by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — If you’re going to make that 10-hour drive from Lexington, Kentucky, to northeast Kansas in the dead of winter, you’d better have a pretty good reason for doing so.
That’s what Laurie and Brian Henderson did, and it wasn’t for barbecue or to celebrate the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win.
The Hendersons braved the miles and weather to attend a residential week of prayer and study, Feb. 13-18, for the Spiritual Mentorship Program at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
They had always been active Catholics, but some 10 years ago, the Hendersons felt an interior “push” to seek something more.
“It was natural to seek spiritual direction,” said Laurie. “I’m not wise enough to think I should advise myself. I’ve lived in Texas, upstate New York, northern Virginia and Kentucky, and it was difficult to find someone who was trained as a spiritual director or mentor.”
Laurie’s brother, Father Brian Nolan in Baltimore, told her about the Spiritual Mentorship Program in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, something unlike anything else he’d ever heard of before. The Hendersons signed on to the program and graduated in 2017 to become spiritual mentors themselves.
“Having the benefit of someone who was trained to help you hear the voice of the Lord in your life acted as a fuel for changing our lives and deepening our relationship with the Lord,” said Laurie. “That’s why we’re massive fans of the program.”
They returned this past residential week as spiritual mentorship program alumni to help train the current group of 75 people — or sixth cohort — to also become spiritual mentors.
He had a dream
The catalyst of what would be the Spiritual Mentorship Program occurred in 2009, while Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann was on a hot, humid bus ride during one of his infrequent trips to Rome.
Returning from the Three Fountains, the traditional site of St. Paul’s martyrdom, his host then-Sister Susan Pieper of the Apostles of the Interior Life was inspired to ask him a question.
“What would you like [the Apostles of the Interior Life] to do for the archdiocese and for you?” she asked.
“I want you Apostles to come up with a program that will form my people to do what you Apostles of the Interior Life do,” said the archbishop.
Archbishop Naumann had invited the Apostles to come to the archdiocese to exercise their ministry of offering spiritual guidance to individuals. There was only one problem: There weren’t enough of them.
Archbishop Naumann had long wanted to activate the universal call to holiness in archdiocesan Catholics.
“My dream for the archdiocese is to be able to awaken in the hearts of many a yearning for holiness,” he later wrote. “If we are able to succeed in this area, we will need an army of spiritual mentors who will be trained to help guide and assist others in developing a rich life of prayer.”
The male and female communities of the Apostles of the Interior Life, assisted by Father Steve Sotiroff and his own spiritual adviser, the late Eugene H. Wojtowicz, adapted the objectives of the Apostles’ ministry to create the Spiritual Mentorship Program. After that, the archdiocesan-based Holy Family School of Faith Institute partnered with the Apostles to run the program.
The first cohort met in 2011 and graduated in 2013. Today, there are about 400 graduates of the program scattered across the archdiocese, the rest of the United States and Canada.
Since the Apostles left the archdiocese in 2022, the Holy Family School of Faith Institute runs the program.
“Their (the Apostles) leaving has forced the hand of divine providence,” said Pieper. “It seems a movement of the Holy Spirit that forced us to turn to the alumni mentors [for help], and they are stepping up in a big way.”
Any friend of Jesus . . .
One poetic definition of a spiritual mentor is: “one beggar telling another beggar where they can find bread.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that.
“A spiritual mentor is a person who, having taken care and continues to take care of their relationship with Jesus — their interior life — turns around and helps another person go deeper in their own relationship and friendship with Jesus,” said Pieper.
Pieper is no longer with the Apostles of the Interior Life, but instead the “spiritual mother” and spiritual adviser of the Spiritual Mentorship Program, under the auspices of the Holy Family School of Faith Institute.
“The Spiritual Mentorship Program forms people in the spiritual life of the church, according to its teaching and traditions,” said Father Sotiroff, who is the program’s chaplain. “It enables them to teach other people to have an interior life, a spiritual life. And they become teachers of other people.”
