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Journeying with Others: Guardians of the Community [J1]

Updated: Feb 3


Pope Francis has sounded the urgent clarion call, “Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock [1].”


In today’s session on “Journeying with Others”, we explore the critical need for, and three permutations of, personal accompaniment and spiritual guardianship: spiritual direction, spiritual mentorship and spiritual buddies.


Let’s consider what the Bible, the Church and the Saints have to say about this crucial topic [2].


Listen to the podcast here:



Opening Prayer


Father God, today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock.


O Lord, we humbly pray for such guardians of the community to hear your call and to rise up – so that they can journey with and protect the sheep from wolves, so as to enable your young and growing disciples to mature and multiply, for the good of Your Holy Church, the evangelisation of the world, and for the greater glory of Your ineffable name.


In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


1. The Critical Need for Personal Accompaniment in the Christian Life


The Flock, Fierce Wolves and Guardians

St. Paul had spent three years with the Christian community in Ephesus. As he was leaving for Jerusalem, likely never to return to Ephesus, like a concerned father, he admonished the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:29, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.”

Who were these “fierce wolves”?

St. Paul identifies them as “from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”


Thus, St. Paul solemnly charged the elders of Ephesus to “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the Church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)

“Take heed” may also be understood as “Be on your guard [3],” or to “Keep watch over [4].” These guardians of faith are to be on their guard for and to keep watch over the flock, and to protect them from the fierce wolves.

Applying it to our local and modern context:

  • “The flock” refers to each and every young and growing disciple in the Catholic Church today in Singapore. By “young”, we mean young in the faith (and not just physical age) – so this term includes adults or elderly who are young in the faith.

  • “Fierce wolves” refers to anyone or anything which draws away such young and growing disciples away from Christ. There are many types of “fierce wolves” today in our modern Singapore society. Secularism. Materialism. False teachers. Bad influencers. Atheism. Ignorance. Hedonism. The toxic cultural air.

  • “Guardians” refer not only to the clergy and religious, but also every older or mature lay Catholic in our Church, all of whom are called to guard and keep watch over the younger disciples.


To Protect, Nurture and Mature

It is no surprise that Jesus uses a horticulture analogy, the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds in Matthew 13:1-23, to describe the Christian faith and whether a disciple remains in the faith and bears much fruit. All the conditions must be right, failing which the plant does not take root, grow, mature and yield plentiful grain or fruit.

If the young seeds had older or mature disciples journeying with them, protecting them from the “Evil One” by helping them understand the “word of the kingdom [5],” by explaining to and modelling for them the Christian meaning of suffering so that they can endure “tribulation or persecution [which] arises on account of the word [6],” and by guiding them not to be choked by “the cares of the world” or “the delight in riches [7],” such seeds could have bore much fruit.

"The Sower" by James Tissot (1886-1894)

Indeed, like the nurturing of a Bonsai plant, the Christian faith is a delicate one. It must be carefully guarded and protected against the many forces out to destroy it. Many faith journeys have been truncated, damaged or even extinguished due to the lack of loving and caring “guardians” of faith in the lives of young and growing disciples.


We all, especially lay people, have a critical role to play in such personal accompaniment and guardianship – both in terms of finding “guardians” to journey with us, as well as to rise up as “guardians” ourselves and to journey with others.

We will now explore three important permutations of such personal accompaniment and spiritual guardianship.

2. Spiritual Direction


Unleashing Greatness


Legendary tennis player Rafael Nadal worked with his longtime coach, Francisco Roig, for more than 17 years, since 2005, before he claimed his first Grand Slam title. Nadal is now a 22-time major winner and has spent 209 weeks at World No. 1 in the ATP Rankings in his career.


The greats became great because they found someone to help them become greater than who they used to be.


The same principle applies in the spiritual life. St. John of the Cross, the “mystical doctor”, puts it this way in Sayings of Light and Love, 5:


“Whoever wants to stand alone without the support of a master and guide will be like the tree that stands alone in a field without a proprietor. No matter how much the tree bears, passers-by will pick the fruit before it ripens.”


Two verses down, in Sayings of Light and Love, 7, the great Saint doubles down on the need for a spiritual master:


“The virtuous soul that is alone and without a master is like a lone burning coal; it will grow colder rather than hotter.”


