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Planted By Many Hands, a New Spiritual Direction Program Grows

By Molly Neville, SNJM

As petals begin to unfold on these warm May days by the Pacific Ocean, I’m anticipating a different kind of flowering: the first graduates are emerging from a spirituality program that was planted nearly three years ago at Villa Maria del Mar.

The Villa, which has served our Sisters as a retreat center in Santa Cruz, CA since the 1960s, has nurtured the spiritual direction education of nine women over the past 24 months. They will receive their Spiritual Direction or Spirituality Certificate from Bishop Richard Garcia at a Mass on May 17.

It’s a welcome blessing for the Diocese of Monterey, a rural mission diocese with no Catholic institution of higher learning where formal training for spiritual directors could be offered.

It all started when I arrived at the Villa for a vacation in September 2014. I found my mind racing with thoughts that first night – all because of a question asked by Sister Lois MacGillivray, who was then director of the Villa: "How can we make Villa Maria del Mar more of a spirituality center?"

I had connections among local pastors and parish leaders because of the 10 years I served as diocesan Vocations Director and Director of Evangelization. I couldn't sleep that night thinking about how this might come to be. I knew we were a strong hostess center. So I drafted a letter to the pastors and principals in the neighboring regions asking if they thought spiritual direction and some evening offerings on spirituality would be a possibility. They all responded affirmatively and said they would refer people to us.

The next challenge was finding the right people to staff the program. I teamed with Sister Lois and Lynn Rombi, who is now a Holy Names Associate. After meeting with retired Sisters trained in spiritual accompaniment, friends who are spiritual directors and interested lay leaders, we assembled a group of available spiritual accompaniers. Then Bishop Richard Garcia asked us to provide spiritual directors for new Permanent Deacon candidates. We were on our way! The Hurricane of the Spirit guided us.

Needless to say, I never got my vacation.

Those completing the Spiritual Direction program must receive at least 180 hours of training/supervision in active listening skills, the art of discernment and prayer development. Those receiving the Spirituality Certification must have 120 hours training in the same skills, in addition to designing and giving retreats under supervision.

Even before celebrating this milestone, we’ve already welcomed eight additional women who started a new session of spiritual direction training in March. The new students were drawn to our solid program of integrated learning – spirituality, theology, psychology, discernment – and hands-on training. Our spiritual directors meet with all kinds of people in our rural mission, where agriculture and tourism are major industries.

Participants come from many parts of Northern California. Pastors, principals and lay leaders of the Diocese collaborate with us on ideas, suggestions for leaders and referrals.

Today, the Villa provides a wide range of spiritual care including spiritual direction, monthly retreats, mentorship for retreat guides, and an annual summer “Intensive” session. This year’s Intensive theme is: “Renewal by the Sea: How to Live a More Mindful, Holistic and Centered Life in God.” It follows two previous summer sessions, “The Art of Discernment” and “The Joy of Pastoral Ministry: A Skills Intensive.”

I want to thank Sister Cheryl Milner, Director of the Villa for her championship and encouraging support and all the Holy Names Sisters and Associates who have been retreat directors, presenters and mentors for the program. Most especially, I want to thank my Spirituality Team of Sister Lois MacGillivray and Associate Lynn Rombi for their faithfulness, dedication and creativity.

This has truly been a collaborative ministry of the Spirit, an effort of love and joy. This outreach has brought amazing riches to individuals, parish groups, schools and all of us at the Villa.

In the photo: Sister Cheryl Milner, Associate Lynn Rombi, Sister Lois MacGillivray and Sister Molly Neville.

Sister Molly is Spirituality Coordinator of Villa Maria del Mar, owned and operated in Santa Cruz, CA by the Sisters of the Holy Names. Follow the Villa on Facebook or visit the website at www.villamariadelmar.org.