Leading the Spiritual Leaders
“I’m appointed as a formator in the seminary, but I have no training for it. We are expected to help young men to become spiritual leaders, but we don’t know how to go about it. Can you help us?”
This was the appeal of the rector of a diocesan seminary in Myitkyina, Myanmar, to Fr. Eamon O’Brien after a retreat in 2001. Fr. O’Brien won the support of Bishop Paul Grawng for this initiative. They formulated a proposal for a team of Columban formators to run a three year course for local formators and spiritual guides. Bishop Paul got the approval and backing for this proposal from the Conference of Bishops of Myanmar.
Thus a team consisting of Columban Fr. Michael McGuire, from the Philippines, Fr. Frank Hoare from Ireland and Columban Sister Mary Ita O’Brien, who was working already in Myanmar, began a four week intensive summer school in March 2003 in a diocesan center in Yangon. Twenty-two local formators—eleven Sisters, one Brother and ten priests—began the course.
Classes were held each morning on the psychology of vocation and the psychology of human development and spirituality. Difficulties were expected and experienced by both the students and the instructors. English was the third language of the participants, and they found the technical language of psychology and spirituality difficult to understand.
The staff was frustrated when the participants spoke in inaudible whispers. However, everyone involved found ways to help one another. The participants, led by their more experienced members, often gathered in small groups in the evenings for a tutorial in Burmese language on the day’s classes. This spirit of cooperation strengthened the community spirit among them.
Unfortunately, the standard of education has deteriorated badly in Myanmar since the military takeover in 1962. Rote learning and parrot-like reproduction is demanded at all levels of education. Critical thought and creative expression are penalized even at the university level. All of this meant that we had to be realistic with our expectations of the participants even as we encouraged a different approach.
We were delighted by the openness of the course participants to the vocational growth conversations that we offered twice a week. In-depth sharing is difficult in Myanmar, because privacy and confidentiality are not a cultural priority. Fear of revealing deeper aspects of oneself are compounded by the informer system operated by the government in the country. However, the participants willingly grasped the opportunity of confidential sessions. In the second year these conversations moved towards counseling while in the third year the sessions were used for spiritual direction. Milltown Park Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Dublin agreed to credit the three-year course. It offered a Pontifical graduate certificate for participants with primary degrees who passed the summer school tests and completed essays during the year after the summer school. A Pontifi cal diploma was offered to students who, in addition to passing the tests, completed shorter projects between summer schools.
After the summer schools, the course participants met three times for one or two day workshops at which they shared experiences, practiced accompaniment skills and discussed their essays or projects. While living and working in Myanmar, Sr. Mary Ita was able to attend these sessions. The participants discussed plans for improving their formation programs and for supporting each other.
In 2004 during the second summer school we taught courses on counseling, sexuality and celibacy and introduction to spiritual direction. We offered counseling twice a week to the participants. In afternoon sessions they also practiced counseling each other in groups of three using the Burmese language.
We were happy to have the opportunity to conduct a one day workshop in March 2004 and a two day workshop in March 2005 for bishops, congregation leaders and some of the course participants. These took place immediately before the summer schools and promoted understanding and dialogue on formation issues between Church leaders and formators.
At the request of the participants, we moved the third summer school in March 2005 to the Salesian seminary in the cooler environment of Pyin Oo Lwin, two hours from Mandalay. This area previously was called Maymyo when it was a summer hill station retreat for the British colonial officers in the Raj.
During this final phase we taught courses on the “Message of Jesus,” “Personality Styles,” and the “Practice of Spiritual Direction.” Each participant had the opportunity of giving spiritual direction with supervision to two novices, Sisters or lay people living in the locality. The staff supervised by facilitating discussion in small groups of the verbatim interviews written by the participants. At the end of this summer school, three of the participants accepted invitations to join us on the staff of the next “Course in Religious Formation,” which began in March 2006. The participants of this fi rst course worked hard and recognize the benefit of the course for them. As one of them said, “I came to know myself better and I am more confident now of being able to help young religious to grow humanly and spiritually.”
The graduation of the first group of students was held at the Catholic Bishop Conference headquarters in Yangon on March 10, 2006. We continue the program with new participants and an expanded staff which includes Sr. Clara Chiang, a psychologist from Taiwan, as well as the three local graduates of the first course.
Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.
This article first appeared in the August / September issue of Columban Mission.