When Father Scott Woods began a spiritual direction program at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown in 2012 with the encouragement of theology teacher John Olon, he imagined that he would be coming to the school once every other week to meet with a few students. But before long, so many students were interested in the program that Father Woods had to come in once or twice per week and recruit more priests to help with the direction.
Now, more than 230 students and 11 priests participate in the voluntary spiritual direction program. Father Woods, who also serves as the pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in St. Mary’s City and St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Inigoes in Southern Maryland, said he is usually at St. Mary’s Ryken two or three days a week to meet with students one-on-one for 15-20 minutes each.
“I think it helps to integrate the faith life more into the school,” said Rick Wood, the school’s principal. “…They live a more faithful life during the day as a student, then when they go home they think about their morals and values and their faith life and how it plays a part into their everyday life…. it becomes part of them.”
St. Mary’s Ryken High School presented Father Woods with the Theodore James Ryken Award for his work with the spiritual direction program on Oct. 25. The award is named for the founder of the Xaverian Brothers, the order that sponsors the school, and is presented annually on the feast day of St. Francis Xavier. The award was established in 1998, and this is the first year that it has been given to someone who is not employed by the school, which the school’ principal said “speaks volumes to who Father Scott is.”
“I don’t know many other people that connect with youth like he does,” he said. “He is fair and just, he is honest with you, but he also is very compassionate. I think that is what our youth are looking for. They are looking for someone who is going to be honest with them but also be compassionate about what their problems are. And there are not very many people that do it as well as Father Scott.”
Father Woods said the program attracts all different types of students, and many of them come because of a recommendation from their peers.
“It really crosses all of the boundaries of high school to really touch upon all social groups and those of different faiths,” he said. “Men and women and sports kids and the popular kids and the very intellectual kids, you see them all come through.”
Father Woods has done spiritual direction with students who are non-Catholic and non-Christian, but are open to the idea of the faith. Since he converted to Catholicism while he was a student at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, he understands where they are coming from.
“It helps me not assume too much,” he said. “My first Catholic Mass, I was kind of lost. I didn’t understand why we did what we did, so it gives me a better ability to explain the faith and to understand that it’s a journey that doesn’t all happen at once. It is a process of them encountering Jesus, and He brings them along over time.”
The four years of high school are the most formative years of the students’ lives, Principal Wood said, noting they often have many questions that they have formed after their eight preceding years of Catholic school or CCD education. He also noted that sometimes St. Mary’s Ryken is the only place where the students get spiritual development if they are not regularly going to Mass, which is something he said the school takes very seriously.
Sophomore Colin Madden is one of these students who came into high school with many questions about his faith. As a very science-minded person, he said he had “a lot of questions about the existence of God, the morality of God, the actions of God and the authenticity of the Bible.” While he initially was nervous about signing up for spiritual direction, he decided to do spiritual direction after being encouraged by many people at Ryken, including his sister, his teachers, and his peers.
“I saw a lot of my friends signing up, and I was like, ‘If they are doing it, they must have questions just like I do,’” Madden said.
Madden said Father Woods helped him work through these questions, not by trying to explain all of the answers, but by encouraging him to bring them to God in prayer.
“My goal is not to really direct them as much as to help them grow in that encounter with the Lord,” Father Woods said. “My goal is to really help them to begin to hear Him for themselves, so that they don’t become dependent on me, but more and more dependent on Christ.”
Madden said his spiritual direction sessions with Father Woods are usually centered on a few questions about how his relationships with God, his family, and his friends are going. Based on the answers to these questions, Father Woods gives advice, prayer suggestions, and ideas of spiritual practices to help him grow.
“Spending time in the chapel, especially at Mass, seeing people my age all coming to receive the Eucharist… seeing the faith of other people dissipated my doubts and helped to answer my questions,” Madden said.
Father Woods said he encourages students to pray in different ways throughout the day, beginning in the morning with a petitionary prayer and a prayer of thanksgiving, then throughout the day to “share their heart with God” through a conversation, which he described as the most transformative type of prayer. In the evening, he encourages them to reflect on the day, noting every blessing and every sin, in order to strive to live a more virtuous life the next day.
“Instead of trying to figure things out myself…it was really helpful to have Father Woods guide me along the way and tailor a plan to grow closer to God that is unique to me and unique to the virtues I need to work on,” Madden said.
Since the spiritual direction program began, St. Mary’s Ryken has had nine alumni enter the seminary and two enter the convent, and more than 30 students have signed up to take classes to explore joining the Catholic faith. In addition to the growth of many students’ spiritual lives and an increase in vocations, the spiritual direction program has made the presence of a priest on campus commonplace.
The school’s principal said before Father Woods started coming to Ryken, it was unusual to see a priest on campus. Now, it is so normal that they are able to offer daily Mass for any students who wish to attend.
"Father Scott embodies the characteristics and qualities of our Xaverian mission and each of our values – humility, trust, zeal, simplicity and compassion," said Mary Joy Hurlburt, the president of St. Mary’s Ryken. "Spiritual life on campus is alive and robust in large part due to his love and commitment to our school community.”
Father Woods said he often stays in touch with the students even after they have graduated from Ryken, and he has had the opportunity to preside at the weddings of several students whom he once did spiritual direction with. He has seen the program not only turn around the lives of students, but also their families, who go back to church after seeing their kids do so.
“I’d really say that more than once it has truly saved my faith,” Madden said. “And it has done such a profound job of keeping me close to God and keeping me away from sin and striving towards virtue.”
Father Woods said he and his fellow priests feel that they have grown to be better priests through the process, by allowing Christ to direct them, and through the inspiration of the students.
“So many of the students have come to love [God] and know his love for them. And they’ve just been transformed in that love,” Father Woods said. “And it has helped them to lay aside the fears that have kept them back for a long time: the fear of ‘What will people think of me?’… the fear of, ‘What if I’m not popular?’ or ‘Will God make me happy, can I even be happy?’ And they found that happiness is not in a thing or a place, but in a person (Jesus) who is always with them.”