Discerning Spirits: Lay Leaders of the Spiritual Exercises

By Claire Peterson

Upon learning about the first preference of the new Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP) of the Society of Jesus, announced by Jesuit Superior General Arturo Sosa in June, Fr. Joseph Tetlow, SJ, said, “My heart leapt for joy. I’ve been lobbying for this for 30 years.”

The first Preference, “To show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment,” supports the work that Fr. Tetlow has devoted himself to for most of his ministry. Father Tetlow has literally written the book – several, in fact – on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He has spent decades not only guiding people in the Exercises, but training others – both consecrated religious and lay people – to give spiritual direction and lead retreats.

“I was sent here precisely to help lay people learn to give the preached weekend retreat,” Fr. Tetlow said, referring to his role at Our Lady of the Oaks Jesuit Retreat in Grand Coteau, La. While Fr. Tetlow is unique, his ministry is not. Training lay people to lead the Spiritual Exercises and direct retreats is a priority within the USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province.

Father Tetlow gives voice to the stance of the Society of Jesus when he expresses gratitude for the gifts of lay people, calling the ways that lay spiritual leaders serve in retreat and spirituality centers “a great grace from God.”

Ignatius Would Approve

The role of lay people in the giving and receiving of the Spiritual Exercises has been essential from the beginning, Fr. Tetlow says. Saint Ignatius gave women who gathered to listen to him “spiritual exercises” 30 days in a row. The earliest Jesuits did the same, then told the retreatants to pass it on.

It was not until 1535 that the Spiritual Exercises were used as the basis of a long (30-day) retreat. In fact, says Fr. Lou McCabe, SJ, retreat director at Our Lady of the Oaks Jesuit Retreat in Grand Coteau, “St. Ignatius gave the Spiritual Exercises as a lay person long before he was ordained.”

Today, lay men and women collaborate with Jesuits to deepen and spread the influence of Ignatian spirituality, expanding its impact in communities around the world. Lay spiritual leaders serve in three primary ministries: spiritual direction, guiding others through the 19th Annotation, sometimes called the Spiritual Exercises in Every Day Life, and the preached weekend retreat.

“This work is core to the ministry and apostolic preference of offering the Spiritual Exercises as a way to God,” said Carol Ackels, director of the Ignatian Spirituality Institute in Dallas.

Each of the four spirituality centers in the USA Central and Southern Province provides classes, workshops and multi-year programs to train lay people to fill those roles. These centers are located in Grand Coteau, La.; Kansas City, Mo.; Lake Dallas, Texas and Sedalia, Colo. They are staffed by both Jesuits and lay people.

Father Tetlow has designed a rigorous three-year program at Our Lady of the Oaks to train lay men and women to give the conferences in the Preached Weekend Retreat. The first year focuses on the theology of the Spiritual Exercises, to provide directors with a solid foundation in Ignatian spirituality. The second year revolves around the text and its history. The program’s third year is for writing and delivering the talks, with feedback and mentoring. 

Each weekend retreat and spiritual direction session is the embodiment of the resolution to “promote discernment as a regular habit” – one of the outcomes Fr. Sosa wrote about in his letter on the UAPs. They are also evidence of the “offer[ing] of the Spiritual Exercises in as many ways as possible, providing many people, especially the young, the opportunity to make use of them to begin or to advance in following Christ.”

“The preached weekend retreat is a powerful tool,” Fr. Tetlow said. “Something remarkable we’ve encountered is that men and women say their deeper Christian life is strung on a series of weekend retreats.” He told the story of a man who has made 52 weekend retreats over as many years and said to Fr. Tetlow, “My life would be different if I didn’t get this retreat in.”


During a monthly meeting, spiritual directors in the Ignatian Spirituality Program discuss plans for next year’s retreat offerings.

With lay retreat leaders, retreatants are further empowered to journey with the Exercises, because they see themselves represented. In addition, lay people come with experience of the hierarchical Church that probably more closely mirrors that of the retreatant or directee. The Exercises, powerful tools for the head, heart and hands, become even more personal.

“In some cases,” Fr. McCabe says, “Lay people give better retreats than Jesuits because of their experience with family and married life. Some retreatants may be more comfortable talking to a lay person.”

Two to three Jesuits staff Our Lady of the Oaks during each weekend retreat, providing sacramental and practical support to lay spiritual leaders; one Jesuit also listens to the talks and provides feedback. Father Tetlow remarked, “Our retreat centers are thriving precisely because of our lay colleagues, I think we need to recognize that as a really great grace.”

Doing the Work: Lay Leaders and their Invitation

Dallas, Texas

Carol Ackels is the founding director of the Ignatian Spirituality Institute (ISI) in Dallas. “This ministry of spiritual companioning was not something I sought. It was more something that was called out of me, something others saw in me.”

Ackels feels compelled to be proactive in forming ministry in lay men and women. “This is one way that God is at work in our world.”

ISI provides formation for spiritual companioning through workshops and a comprehensive two-and-a-half-year program. In addition, more than 300 people benefit from the ISI’s offering of ongoing spiritual direction.

Members of the Institute have even found ways to take their programs on the road. ISI leaders have traveled from Dallas to St. Louis and Tulsa, Okla., and they’re in conversation with groups in Baltimore and Puerto Rico.

