Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Art of Spiritual Direction

by Pope Saint John XXIII


An Address Of Pope John XXIII of September 9, 1962, to spiritual directors of seminaries in which he states the need for bringing seminary training up to date, the importance of obedience and implementation of the Council's decisions.

Larger Work

The Encyclicals and Other Messages of John XXIII



Publisher & Date

TPS Press, 1964

Beloved Sons. This meeting comes just before the week of spiritual exercises with which We want to prepare for the opening of the Ecumenical Council. And so you can imagine what is in Our thoughts as We greet you who have been chosen for one of the loftiest and most vital services in the Church.

As you may know, We Ourself carried out this kind of ministry in the seminary of Bergamo at the end of the First World War. That invaluable priestly experience makes it easier for Us to understand what you feel within your souls, and makes Our conversation with you a little more intimate and to the point.

In The Depths Of Consciences

First of all, We want to thank you, beloved sons, for the unseen yet valuable work that you are performing in an area of such promise for the apostolate. The dioceses are counting on you. The future of the Church, it might be said, rests greatly in your hands. It is true that the training of seminarians requires harmonious cooperation and effort on the part of all the faculty members of the seminary, under the wise and kind direction of the rector. But the most important role is yours, for your action is carried on in the inner depths of consciences, where deep convictions take root and where the real transformation of the young man called to the priesthood takes place. The breath of the Spirit of the Lord initiates and sets a crown on this [transformation]. But in the ordinary course of events, it will be hard for the young man to know how to follow His inspirations without the expert guidance of the spiritual director.

We can imagine your daily sacrifice, your anxieties, your silent sufferings. And God knows how many prayers, what great efforts, and at times what anguish you are offering each day for the graces of light and of perseverance for your spiritual children. In expressing Our gratitude to you, We feel that Our sentiments are those of Jesus Himself, who, in entrusting to you His most precious treasures, has called you to collaborate with Him in this sublime work of His grace.

A Difficult And Delicate Mission

We would also like to express Our pleasure and satisfaction with your congress, which promises wonderful results.

The Art Of Arts

The training of young people—it can bear repeating—is a mission that is anything but easy. It is rightly called the art of arts. And this is more true when dealing with young people who are turning with an open and generous mind toward the priesthood. The man who is training seminarians realizes that his own personal preparation for this most lofty ministry must continue throughout the length of his service. He must study the psychology of students for the priesthood; he must live with his eyes open to the world around him; he must learn from life. But he must learn from books too: from study, from the experiences of his confreres and from the progress made in the pedagogical sciences, and especially from those texts and authors recommended by the Congregation of Seminaries.

We cannot hide the fact that mistakes have been committed— and are still being committed—in the educational field, with the ready excuse that the only requirements for the recognition and proper development of vocations are common sense, a clinical eye, and, above all, experience. It gives Us the greatest of pain to say this. More enlightened spiritual direction would have spared the Church various priests who are not altogether equal to the loftiness of their office, at the same time that it would have brought her a greater number of holy priests.

Contemporary Difficulties

Besides, you know well that every age presents its own special difficulties to be met in the training of young people. In your case, you cannot forget that the seminarians belong to a generation that has been through the tragedy of two gigantic wars, and that they come from a world that is changing and developing with surprising swiftness. As a result, you may well feel at times a little perplexed in the face of certain expressions of an immature personality, in the face of aspirations and needs and demands that seem far removed from the mentality current only twenty years ago.

At times this may make you think that the traditional training has seen its day, and that new ways have to be tried out.

In this regard, We would like to openly express Our thoughts to you.

While it will not help you in training seminarians to adhere rigidly to plans and methods which are no longer useful, nevertheless you must be firmly convinced that the basic principles, without which the whole edifice would crumble and fall into ruins, retain their full force. You must also avoid carefully the danger of allowing marginal reforms, no matter how important and at times opportune they may be, to distract attention from the central problem in all seminary training.

The main object toward which you must direct your efforts is the creation in the young men of a complete and well-rounded idea of the priesthood based on the Gospel model, and an acute and vital awareness of the duty of tending toward holiness.

Unchanging Validity Of Basic Principles

The problem of personal sanctification was the point of honor and of joy of your youthful years and of Ours, beloved sons. Those called to the priesthood in this second half of the twentieth century can have nothing more at heart than this, both prior to ordination and during their growth in the priesthood; they must be firmly convinced of the emptiness of any apostolic effort that is not informed by a soul in the state of grace and tending toward sanctity.

A Need For Mortification

You must also take care that these young men begin to know and understand the world in which they are called to live and to work, and you must teach them to sanctify anything good and healthy and holy that progress may offer. But this does not mean accepting compromises with the spirit of the world, nor, even less, devaluing the importance of mortification and of self-denial. An ill-conceived up-to-date approach concerned only with making seminary life more pleasant, or appeasing nature too much, would create a personality that would be the very opposite to that of Jesus the Priest and Victim. On the contrary, a modern measuring up to the demands of the times will have to be achieved through a more profound assimilation of the personality of Jesus and of Jesus crucified. Seminarians must be made to love the self-denial of the Cross, so that they may learn to love the conditions of poverty in which the clergy often must live, and learn to face with courage the renunciations and the tiring labors of the apostolate.