One might object that spiritual direction is meant only for “Siao on” [8] Catholics. In this regard, Pope Benedict XVI makes it clear:


“As she has always done, today the Church continues to recommend the practice of spiritual direction not only to those who desire to follow the Lord closely but to every Christian who wishes to live responsibly his or her Baptism, that is, new life in Christ [9].”


“[E]very Christian who wishes to live responsibly his or her Baptism”. This would include many Catholics, and should include every Catholic.


Saints Journeying with Saints

Numerous Saints were known to have spiritual directors. For example, the spiritual directors of St. Teresa of Avila included St. John of the Cross and St. Peter of Alcántara.

"Peter of Alcántara shows Teresa of Avila the way to paradise" by Francesco Fontebasso (1707–1769)

Pope St. John Paul II had a lay spiritual director, the mystic-tailor Servant of God Jan Tyranowski. Jan formed and led clandestine youth ministry groups in Poland during WWII, creating “Living Rosary” prayer groups, of which Karol Wojtlya (later Pope St. John Paul II) was one of the team leaders.

At this time, Karol was in his early twenties with not one living family member, and Jan helped fill the painful void. He was not only a mentor to young Karol but also a spiritual director, friend, and father figure. Karol blossomed under the guidance of the shy layman, soaking up all that Jan had to share.


Jan, the simple tailor, had a gift for nurturing souls. Out of those brave young people involved in the Living Rosary groups, eleven vocations were realized, with Karol’s vocation among them.


Pope St. John Paul II would later say of Jan:


“He disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life. . . . In his words, in his spirituality and in the example of a life given to God alone, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of a soul opened up by grace.”

In more recent times, Father Gabriele Amorth, who was the renowned chief exorcist of Rome, had St. Padre Pio as his spiritual director, visiting him each year for 26 years.


Saints did not become Saints in isolation. They each needed a spiritual guide and master. Likewise, as Saints-in-the-making ourselves, we should seriously consider and take steps to find a suitable spiritual director, and for those who are mature enough, to receive appropriate training to be a lay spiritual director for others.


3. Spiritual Mentorship


Practically speaking, until such time more lay spiritual directors are identified and trained, it may be difficult at this current juncture to supply enough suitable spiritual directors for each and every Catholic.


The next best thing is to find and journey with a spiritual mentor, who is someone mature or maturing in the faith, orthodox in doctrine, faithful to Christ and His Church, and who has a shepherd’s heart.


Notable examples of spiritual mentorship include:

  • Barnabas mentored Paul. When Paul was first converted, he came to Jerusalem and attempted to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. “But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles” (Acts 9:26-27). Subsequently, Barnabas went to Tarsus to invite Paul to team up with him to minister and teach in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26).

  • “[St.] Ambrose was a key figure in the conversion of St Augustine to Catholicism, impressing Augustine (hitherto unimpressed by the Catholics he had met) by his intelligence and scholarship [10].”

  • St. Ignatius of Loyola mentored St. Francis Xavier. When Francis met Ignatius in Paris he was a proud, autocratic, ambitious man wanting to accomplish great deeds in the world. For three years Ignatius patiently encouraged Francis to look at his life differently. “What profits a man,” Ignatius asked Francis, “if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”


"Saints Paul and Barnabas at Lystra (Sacrifice at Lystra)", 1637 Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Princeton University Art Museum. Paul is seen standing atop the stairs in dismay with Barnabas behind him, as the priest at the right side prepares a sacrifice for them after Paul cured a lame man (in the left corner).

The spiritual mentorship of Barnabas, St. Ambrose d St. Ignatius produced great fruit in the spiritual lives and ministries of St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Francis Xavier respectively.

May we all take steps to find suitable spiritual mentor(s) (if a spiritual director is not available), and for those who are mature enough, to step up to become a spiritual mentor to others. This ministry of personal accompaniment and spiritual guardianship is desperately needed in the Catholic Church in Singapore today.

4. Spiritual Buddies


Finally, regardless of whether one has a spiritual director and/or spiritual mentor, one should journey with a small band of like-minded Christians (peers, not superiors) who are determined to pursue Christ together, i.e. spiritual buddies.


The use of the phrase “buddies” evokes strong memories for those who have gone through National Service. In NS, our assigned buddies are not a laughing matter – they are supposed to be there for us in the foxhole, through every high and every low, in what could literally be life-and-death situations. Spiritual buddies are to do likewise, in the vastly more important life-and-death stakes of our spiritual journey.


Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 exhorts us on the value of friendship, and of journeying with others who are like-minded:


“Two are better than one… For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”


St. John of the Cross in Sayings of Light and Love, 7-8 echoes the words of Scripture:


“Those who fall alone remain alone in their fall, and they value their soul little since they entrust it to themselves alone.


If you do not fear falling alone, do you presume that you will rise up alone? Consider how much more can be accomplished by two together than by one alone.”


The first small band of Jesuits were all initially lay people and were peers – bound together in the common and passionate pursuit of Christ, and all for the greater glory of God. Through them and the disciples they produced, countless souls in the last 500 years or so have been converted.


In a similar way, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi were contemporaries and good friends – and they were both determined to live the life of Gospel poverty.


“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). A soul on fire for God will inspire another. It is imperative for us to seek out peers who are on fire for God, and to journey together as friends, as spiritual buddies, in that common pursuit.


Conclusion

No man or woman is an island. We need each other, especially in the delicate journey of faith. In a real sense, we are each other’s keeper. We are co-responsible for each other’s faith. It is love that compels us to care, and to take actio

May the Lord inspire and raise up many more spiritual directors, mentors and buddies – guardians of the community - so as to protect and nurture the flock to become fruitful, mature and missionary disciples for Christ.


Closing Prayer – The Memorare


Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

Amen.


About the Cover Art

The cover art (or actually icon) is that of “the Holy Hierarchs”, as it is known in the Eastern churches, depicting Doctors of the Church Ss. Basil the Great (left), John Chrysostom (middle), and Gregory of Nazianzen (right). St. Basil was the friend of St. Gregory of Nazianzen, and together with his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, were called the “Cappadocian fathers”. They formulated and defended our Trinitarian formula of "one substance (ousia) in three persons (hypostases)" before and during the Council of Constantinople. The friendship between St. Gregory of Nazianzen and St. Basil was such that the former could say of the latter that they were like "two bodies with one spirit". In this sense, their journeying with each other truly guarded the Church itself in its orthodoxy.


* Is there anything in this session which struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

** Thank you for joining us on the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP. We look forward to having you with us again next month, as we study the letter “K”, for Koinonia.


Recommended Closing Songs




This song speaks about the important truths of who we are in God, cutting through the lies of the devil and the world, and self-doubt. Guardians of the faith play a critical role in speaking such truths into the lives of the disciples they journey with.


Recommended Reading

  1. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 169-173, on personal accompaniment in processes of growth.

  2. Daniel Burke, with Fr. John Bartunek, Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God (excellent practical guide on what is spiritual direction, how to find and select a spiritual director, and what to do when you cannot find one, etc).

Reflection and Sharing Questions


This month’s podcast raises an awareness of the critical need for spiritual mentorship and spiritual accompaniment for good Christian direction in life. Do you think it important to journey with such people: 1) a spiritual director/mentor and 2) spiritual buddies, on your faith journey? If “Yes” - why? If “No” – what do you think of St. Paul warning that “fierce wolves will come in among you not sparing the flock”? Then, were you surprised to discover that even saints themselves were humble enough to have mentors/spiritual directors to guide them?

Post-Confirmands

Young Adults/Working Adults

Married Couples

Parents

Single / Separated / Divorced / Widowed

The above questions can also be downloaded in PDF form here:

J1 Journeying with Others - Guardians of the Community Sharing Questions
.pdf
Download PDF • 86KB

Download the slides here:

J1 Journeying with Others - Slides
.pdf
Download PDF • 1.34MB


© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha.


Footnotes


1. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 171.


2. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are taken from the RSV 2nd CE.


3. Jerusalem Bible, Acts 20:28, “Be on your guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you the overseers, to feed the Church of God which he bought with his own blood”.


4. New American Bible (Rev Ed), Acts 20:28, “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the Church of God that he acquired with his own blood.”


5. The seeds which were sown along the path.


6. The seeds which were sown on rocky ground.


7. The seeds which were sown among thorns.


8. “Siao On” - “A mixture of Hokkien and English, it is used to describe a person who is overzealous and over-enthusiastic in everything they do”: see here.



10. Universalis, “About Today”, 7 December 2022, on St. Ambrose of Milan.


11. Photograph by Lawrence OP. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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