Accompaniment is what the spiritual mentor does, said Pieper. Having become a friend of Christ, the mentor leads another person to that friendship. The spiritual mentor is a guide and companion on a journey to holiness by helping the mentee develop a deep prayer life, sacramental life and life of virtue.
“I’ve had a spiritual mentor for the past six years,” said Scott Kincaid, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Shawnee. “[I’m doing it for] the continual formation. The gifts I’ve received by being with my spiritual mentor, being able to offer that to others, I think would be tremendous.
“The lessons [my spiritual mentor] receives by giving apply to himself. As spiritual director of my house, as a father, I work on formation to bring holy parents to my kids, with a goal of educating them and letting them grow in their own holiness.”
Getting the tools to do the job
Each cohort of mentor candidates undergoes a two-year course of study consisting of residential sessions and distance learning.
The four one-week residential sessions (two a year) are at Savior Pastoral Center. The session topics are: prayer and spirituality; liturgy and sacraments; virtue and the moral life; and discernment.
The distance learning courses are done through course materials, online lectures and videos. The courses cover the Catechism of the Catholic Church; prayer and spirituality; the New Testament; virtue; the theology of the body; and salvation history.
Once they are certified through the Holy Family School of Faith Institute, the new mentors — all volunteers — are available to minister to their fellow parishioners. No one pays for mentoring.
Cindi Pickert, director of finance and administration for the Holy Family School of Faith Institute, discovered a surprise during her studies and formation.
“The surprise, and it shouldn’t be a surprise, is that we can always go deeper in our relationship with God,” she said. “It does surprise me, and maybe that’s me not setting my expectations for God high enough. I’m continually surprised by how I can grow further in my relationship with God.
“One of the strongest pieces of this program is . . . that we are all called to holiness, and that’s not said enough. And so, when that goal is put in front of us, it’s intimidating. But this program gives us the tools to see it is possible for everyone to reach holiness.”
Although he received formation to be ordained a permanent deacon, Deacon Mark Mies from St. Joseph Parish in Shawnee also decided to enter the program to be equipped for mentoring.
“The formation we get in our archdiocese [to become deacons] is amazing, but we don’t spend much time specifically talking about spiritual direction,” he said.
“Because of the fact that you wear [clerical clothes] and the collar, you have people asking you for spiritual direction,” he continued. “My whole reason for being in the mentorship program is so I can get the tools I need to take the knowledge I’ve been given and supplement it. They teach you good ways to apply this knowledge to spiritual direction.”
You can be a mentor, too
Who can be a spiritual mentor? Just about any Catholic — with a few qualifications.
“Some people say they could never do spiritual mentorship because they aren’t qualified or capable, and I say if you were, we wouldn’t need a program,” said Pieper.
A candidate must be at least 25 years old, live their faith, be a Catholic in good standing, want to accompany others on their faith journey and be recommended by their pastor. According to Pieper, there are 181 graduates of the Spiritual Mentorship Program living in the archdiocese.
Stephanie Jacobson, an executive assistant at the Holy Family School of Faith and coordinator for the Spiritual Mentorship Program, is also a member of the sixth cohort. Demand always exceeds the supply of spiritual mentors.
“I receive their requests,” said Jacobson. “We have a waiting list often for women. Men are more reluctant. We try to stay on top of it so it’s not a long list.”
“There are the formal requests, but the men I talk to want to be mentored but don’t formally reach out,” said her husband Dan Jacobson, who is also in the sixth cohort. “Just having those conversations with them are helpful in getting them to the point of formally reaching out and getting a mentor.”
The seventh cohort, the class that will graduate in 2025, has already begun. It’s never too late, however, to find out more about the program. To find a spiritual mentor — or become one — go online to: schooloffaith.com, scroll down the page and click on the words “Mentorship: Learn More,” or call the Holy Family School of faith at (913) 310-0014.