Becoming The Diocese of The Little Way by building Amazing Parishes and Forming Intentional Disciples will require rooting our lives in prayer, depending upon God and learning how to discern the way forward, step-by-step. This is challenging as we know, but there is great excitement because the Sacred Story Institute has an amazing set of spiritual tools for us to carry the torch forward for Pre-K to Grade Eight, Youth and Young Adults and Adults.
All of our strategic planning and key initiatives in the Diocese of Pueblo began to take shape after speaking with the Spitzer Center for Visionary Leadership about how to renew our local Church by means of a more vibrant Catholic culture. Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., himself has said that the next step is a solid Ignatian formation program. It was this component he was going to work on next, until he learned that his close friend, Father Bill Watson, S.J. and his Sacred Story Institute came up with something even better with his Forty Weeks Sacred Story Prayer.
This Sacred Story Parish formation program will be the focus of all three major events for the Diocese of Pueblo in 2020 – the Chrism Day of Reflection, the May Convocation, and the Fall Clergy Retreat – led by Father Watson, who has answered for us the following questions:
What is Forty Weeks Sacred Story Prayer?
My goal with Sacred Story Institute was to develop wholly new methods to unlock the power of Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises in “plug and play” programs for grade schools and parishes. The focus of our programs is the spiritual discipline called the Examen or the Examination of Conscience. It was the form of this ancient prayer that Saint Ignatius updated and made his daily spiritual tool to keep him spiritually pointed toward true north. It is a fifteen-minute discipline that once learned, acts as a powerful way to understand where one is in his/her daily walk with Christ.
It is strategic in that it helps you to know the graces and temptations that happen daily. By opening to the spiritual information, you become “consciously aware” of your life before Christ. You learn the art of spiritual discernment in your attunement to the movements of what Saint Ignatius calls “consolation” and “desolation.” Learning how to distinguish these spiritual movements is also strategic as you learn how to make good decisions in the small and large choices of daily life based on a true reading of your life—your “story.”
This spiritual discipline of the examination of conscience around which all the programs of the Sacred Story Institute are built helps us to see how our own individual “stories” are part of the larger Story of Christ in his work to redeem the world. That is why I called our Institute “Sacred Story” because all of creation and Christ’s work of redemption is a Love Story and each of us, made in God’s image and likeness, is a part of Christ’s work when we allow ourselves to be open and used by the Holy Spirit for our own salvation and for the salvation of the world. That’s why I call the prayer Sacred Story Prayer.
Is this form of prayer accessible to the average person at any given parish?
Just as physical exercise is open to anyone at any age, so this spiritual exercise of Sacred Story Prayer is accessible to anyone at any age. We have versions for Pre-K all the way to older adults. But, like physical exercise, one has to “just do it,” and that can be a challenge for many people. We all know the importance of physical exercises; spiritual exercises is ten times more important for our lives. What the average Catholic needs to understand is that God wants to give us graces daily and we need to find a way to open ourselves daily to the work of the Holy Trinity. This fifteen-minute strategy is a very powerful way to let our hearts become united with the work of the Holy Trinity—making our lives a sacred story.
If I already have a regular prayer life with specific devotions, why should I consider this?
As I have elaborated above, this Sacred Story Prayer is different from all other devotional prayers in its very strategic nature. I like to call it a spiritual diagnostic. As someone with diabetes has to test their blood sugar daily or they can get in serious trouble, this sacred story prayer tests your spiritual status so that you don’t get into trouble spiritually. This diagnostic prayer helps you to make the right decisions to protect your “story” and advance you on the journey of Faith.
Is it true that you only need 15 minutes a day for this spiritual journey?
Yes, that is true. But you need to learn how to do it right for it to be effective and you need to persevere in its practice on a daily basis for the rest of your life. When we filmed the DVD series for Forty Weeks, one gentleman in his early 80’s said to me: “Father Watson, when I started this program, I thought it was four weeks, not forty!” My humorous reply was: “Well I said Forty Weeks because I did not want to scare you and let you know you need to do it for the rest of your life!” We are always looking for a short cut to holiness and there are none. If you want to become holy, and have your life become a sacred story, then you need a daily discipline that keeps you pointed toward true North—toward Christ. Again, this fifteen-minute prayer can accomplish that goal if you learn how to do it properly and if you are faithful to its discipline.
How does Sacred Story Prayer help us share in Christ’s work of reconciliation, and why is that so important?
The early Jesuits were told by Saint Ignatius to “work with those who know they need help.” In other words, those who think they are holy, will not be open to any real spiritual growth. But the two disciplines the early Jesuits used to “work with those who know they need help” were amazingly simple. The Jesuits taught people how to practice the daily examination of conscience—sacred story prayer—and to go to confession frequently. These two disciplines were the major focus of the Jesuits pastoral work for the first two hundred years of the order’s history.
