicals. It has spread mostly from word of mouth and grown from there. Some students have intimate connections with the university, while some do not.
The school for spiritual direction is beginning strong and stands well–grounded. However, it will take time to build up the program so that there are enough spiritual directors to serve the full needs of the university.
“It shows that the university is responding to a real need of our students,” Siemen said. “But it is something that is going to take time to get there.”
While it is not ready to offer spiritual directors to the campus community yet, this school is full of potentiality and gives the university something to anticipate in the near future.