Question: Dear Father Joseph, I am hesitant to go to a local priest for spiritual direction because I am worried about his submission, or lack of submission to the Church. He is a good priest but he has made some confusing comments about abortion and a few political topics etc. Are there simple questions I can ask and a way to ask (that would not be offensive) to help me determine if a particular priest or lay person (a potential spiritual director) is faithful to the teachings of the Church? I don’t want to end up with spiritual mis-direction. This is all far too important to me.
Answer: Spiritual direction is a long standing tradition in the Church and an excellent means for growing in prayer life and in sanctity. Seeing our lives from an outside, objective source is a great way to know ourselves better so as to better ourselves more quickly and efficiently.
With that in mind, your question is a happy one because it shows the interest that you have in wanting to grow in your relationship with Christ. You are not satisfied with your present level and you are searching for a guide to help you to grow. I am sure that this desire comes from the Holy Spirit and will not go unrewarded.
The best recommendation that I can give you is one that St John of the Cross gives, and that is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in number 2690: “the person wishing to advance toward perfection should ‘take care into whose hands he entrusts himself, for as the master is, so will the disciple be, and as the father is so will be the son.’” In other words, look to put yourself into the hands of someone whom you admire for his personal sanctity and life of prayer.
In the formulation of your question, you hint at the fact that your priest may not be this person for you; you are hesitant and unsure about his doctrinal formation and preparation. This is not a good way to start a spiritual direction relationship. Perhaps the first thing you should do is get to know your priest better. Ask for an appointment to speak with him, or participate in a parish activity that allows you more contact with him. You will get to know another side of your priest that cannot be seen in a formal moment of preaching and that may dispel some of your worries (and hopefully not add to them).
When you finally do have that one on one meeting (that can be in or outside of confession), ask him about your problems and needs. Are his answers prayerful ones? Do they bring peace? Is there anything that doesn’t seem to chime with Catholic morals and doctrine? Does he recommend prayer and greater self discipline or self denial? Does he push you towards holiness? When you leave, do you feel challenged towards being more generous with Christ? I think that these are the types of questions you should have in mind regarding the holiness and preparation of that person that you have chosen as spiritual guide.
Lastly, in your question you mention that your priest has made some confusing comments regarding abortion and politics. St John of the Cross in the same aforementioned Catechism number also refers to learning, discretion and experience. Again, it would appear that you do not find these qualities in your priest. If you still think these are lacking after coming to know him better, it would be best to look for someone who corresponds more to your needs.
All Priests do not share the same gifts. Some are better at preaching than at direction of souls. Look for that priest in whom you most see the image of Jesus Christ. And pray for your priests – we all have a great need of growing in holiness so as to help our own souls and those in our care.
Yours in Christ, Father Joseph Burtka, LC
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