Responding to Pope Francis’s call to encourage and support the spiritual lives of individuals within the Church, clergy, religious and lay people in the Archdiocese of Washington met at the Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C. for a course on spiritual accompaniment July 15-17. 

“There’s been this renewed call from Pope Francis to recognize the importance of personally walking with people,” said Megan Philip, coordinator of campus and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington, who helped organize the program. “In the history of the Church, saints make others saints.”

Throughout the three-day course, participants, who were recommended by their pastors or superiors, received formation in spiritual accompaniment, discussed how to nurture each stage of the spiritual life and made plans to continue cultivating the gift of accompaniment as they go back to their parish and faith communities. 

In the final document of the Synod Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment, which was released in late October 2018, the Synod of Bishops emphasized a need for spiritual accompaniment, calling both consecrated and lay people to walk alongside others on the journey of faith. 

“Spiritual accompaniment is intended to help people integrate step by step the various dimensions of their lives so as to follow the Lord Jesus,” they wrote. “Those who accompany should be welcoming and patient, they elicit pertinent questions and recognize the signs of the Spirit in the replies of the young.”

Father Mark Ivany, director of priest vocations at Saint John Paul II Seminary, and Philip – who both worked together to organize the course – said they hoped it would equip lay and consecrated people with the tools and confidence to guide others on their spiritual journeys.

The door is open to lay and religious to be the spiritual accompanist, Father Ivany said.

“You’re not taking something that should be for the priest,” he continued. 

Megan Philip, coordinator of campus and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Washington, is working to bring spiritual accompaniment to parishes and communities throughout the archdiocese. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann) 

One panel during the course, titled “Spiritual Accompaniment at Different Stages and Ages,” discussed guiding Church members through spiritual accompaniment and spiritual direction in all stages of life.

Father Scott Woods, pastor at St. Peter Claver in St. Inigoes, Maryland and St. Cecelia Catholic Church in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, is also the chaplain at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown, Maryland, where he began giving spiritual direction to students in 2012. 

He said that it was at the prompting of the Holy Spirit that he started spiritual direction with young people.

“I was determined to never use spiritual accompaniment,” Father Woods said in the panel discussion. “But, I’ve come to believe that the Lord really calls among the clergy and lay people to do this ministry.”

Father Woods explained that spiritual accompaniment and spiritual direction serve as a bridge to Christ. 

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Father Woods said. “Working with souls is a far greater task than building Rome.” 

Another panelist, Lisa Lytwyn, coordinator of campus ministry at the University of Maryland, offered perspective on reaching the current generation of young adults with spiritual accompaniment. She said one thing she grasped from her years in campus ministry was that young people are in need of guidance in developing as young men and women, in addition to spiritual guidance. 

“It is recognizing that the human formation has to mix with the spiritual formation,” Lytwyn said. 

She emphasized further that it isn’t anyone’s job to “fix” the current generation of young adults. 

“God isn’t limited because they’re addicted to their phones,” Lytwyn said. “We’re only called to accompany them to...be who God called them to be.”

Introducing spiritual accompaniment to communities has produced much fruit, the panel noted. Father Woods said that since St. Mary Ryken High School began a spiritual direction program, they welcomed many students into the Catholic Church as well as supported others as they answered the call to religious life. He said that exposing the students to religious life and encouraging them to attend colleges with strong, Catholic communities are just two extensions of the formation that begins with spiritual accompaniment. 

As the program at St. Mary Ryken has grown to provide spiritual direction for around 250 students, Father Woods said he and his fellow priests hope to have more lay people join to help with the spiritual accompaniment. 

“I’ve been trying to get more laity,” he said. “In the county as a whole, we’re kinda overwhelmed.” 

With the abundance of responses and interest received about this course, Philip said she is very encouraged by what she hopes will continue to unravel throughout the archdiocese in the months and years to come. 

“As an archdiocese, I think we dream of every aspect of parish life taking on spiritual accompaniment,” Philip said. 

Paula Zelaya, a volunteer at St. Andrew Apostle Catholic Church in Silver Spring, Maryland said one thing she hopes to bring back to her parish is the need to bring in the parents with faith formation. 

“Yes, we’re catechising children,” Zelaya said, “but really, it’s the whole family.”

Father Ivany shared that spiritual accompaniment is less the work of man, but the Holy Spirit working in individual lives through others. 

He said the course was a great way to communicate with participants, “Don’t be discouraged or overwhelmed by this, it is a work of God.”

“Receive the training, do the right thing, but it is the work of the Spirit, it’s not about us,” Father Ivany said.