Fr. Boniface Hicks on Catechesis, Accompaniment, and Spiritual Direction

Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB

Fr. Boniface Hicks is a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he serves as director of spiritual life. In 2018 he became a founding contributor of the Saint Vincent Seminary Institute of Ministry Formation, where he offers teaching on the spiritual life and spiritual direction formation. An author and sought-after speaker and retreat leader, Fr. Boniface joined the faculty at the Avila Institute in 2021 to help provide formation to men discerning the priesthood in the High Calling program. 

In his desire to see the faithful better informed about the Church’s mission of catechesis, accompaniment, and spiritual direction, he took time from the preparations for the upcoming 2022 IMF Catechetics Conference to talk with me about how these things fit together to transform our Catholic culture– one encounter, one relationship, one soul at a time.

Why should those interested in the interior life and walking with others in the interior life also be interested in what the Church is saying about catechesis right now?

Fr. Boniface: Well, in the broadest sense, catechesis is sharing the faith and forming people in the faith, and so it’s what all of us should be interested in.  All of us are responsible for doing that in our own spheres.

In that spirit, our upcoming conference is taking a deeper look at the new Vatican Directory on Catechesis. The third of its kind since Vatican II, this is a book that goes through methodology, content, and is a comprehensive approach to catechesis.  And, since it comes in this time of the new evangelization, we see reflected in it a shift which recognizes the need for mission and evangelization and answers the question, “How do we form people in the faith this particular time when Christian culture has largely fallen apart?”

It’s a question those of us involved in spiritual direction have to ask, too. And there are two aspects that are important to point out: accompaniment and the current gap in Catholic culture.

In The Joy of the Gospel, we hear Pope Francis talk about the ‘art of accompaniment’ and where he says that everyone–priests, religious, laity, should be formed in the art of accompaniment.

What does accompaniment mean? 

Fr. Boniface: It means building a relationship with someone, having a posture of listening to them, meeting them where they are and walking with them–always in the direction of Christ.  This has become increasingly important for the same reasons that Spiritual Direction has grown in popularity over the last few years.

Why is it that Spiritual Direction is so popular now?

Fr. Boniface: I think a big part of it points to that second aspect: the loss of Catholic culture. When there is a stronger Catholic culture, especially a parish culture, when there is a movement of people all going in the same direction, you can be a part of that movement and pick things up along the way to guide you spiritually.

That is no longer the case in most places.

Now, spiritual direction has come to fill a void where there just isn’t a trustworthy source of ambient information to lead us to holiness. In spiritual direction, we form a one-on-one relationship with someone that we trust who we can open our hearts to, who can provide guidance and share the journey of faith. 

In that sense, spiritual direction fills in for a lack of Catholic culture.

What you’ll see is that there is the same thrust in the new catechetics directory–responding to this lack of Catholic culture by building things in a more evangelization-oriented and accompaniment-based model of forming people in faith.

Are you saying that formation in the faith is often more one-on-one now, rather than being ‘swept along’ in your community, your parish life as it was in the past?

Fr. Boniface: Yes, because in the past, the parish was really the center of many people’s lives.  If you did all the missions, and you participated in groups such as the Christian Mothers and the Knights of Columbus which had some coherence and expectations of spiritual practice, and there were generations that you could learn from and strong communal relationships, you were naturally receiving formation.

But that doesn’t exist as much anymore. Spiritual direction helps to fill in the void left by the change in parish life and culture–and really, is helping to recover and form some of those cultures again.

Vatican II envisioned that. The Church realized that the culture of the ’50s was not going to sustain the onslaught of modernity and so they needed to open things up to allow a new culture to fill in.  It’s been a painful process in a lot of ways, but that culture is starting to emerge, and spiritual direction is helping to do that. We are forming culture in spiritual directors through our programs and ongoing formation and communities, and then they are individually helping to spread out that culture with people one-on-one to directees.

Wouldn’t you say too that spiritual direction is meeting a hunger in the faithful to go even deeper in prayer and that there is a collective sense that we are called to a richer interior life? I think it is also a fruit of Vatican II and the universal call to holiness in that this kind of deep prayer and intimacy with the Lord is everyone’s inheritance. Somehow the Holy Spirit seems to be moving in that way–and I don’t think that necessarily even a vibrant parish life can adequately meet that call.

Fr. Boniface: Certainly. I think that’s one of those ways where the Lord doesn’t only fix a problem, He makes the situation better. So we could see it as a ‘happy fault’ that we lost our parish culture. While I do think there were a lot of saints formed by the older model of parish life, admittedly there is something lost in ‘one-on-many’ situations.

But the one-on-one dimension of spiritual direction fosters the one-on-one dimension of personal prayer. It opens things up and makes that desired ‘more’ possible for people. Then, it has a ripple effect: someone is in spiritual direction, people see how it is working in their lives, and then they seek out direction as well.

Bringing this back to catechesis, What is the relationship between catechesis and spiritual direction? Is a spiritual director a catechist of sorts? 

Fr. Boniface: A spiritual director is not a catechist per se, but rather supports the catechetical process. A spiritual director could do some catechesis, so it is not mutually exclusive. You could think of a spiritual director as similar to a sponsor in the RCIA program: not teaching the classes, but complementing the process by walking with people and incorporating this new faith into their lives. It’s a beautiful complementarity of teaching and accompaniment.

Now, spiritual directors also teach. It’s my experience that spiritual directors know many things about the ways of prayer, good books, etc. We gather up good sources over time that we can share. So there’s naturally a catechetical dimension to spiritual direction, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be there.

Should someone going to RCIA as an adult always have a spiritual director or is there some point in the journey when one comes to need a director?
Fr. Boniface: That’s actually the role of the sponsor. I put spiritual direction here on a spectrum: on one end, there’s a highly-trained director, and on the other end, spiritual friendship and accompaniment.  A sponsor should absolutely be on that spectrum. Sponsors are supposed to testify to one’s readiness to receive the sacraments. That person can’t be a casual acquaintance but rather someone who has access to one’s interior life. This is a canonical requirement–it’s against the law not to have it! And sponsors are responsible for ongoing formation. The Church has fairly high expectations for sponsors, even if that isn’t always implemented.

So yes, someone in RCIA does need someone walking with them in that personal way, focused on the individual journey. We all need that. Whether that means someone with a high level of expertise or just someone who can listen and enter into a relationship and provide some feedback–we all need a personal relationship to keep going in the Christian life.

That’s part of the Church’s wisdom for RCIA, and for all of us, and it’s why we are holding this conference on catechesis.
We have 16 experts from around the country who will take us into the new directory; people who have studied it and have a lot of experience to share on a variety of topics.
This conference is interactive for those who attend live with breakout groups and discussion and opportunities to meet others in this space–we are trying to build community, but registration for the conference gives access to recordings of the talks for those who can’t attend live.  I hope those interested in spiritual direction will also join us in this discussion around catechesis and accompaniment, because these elements in restoring our Church culture and in bringing souls to Christ shouldn’t be separated.
Register for the IMF’s Catechetical Conference here.
Image: Deposit Photos

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