What seminarians need in a spiritual director

I recently discovered the delights of Malta for the first time, with a certain sense of frustration that I hadn’t thought to go sooner. The architecture and art, especially of the beautiful churches, and the ancient walled cities redolent of the Knights of Malta who defended the faith there until Napoleon expelled them – all these make me want to go back soon.

I travelled little in my youth and it is only since becoming a priest that my air miles have shot up. This trip, too, was work, but mixed with a lot of good priestly fraternity and a chance for some sightseeing and a short pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Paul.

I was attending the annual conference of English-speaking seminary spiritual directors from Europe. This year the Maltese hosted us in the seminary complex in Rabat, next to the walled city of Medina.

The focus for this year’s discussions was how to form seminarians for celibate chastity. A spiritual director’s task in the seminary is fundamentally different to that of other staff. He does not express an opinion or vote on a candidate’s suitability for priesthood. He may have strong views on this, and for good reason, because seminarians are encouraged to open their consciences to their spiritual director over their motivations and struggles, in this as in all areas of their life.

But this is an internal forum, precisely to protect the seminarian’s freedom of conscience. It means accompanying the seminarian, listening and reflecting back what the seminarian presents about his motivations, helping him to recognise the movements of his heart and what these mean.

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