|Bringing People Closer to God in the
- by Lori Golaszewski
It started with a dream, a dream born out of a need for spiritual directors in her country. Ana Feliz, OP, had completed the internship program in spiritual direction at the Dominican Center for Religious Development in Detroit and returned to her native Dominican Republic. She quickly realized that spiritual directors were not only lacking in the DR, but so was any kind of formation program for them. She knew she was being called to remedy the situation.
"There was nothing for people to go through the process of becoming spiritual directors," Sister Ana said. "We have a lot of religious men and women in the DR who are in need of this service."
After some years of waiting, Sister Ana's dream of starting a spiritual direction program for religious and lay people came to fruition in 2002. Sister Ana had shared her dream with Nancy Jurecki, OP, who was then Chapter Prioress of the Rose de Lima Mission Chapter. Sister Nancy had also studied spiritual direction at the Dominican Center for Religious Development, and was supportive of getting this type of program up and running. CONDOR (the Conference of Religious in the Dominican Republic) also gave the program a thumbs up.
Sisters Ana and Nancy planned the curriculum with assistance from Carol Johannes, OP, and Charlotte Hoefer, OP; enlisted university professors, psychologists, Scripture scholars and others; and scouted locations in Santo Domingo where classes could be held. Twenty women religious signed up for the first program, which met for three weeks in July 2002 and three weeks in July 2003. In between, participants took part in workshops one weekend a month for nine months, as well as an eight-day directed retreat. "It turned out to be really wonderful," Sister Ana said of the first program. "We weren't even finished with the first group and people were asking when the next program was starting," she laughed.
While only women religious signed up for the inaugural program, the second program in 2004-2005 boasted 40 enrollees, 30 of whom were accepted. Three of the participants were men religious and another three were lay people. The next class, slated to begin in July, will include five priests, five lay people and 25 sisters as participants. Sister Ana hopes that as word spreads about the program, more and more lay people will heed the calling to become spiritual directors. "There is a great need for them in parishes," Sister Ana noted. "People still don't understand much about spiritual direction. Many think it's taking a problem they have and talking it out with a priest."
Because formal spiritual direction is still relatively new in the DR, Sister Ana said her ministry involves helping people understand what spiritual accompaniment entails. "I have been invited by religious communities and a group of lay people to share the importance of spiritual accompaniment and the need it fulfills in our lives," she said. "I describe it as walking together with another person -- listening together and discerning together -- to discover what God's will is for that person."
As a result, Sister Ana said she has been personally affected by the people she's encountered through spiritual direction. "I have been very much edified by seeing God's grace working in each individual," she said. "I've seen people change, I've seen healing, and I've been touched by the responses of these people to God through spiritual direction."
"This ministry has taught me to remain humble, that whatever happens to a person through spiritual direction is God's doing," she added. "God is the director. I am just a witness of God's mercy and unconditional love."
Starting a spiritual direction program from the ground up hasn't been without its struggles. One of the challenges is that many of the participants have gaps in their religious formation, so it's been difficult for Sister Ana to recruit university professors who can fill that void. "We need the best professors, psychologists, Scripture scholars and people knowledgeable in spirituality, but these people are very busy, and to try to fit them into our schedule is challenging," she explained. Another difficulty is keeping the program costs affordable for participants while having enough money to compensate the teachers and rent the classrooms. "To begin the project, Sister Nancy wrote to some agencies for funding, and we received help from the Koch Foundation. Thus we were able to bring in some professors from our own congregation: Rosa Monique Peña, OP, Arlene Kosmatka, OP, and Patricia Harvat, OP. Our sisters in the DR supported us in various ways too. Luisa Campos, OP, Margarita Ruiz, OP, and Rosa Reyes, OP, all gave workshops."
The blessings Sister Ana has experienced, however, far outweigh the challenges, the greatest being the number of new spiritual directors who are available to serve in the DR. Many of the same people who took the course with Sister Ana are now helping her give directed retreats, and they form a team that offers direction for the religious in CONDOR. In addition, Carol Gross, OP, who was among the first group of newly trained spiritual directors, paired up with Sister Ana after Sister Nancy moved on to another ministry.
Sister Ana said she isn't sure how the spiritual direction program will continue to unfold, but she's positive "that the whole dream isn't through yet." "Preaching has always been a calling for me, but it's taken a different turn," Sister Ana said. "I used to preach, and to give retreats and talks with different themes, mainly to young people. I loved it. But now I feel that there are other ways to bring people to God in deeper and more meaningful ways. People hear words all the time, but to come to God and listen and discern is not as common an experience. We live in a tense, busy, rushing world, so these ways are good news. Those who have this experience find it eye-opening, a grace and a special gift."