by Olivia Martin
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Some say two years isn’t worth it.
But participants in the Spiritual Mentorship Program offered by the Apostles of the Interior Life (AVI) know better.
To them, it’s worth a lot more than the two years it requires — it’s worth eternity.
From May 18-24, over 70 men and women from across the country gathered at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas, for the first of four “in-residence” sessions as the fifth class or cohort of mentors-in-training.
The program seeks to equip men and women to accompany others in their parish toward spiritual growth. Since it began in 2011, the program has produced over 300 spiritual mentors.
Over the next two years, these students will meet four times at Savior Pastoral Center for intensive week-long formation. These sessions include theology lectures, practicums, meditation and opportunities to receive the sacraments daily.
“We have a wide variety of people who come from different stages in life and different occupations,” said Cari Hillyer, program coordinator. “So, in between sessions, they are asked to do a certain level of online study.”
Students take two online classes designed by the AVIs and the Holy Family School of Faith before each in-residence session — because they really do come from all sorts of backgrounds.
Susy Sosa, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, was a bit nervous at the start of the week. A native Spanish-speaker from Puerto Rico, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to express herself in English or understand the lectures.
“But I was surprised when I found out there was another Puerto Rican here!” she said.
“For me, this was one of the miracles during the program: someone here understood my language,” she added. “What a multicultural gift!”
Though the program is entirely in English, the AVIs excel in creating a welcoming environment for non-English speaking participants — as well as for members of the deaf community.
“[The AVIs] have made the journey so comfortable and supportive,” said Father Chris Klusman, a deaf priest from Milwaukee. “I never really felt isolated or excluded or frustrated at all in this program. It’s been great.”
One of about a dozen deaf priests worldwide, Father Chris is a member of the fourth cohort.
But because he joined the program after his cohort’s first in-residence session, he graduated as the fifth cohort began.
And to him, the program meets the deaf community exactly where they are.
“The deaf community struggles with access,” said Father Chris, “accessing the church, accessing catechesis, where to receive mentors, how to learn about the faith. There’s not that much out there.”
Because of this lack of access, even Father Chris as a deaf priest has struggled to find mentorship.
“I had been praying for something like this [program],” he said. “I knew I really needed something like this.”
When a friend invited him to join the program a couple years ago, it was like he found the missing piece of a puzzle.
“Everything has been fully inclusive and accessible,” said Father Chris. “They even included me in the eucharistic prayer.”
Seeing this was especially impactful for Sosa.
“When I saw Father Chris at the first Mass, . . . I said, ‘Lord, you have given me this [man] to show me who will evangelize our brothers and sisters with disabilities,” she said. “What a great gift to have a deaf priest for [God’s] people!”
And Father Chris is determined to share all he has received during the program.
“The deaf community is a different cultural community,” he said. “Their thought process is different.
“[I] am trying to figure out how to make things work for the deaf community.”
And he is certain spiritual mentorship is a starting point.
“It’s one of the best graces I’ve ever received in my life,” he said.
Though the fifth cohort has just begun its journey, members are already feeling the effects.
“I am capable of a lot more than I may have thought . . . when I [surrender] to the Holy Spirit,” said Brian Armstrong, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Shawnee.
“If I take a deep breath, let the Holy Spirit in, he’s always able to give me a more eloquent and better-guided answer than I could have come up with on my own,” he continued.
Learning to listen and to guide others are key components of the program — as well as to recognize boundaries.
“[Participants] are trained to understand . . . what is not their responsibility,” said Sister Susan Pieper, superior of the AVIs.
Sister Susan is one of the co-founders of the AVIs and has been with the program from the beginning. But even for her, it never gets old.
“Every session, I learn tons about myself: my gifts, talents, weakness, frailties and how to live them joyfully,” she said. “I never get tired of hearing the lessons.”
Troy Hinkel, who holds a doctorate in theology and is co-founder of the Holy Family School of Faith, gives many of the program’s lectures. He is continually struck by the relevance of spiritual mentorship.
“In our culture, [there is] a lack of understanding of God and a lack of knowing how to help people feel his love,” said Hinkel. “[This program] addresses that crisis.”
Despite having felt occasionally discouraged as a deaf person in a hearing world, Father Chris has found it’s the opposite within the Spiritual Mentorship Program.
“It gives me comfort,” he said, “knowing that I don’t have to be like the world — to become indifferent, cold or to be a mediocre Catholic.
“I know the truth will set [us] free — and that truth is love.”