“We try to listen carefully to what groups are asking or needing and formulate a response to that,” Ackels said. “Working with the Holy Spirit is always unwieldy.

“We don’t view our program as ‘training,’” Ackels said. “Our work includes helping a person discern their own gifts and their own call. We’re just hoping to listen to the invitation of the Lord.

“Lay people are learning to step into the work,” she continued. “Lay persons must begin recognizing our own gifts to offer to one another and to the Church.”

Denver, Colorado

The Ignatian Spirituality Program (ISP) of Denver supports lay people as they train to become directors and guides for the Spiritual Exercises through a three-year curriculum and spiritual direction practicum. Joe Lagan began as ISP’s director in 2018 and values the approachability of Ignatian spirituality: “It is available to all persons. It’s a spirituality for all, lay and ordained.

“As the number of ordained Jesuits decreases,” Lagan notes, “all of us who have been formed in Ignatian spirituality are responsible for passing along the traditions. What better way to learn the intricacies of the spirituality of St. Ignatius and the traditions of the Jesuits than to put them into practice?”

The work of ISP is just that: a practice—refined over time. Lagan says his motivation to do the work is “the ongoing discovery that the Spirit is working in the lives of others, in my own life. Grace is present, alive, re-creating all the time.”

As U.S. demographics shift, so do the demographics of the people seeking the guidance of Ignatian spirituality. In 2004, Jesuit Frs. Tim McMahon and Lou McCabe were looking for ways to respond to the influx of Spanish-speakers in Denver. They began introducing Spanish-language retreats at Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House in Sedalia, Colo. and recruited Lillian Salmeron-Voll to help as a spiritual director.

“Statistics show the Catholic Church of the future will be mainly composed of people from Hispanic backgrounds,” Salmeron-Voll said. “There is a great need for Hispanic lay spiritual leaders to pass along the beauty and simplicity of our Ignatian spirituality.”

The Ignatian Spirituality Program serves about 250 people in the Denver area.

Kansas City, Missouri

Jim Caccamo made the Spiritual Exercises for the first time 12 years ago. It was a time of transition for him: “I was going to change jobs, and it was the right thing to do, to get close to Jesus, to really take some time to pray and discern.”

At the time, he was a faculty member at a university, and he desired a guide who was similarly engaged in life, “so I got a married Ph.D. business guy with kids.” This was a blessing for Caccamo: “He knew my life; I thought that would be best for me.”

Caccamo became the director of the Ignatian Spirituality Center (ISC) of Kansas City in 2015. ISC provides two-year training to become prayer companions, taking “a deep dive into discernment and other Ignatian values.” After two years, if a lay person decides they want to be a guide, they work with a mentor for two additional years, learning among other things what they need to pay attention to in one-on-one spiritual companioning. This is followed by three more years of peer supervision.

When Fr. Provincial Ronald Mercier expressed a need for apostolates to work together, Caccamo said, “We took him at his word. With the help of Fr. Bill Sheahan, SJ, we began a collaboration with Rockhurst High School to refurbish a part of the school to do the Exercises there on site with faculty.”

ISC began guiding faculty during free periods and after school hours. Five faculty members, mostly in their early 30s, became retreatants. “Our belief is that if they become stronger in Ignatian identity and closer with Jesus, it will touch the way they teach and reach the student body,” Caccamo said. “That’s going very well.”

Rockhurst High School parents soon came looking for resources as well. So, the ISC created a six-week Lenten Jesuit prayer orientation and group prayer experience for mothers and fathers of students.

“My motivation to do the work is the ongoing discovery that the Spirit is working in the lives of others, in my own life. Grace is present, alive, re-creating all the time.” ~ Joe Lagan, director of the Ignatian Spirituality Program

The new ISC offices at Rockhurst High School, made possible by a gift from the AMDG Foundation, are evidence of both a hunger for Ignatian spirituality and a commitment from both lay and Jesuit leaders to meet this demand.

Meeting God’s People Where They Are

In a letter on apostolic planning Fr. Mercier wrote, “Given the wide range of models available, the province and its work will seek out the best modes for helping people grow in our charism in a particular area.”

For the Ignatian Spirituality Center of Kansas City, that means collaborating with lay men and women who are not Catholic, including offering the Spiritual Exercises to many non-Catholic Christians. In Denver, the Ignatian Spirituality Program continues to expand their outreach and offerings in Spanish and English. And in Dallas, the Ignatian Spirituality Institute has worked to create a formation program in the Diocese of Dallas that includes morning spiritual conversations for deacons and their spouses.

In all these initiatives, lay people are sharing their gifts and their love for and dedication to Ignatian spirituality as collaborators with Jesuits. As Carol Ackels described, “Collaboration is harder than you think, and richer than you can imagine.”

She imagines Jesus braiding a rope; she sees his hands weaving and testing its strength. “Jesuits and lay people each have their own strand, with its own integrity, purpose and call,” she said. “But the rope is used together.

“We grow together, and I hope they learn from me,” Ackels said. In the formation of lay leaders, “Together, we allow ourselves to be invited, challenged and given in the way Jesus wants.”


Banner image: Jim Broderick King, spiritual director at the Ignatian Spirituality Program of Denver, meets with a directee.



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Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House
Our Lady of the Oaks Retreat House, located in Grand Coteau, La., has provided a beautiful setting for retreats since 1938.