Firm Discipline: Cheerful Devotion To Sacrifice

You sometimes hear people talk of self-formation, of self-mastery. Of course, no man is well trained if he does not know how to be a rule unto himself. Educators are correct in being concerned with granting the youngster a useful and progressive exercise of freedom that will prepare him to govern himself by himself in definite circumstances and better prepare him for the life of the ministry. But this should not be separated from a firm discipline. The young man will never learn to exercise self-mastery, if he has not learned to observe with love a strong rule that gives him practice in mortification and in the mastery of his will. Otherwise, in the full exercise of the ministry, he will not be ready for full and cheerful obedience to his bishop; and he may be tempted to attitudes of independence that may not sound like open rebellion, but that will find expression nevertheless in a personal course of action not in keeping with the plan for pastoral action being promoted and proposed by his superior.

Example—A Most Persuasive Language

Finally, we will never be able to stress enough the importance of example. And this is what you give, beloved sons; this is what older priests give; oh, if only we could say that this is what all priests give! This is the eloquent language, which is most persuasive for young people. And, while it is drawing down an abundance of the Lord's fruitful graces, the students will be learning from it almost spontaneously the things often so hard to explain in words.

Lofty Zeal For Executing Council Decisions

Precisely because of his frequent and intimate contacts with seminarians, the figure of the spiritual director is one of those carved into memory, constituting—if they are truly edifying—one of the most effective supports for perseverance in the future. How many times a surprising renaissance of Christian life in a diocese will find its real explanation in the silent work of a holy spiritual director, who has known how to train generations of holy priests through his teachings and his example.

As We draw to a close Our carefully considered words on these grave and lofty matters concerning the training of seminarians—to whose good will, with heavenly grace and with the application of conciliar legislation, will be entrusted the restoration of fervor in the Church throughout the Catholic world—We would like to pay tribute, on this very solemn occasion, to the sacred memory of those priests who are now at rest in the eternal light and peace of the Lord, to whose ministry, as confessors and spiritual guides, you and We entrusted the depths of our consciences at various periods in our lives. They are more than worthy of our devoted commemoration.

Chosen souls that have entered eternity, and are enjoying its highest end or are in the course of reaching it—in any case, holy and blessed souls, every one of them—they are sharers, according to the teaching of the Catholic faith, in the affairs of the Church militant, and offer it aid, especially in its more solemn moments, like that of the Ecumenical Council. And so, may the grace of the Lord that made them deserving of honor for their sanctification of the clergy on earth in the past, obtain a breadth and sweep of fervor for the new generation that the Council intends to consecrate to the triumph of the Kingdom of Christ the Lord: "in sanctitate et justitia coram ipso, omnibus diebus nostris." 1

A Shining Example: Vincenzo Pallotti

Beloved sons! The office of spiritual director is beset with difficulties and responsibilities. It is concerned with forming souls in the image of Jesus the priest. It is a divine work, not a human one. But, far from discouraging you, this serves as the basis for your confidence. It gives you one reason more for abandoning yourselves to the almighty mercy of the divine Artisan who wants to make use of you.

In the midst of the delight born of the new fervor accompanying the celebration of the Council, a deep pleasure and satisfaction for Us is the hope that, along with the honors of the altar being prepared for a number of venerable servants of God and Blessed from the Church's universal constellation of holiness, there will come the canonization of Blessed Vincenzo Pallotti. A most edifying priest, he was able to combine the spiritual direction of the young seminarians of the Pontifical Roman Seminary and of the students of the Urban College of Propaganda with the foundation of the Pious Society of the Catholic Apostolate. It was this that gave the first impulse in Rome to that appropriately-named, Catholic Action which we now admire, as, in its flourishing state, it is applied to the great and true tasks of spreading the Gospel in modern society.

Spiritual Director And Apostle

All of the activity of this outstanding priest was directed toward the sanctification of the clergy and, as he left in writing, to the defense and conservation of the faith, and to the spread of charity among Catholics. His intention was that through the spread of faith and charity in the whole world, there would soon be but one flock and one shepherd.

He was the apostle of a many-faceted liturgical celebration that remains an outstanding reminder of his far-sighted apostolic devotion—We mean the Octave of the Epiphany that is celebrated in the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle, 2 as a powerful reminder of the development of a missionary consciousness in the Christian world and as an invocation of the unity of the Church among all the peoples of the earth.

A Great Work

Beloved sons. Here you have it: verba et exempla, 3 to carry on, under the guidance and inspiration of divine grace, the opus magnum 4 of modelling the hearts of future priests on the Heart of Christ.

With a serene trust that Jesus, the high priest, will make these words of Ours fruitful, We impart Our Apostolic Blessing to you and to all the seminarians entrusted to your care, as a pledge of heavenly blessings.

—September 9, 1962


1 "in holiness and justice before him all our days." Luke 1, 75.

2 During the Octave of the Epiphany, Mass is celebrated in this church in many languages and many rites, with people from all parts of the world participating. The church is located in downtown Rome. —Trans.

3 words and examples.

4 great work.

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