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How do we reach out to people in a pandemic? How do we respond to their spiritual needs and promote a contemplative life while gatherings are banned? Many Jesuit spirituality centres have turned towards the Internet during the COVID-19 lockdown in order to continue serving people. They have succeeded in accompanying retreatants at a distance and inspiring other groups to offer Ignatian workshops online. This change has not only helped them to engage with the people they normally serve but has also allowed them to offer their services to larger and more diverse groups.

Online spiritual direction 

To reach out to people during the pandemic, Villa Saint-Martin did not hesitate to turn towards online accompaniment. “We have something small almost every single day, and we have had a major retreat or workshop online almost every weekend since March 28,” explains Sylvester Tan, S.J. His colleague, Edmund Lo, S.J., expanded on what this meant: “this isn’t just another ‘here you go, another link for you to check out on your own’, but something that actually brings people otgether.” These meetings can take several forms, for example:

  • Reflections on daily Mass readings.
  • Retreats.
  • Formation.
  • Praying with the rosary.
  • Sharing in grief and solace.

More recently, the Ignatius Jesuit Center has also started offering online retreats. The first retreat proved so popular that a second was organised, highlighting that even in a pandemic (or indeed, because of it) people still have spiritual needs.

Creating retreats and online activities: the basics 

Villa Saint-Martin could count on its team to quickly put in place some online activities. As Fr. Tan explains:

In addition to videoconferencing (primarily Zoom, but also FaceTime, Skype, and Facebook IM video), the Young Adult Team and the Volunteer Retreat Team are using instant messaging (primarily through WhatsApp) to bounce ideas and share information in real-time in order to be even more attentive and responsive to needs as they develop.

Marc-André Veselovsky, S.J., was one of the three spiritual directors during the Laudato Si! Serving God in Creation retreat hosted by Villa Saint-Martin, which took place primarily on Zoom (with password protection) but had time for personal prayer woven in.

We structured the retreat in such a way that the discussions on Zoom were short in order to allow for more personal time, either for prayer, or for a creative activity. We had three occasions to share in small groups of 4 to 6 people (there were about thirty participants in total). These small groups were an opportunity for authentic encounters between our participants.

During this retreat, the participants had a document with all the information to access the Zoom, the timetable, the texts and the principal points for Ignatian prayer. The document also included important instructions to help guide the retreatants through the experience, for example:

  • Have a Bible or journal at hand.
  • Turn off the microphone (unless a participant is speaking).
  • Provide a contact number in case of technical difficulties.

The retreats offered by the Ignatius Jesuit Center follow many of the same principles. With the help of certain Bible passages and their own reflections, the facilitators accompany the participants along their path around specific questions. Throughout the retreat, video reflections from Jesuits are sent to the retreatants. There is also the opportunity for them to have individual meetings (either by Zoom or telephone) with their spiritual directors.

Jesuits inspire other online retreats

In March, Catherine Cherry took part in an online reflection on the Scriptures with Fr. Tan and his Young Adult Team. Inspired by this, she and launched a series of online meetings on Ignatian teachings, prayer and faith sharing.

When the Churches closed, Father Raymond Lafontaine E.V. asked, “How can we reach people and assist them in their relationship with God?” Father Tan showed me that people could be moved by the Spirit online, and when Father Raymond asked his question, I realized that as Ignatian directors we already know how to help people develop a deep and personal relationship with God. God put it together. I started to pray, listen and write. It was all right there, the topics, how it was to be organized, and how we could assist people.

So, she contacted the Montreal Directed Retreat Group, where she is a member, and the process began to come together:

The technology was the difficult part. With the assistance of one of our members, Dina Amicone, we spent a month practicing. Five of us each took a specific day of the week and another committed to praying while we were online. Among the topics that we have tackled have been: “Becoming Aware of the Presence of God,” “Asking for a Grace” and “Journaling.”

The format of these meetings includes a welcome, introduction, the etiquette of Zoom, a five-minute teaching, reading the scripture passage, and taking people through a guided imagery into a slow reading of the passage again. This is followed by ten minutes of silent prayer and ends with the opportunity to share. The sharing has been surprisingly deep. God is at work.

Dina Amicone explains how she ensured online safety on Zoom:

We had participants register via a Google form that I created. Participants received a link to join, with instructions not to share it. I was able to modify Zoom settings so only the host could screen share, copy or record. A waiting room was enabled to ensure that only those registered were let into the prayer.

Online workshops and retreats bear fruit: an international prayer community

Although online spiritual direction is less personal than when practiced in person, the retreats and other activities have been fruitful. Like many others, Marc-André Veselovsky stresses that these retreats are responding to a real need to come together.

My first experience of an online retreat was really great! At the end of the day, an online retreat is about creating a space to meet with God, and in our context, with Creation. I was most struck by the aspect of « inclusivity » in the retreat. Literally anyone could participate. Participants from across the country could live a spiritual experience during the lockdown.

Colleen Dulle, who took part in one of Villa Saint-Martin’s workshop from New York, greatly appreciated her experience.

Our first workshop was focused on “getting our house in order,” which helped me reflect on how I wanted to use this time of social isolation. At the beginning of quarantine, I had found that my old habits of being distracted or skipping prayer persisted, and I was filling all of my waking hours with work. The workshop helped me to be more intentional about my times for work and prayer, and gave me resources to continue deepening my prayer.

I particularly appreciated the second workshop on praying with Scripture, which was split over two Saturdays to give us time to put what we had learned the first weekend into practice. My small group met on Wednesday to check in and encourage one another, so by the second Saturday we had shared many of our insights and struggles and gotten to know one another well. Now I am close with the other members of our group, and some of us still check in and have seen one another at the other workshops. Having ties to this community has helped me to feel united with others in faith even as I am living alone during the lockdown.

For Catherine Cherry, “being part of a praying community became an anchor during the isolation of Lent.” This online community brought together people from across Canada, but also Chile, Mexico and the United States! As Dianne Amicone adds:

As I reflect on this experience, I am humbled by the deep sharing and trust among the people that join. What began as a desire to connect with God, in the void created by the pandemic, has now become, for many, a desire to know and love God more deeply, while discovering that the way of Ignatius facilitates that inner journey.

As things begin to open up, many of our participants have asked for our online prayer to continue. As a spiritual director, used to the time-honoured tradition of one on one direction, I feel that I have gained a greater understanding of God in all things and of what God can do in just 45 short minutes and a very modern thing called Zoom.

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