Spiritual Direction Program
Originally published in the National Catholic Educational Association Momentum magazine in March 2018. For more information about the SMR Spiritual Direction program, please contact Mr. Greg DeStefano.
Spiritual Direction Program Provides Students with Tools to Become Closer to God
Located in southern Maryland, St. Mary’s Ryken (SMR) is one of 13 Xaverian Brothers Sponsored Schools committed to living the Xaverian Charism of fostering an ongoing personal and committed relationship with God.
With the leadership of SMR school Chaplain, Father Scott Woods, and collaborating with the administration, theology department and Campus Ministry, the Spiritual Direction program began connecting students with priests to expand their prayer life, strengthen their moral compass and intensify their relationship with God. The program began in a very natural way after SMR theology teachers recognized that some students wanted or needed spiritual and moral direction by a prist. After communicating this need to Father Scott and by his willingness to visit the school on a weekly basis, the program began in 2012.
Now, five years later, over 200 students voluntarily and actively participate in the program; some are involved daily. The program is successful because Father Scott selflessly meets youth where they are and puts God in front of them. He visits the campus two to three days a week to provide one-on-one sessions to discuss the student’s home, school and spiritual life. Coordinated through the Campus Ministry office, students use 20-55 minutes during their theology class or lunchtime to speak with a priest.
Based on those private discussions about relationships with God, family and friends, Father Scott gives advice, prayer suggestions and ideas of spiritual practices to help students grow in their faith.
“During the sessions, we are taught how to use prayer to help manage stressful situations in our lives,” said Valentina Nazzaro, ’18. “I encourage my friends to join the program as well because I’ve found it’s a safe place to be open about what’s happening in my life and to receive guidance from a confidante about how to spiritually navigate a troubling day or situation.”
“Our program helps to integrate the faith life more into the school,” said Dr. Rick Wood, school principal. “If students live a more faithful life during the school day, then their morals and values will be more on the forefront of their minds when they go home.”
Father Scott said the program attracts all different types of students, and many of them come because of a recommendation from their peers or teachers. “It crosses all of the boundaries of high school to really touch upon all social groups and those of different faiths other than Catholic,” he said. Faculty members are also welcome to receive spiritual direction, and many have taken advantage of the program to grow in their faith.
“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 Scott 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.”
Spiritual direction is offered to all students regardless of their religious background. Father Scott converted to Catholicism while he was a student at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., and he understands where the students are coming from.
“It helps if I don’t assume too much,” said Father Scott. “During my first Catholic Mass when I was in high school, 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 for the students to encounter Jesus, and He brings them along over time.”
“I transferred into St. Mary’s Ryken from a school that didn’t have a faith-life program,” said Lelan Eackles, ’18. “At first I was nervous to get involved in the spiritual direction program but was encouraged by Father Scott to give it a chance. He offered to be my spiritual father, if it helped me to feel more comfortable. Every since then, I meet with Father Scott on a bi-weekly basis, and he provides me with spiritual and moral guidance, and allows me to confess my sins to him.”
Father Scott explains that he doesn’t try to “relate to teens” but rather he tries to help them relate to Christ. He knows that they were made for God and He is seeking them. Father Scott tries to help them see the truth.
“I try to help the students to learn how to talk to the Lord and how to listen to the Lord,” said Father Scott. “I also try to help students learn how to meditate upon his word and to hear him in the Mass. In this way, they come to know they are loved and sought by the Lord.”
One of the many benefits of the SMR high school experience is the faith-based education and opportunity for students and faculty to discuss their faith openly during classes and through the Campus Ministry program. All-school Mass also occur once a month and every day in the school chapel.
“Spiritual direction and the Campus Ministry are crucial reasons why St. Mary’s Ryken is so special,” said Greg Lawrence, ’18. “We’re so lucky to have Father Scott and the Campus Ministry to support us on our spiritual journey. They all work so hard to provide the tools and guidance for us to encounter God.”
With the support of school President Mary Joy Hurlburt and Principal Wood, Father Scott realized the program had huge growth potential if other priests could also volunteer their time and spiritual talents. Due to his positive experiences working with the SMR teens, Father Scott encouraged other priests from the Archdiocese of Washington (ADW) to serve the SMR community. Today, more than 12 ADW priests from southern Maryland offer daily mass, as well as reconciliation, so that students can incorporate their sacramental life into their daily life as servants of God.
Some priests visit monthly, others weekly, and some even two to three times per week. Because of the dedication of Father Scott and vision of the school administration, the SMR program has forged an even-closer bond between the SMR community and its surrounding parishes. In addition to the growth of many students’ spiritual lives, the spiritual direction program has also made the presence of a priest on campus commonplace.
“If other schools want to model our program, my advice is to work with parish priests in your area who have students in the school and who are already invested in seeing young people grow deeper in their faith,” said Father Scott. “The benefits can be out of this world, especially when the area priests realize that participating does not take a lot of time when the work is shared among all of the priests in the area.”
Father Scott 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.
“We have all been surprised by the incredible growth within the program, especially how many of the teens have encouraged their friends and family members to seek out spiritual direction themselves,” said President Hurlburt. “We’ve been surprised by the number of non-Catholic teens who have found it to be of great value to them, so much so that some of them have wanted to go to a Catholic college so they could continue to receive spiritual direction.”
SMR is committed to following the Xaverian Brothers’ educational goals, which includes forming enduring personal relationships and creating a community that fosters the values of compassion, simplicity, humility, trust and zeal. The spiritual direction program beautifully aligns to the Charism of the Xaverian Brothers by the very nature of how students are involved and by the development of their individual spirituality.
"Father Scott embodies the characteristics and qualities of our Xaverian mission and each of our Xaverian values –humility, trust, zeal, simplicity and compassion," said President Hurlburt. "Spiritual life on campus is alive and robust in large part due to his love and commitment to our school community."
Through Father Scott’s spiritual leadership and affinity for the students, an environment has been created where uncertain students embrace the opportunity to develop their faith-life, and pursue the love of God through personal self-reflection and guidance from a priest.
“Father Scott holds me accountable with the choices that I make,” Lelan said. “Now I think before I act and remember that my morals and values are a big part of spiritual life.”
"When I see a student move towards God, it makes me think, this is the reason why I became a priest," said Father Scott. "Each morning when I wake and up realize that I will be coming to this campus, I am happy and excited to work with the students and faculty. It is truly one of my best gifts in life."
Father Scott said he often stays in touch with the students even after they have graduated from SMR, and he has had the opportunity to preside at the weddings of several students who were once part of the spiritual direction program. 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.
Currently, Father Scott serves as the chaplain of St. Mary's Ryken High School along with his other roles as the assistant director for priest vocations for the Archdiocese of Washington, and pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in St. Mary's City, St. Peter Claver in St. Inigoes and St. Mary's College of Maryland.