Think for a moment how significant this is: those who learned this sacred story prayer and practiced regular confession gained so many graces that the Jesuits became renown all over the world. What people learned was to bring their lives daily to Christ with this sacred story prayer. Through it, they would know how Christ is working in us and where we need his on-going forgiveness and mercy. This daily discipline then helped people know how to bring their lives to Christ in regular confession to receive his healing graces. When we allow ourselves to be daily redeemed by Christ in prayer and then receive sacramental confession, we become a force for the reconciliation of our families, our parish and our world.
It is only those who know WHY they need to be daily redeemed by Christ and experience his loving, patient mercy and forgiveness who will know HOW to be a force for reconciliation in the world. When we learn how mercifully Christ deals with us where we need his mercy, we become merciful to others Christ puts in our path.
How will Sacred Story Prayer help us become The Diocese of the Little Way, build Amazing Parishes, and form Intentional Disciples? How does this fit in with the New Evangelization?
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux would delight to find some new sin or imperfection each day that she could throw on the mercy of the Father. She knew her holiness was the work of God redeeming her in Christ. She knew her “littleness” in light of the greatness of God and trusted the Father to carry her in her weakness and littleness. Her “little way” requires profound trust in God—specifically in how she let God enter her own weakness and littleness—her shames and her sins.
If people aspire to the “little way” which is really the only path to holiness and true transformation, then individuals must allow God’s grace to penetrate those places in our story that feel dark, out of control, unforgiveable, incapable of being healed, and the things we that frighten us from our own past behaviors.
The disciplines pioneered by Sacred Story Institute for Pre-K to Grade Eight, youth and young adults and adults, can help people—those willing to admit “they need help,”—so open to God’s grace to follow the little way, making their lives and parishes beacons of hope in a world so broken and searching for light.
One only becomes an “intentional disciple” if one has had the powerful experience of letting Jesus save one where one never felt “savable.” It is this foundational experience of the Christian journey—of being saved and redeemed—that many never allow themselves to taste because we are afraid to open our hearts—our stories—where we actually need to be saved. But when one does open oneself to this redeeming work of Christ, then one can’t help wanting to shout it to the world and let others know about Jesus Christ. One then becomes an intentional disciple and groups of individuals in local parishes who journey with Christ daily in this way are the ones who will be the messengers of the New Evangelization.
Why should people come and hear you speak at the 2020 Convocation (May 5-6, 2020 at the Pueblo Community College)?
The Church and the world stand at an important pivot point in history. Saint Ignatius says in the Jesuit Constitutions: “It is not through human means...that the Church and parish can be preserved and increased, but through the grace and omnipotent hand of Christ our God and our Lord. Therefore, in him alone must be placed the hope that he will preserve and carry forward what he deigned to begin for his service and praise and for the aid of souls.”[i]
I will speak about how Sacred Story Parish will develop a menu of evangelization, education and discernment resources using the time-tested methods of Ignatian Spirituality. Sacred Story Institute has pioneered new ways to deliver the power of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and Saint Ignatius’ discernment principles. Sacred Story Parish teaches communities how to become discerning, evangelizing communities of faith where everyone has a daily lived relationship with Jesus Christ.
Evangelization and discernment must be grounded in a living relationship with Jesus Christ whom individuals and faith communities worship as present in their midst. Only this sacred relationship with Christ can create A Sacred Story Parish. I will describe how a Sacred Story Parish will provide means to bolster belief that Christ is present to his people and still working powerfully and miraculously in Sacraments for the salvation of our world.
The first pillar of Sacred Story Parish is to help support the spiritual and human formation of the chief evangelizer, the pastor and his vicars. The health of all evangelization efforts in any parish rest ultimately on a pastor’s shoulders. His spiritual, emotional and physical well-being is of utmost importance.
Sacred Story Parish will hold out a model of simple faith and belief in Christ that formed the early Church and that has reformed the Church in every epoch. As such, Sacred Story Parish will be under the patronage of The Sacred Heart of Christ and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Both of these foundational devotions are ones that the Church and the Society of Jesus have offered to individuals and faith communities to consecrate themselves to in order to accomplish the holy work of God in the world.[ii]
It is this process that I will share at the Convocation.
What are you most excited about in terms of the fruits you’ve seen so far?
We have been working for eight years to research and develop all the resources for a Sacred Story Parish. The testimonies we have received from all over the world to the powerful effectiveness of these Ignatian disciplines brings me profound consolation. The fruits, for “those who admit they need help,” are amazing!
What is the next best step for all of us in the Diocese of Pueblo to prepare to embrace Sacred Story Prayer in 2020?
Why don’t we all simply pray for a spirit of great generosity that all of us, bishops, priests, lay leaders, laity, lapsed Catholics and those who still await the message of the Catholic Church be open to the power of Christ. I offer Saint Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity, for all individuals and parishes to pray daily to prepare for “Greatness in Littleness.”
Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to seek reward,
except that of knowing that I do your will.