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Cultivating a Catholic Ethos in Retreats

how to know your retreat is catholic for your catholic school students or staff

3 Signs of Catholic Ethos in School and Staff Retreats

“No area of school life received such strong approval from students as their retreats…  Retreats help students to understand their relationship with God. For many, retreats are the most important religious experience of their lives.”  Marcellin Flynn, “The Culture of Catholic Schools”

Retreats in Catholic schools and organisations must be life-giving for the participants.  Faith formation of staff and students in Catholic education and staff of health care, aged care and social services has become a key strategic priority for delivering a differentiated and authentically Catholic service.  In my work as an independent, external facilitator of faith formation retreats in Catholic schools, I have seen that it is important to be aligned with this key strategic priority, for the good of the sector but also for the good of the participants.  I encourage external and internal facilitators to provide explicitly Catholic spiritual development experiences that are life-giving for their broad range of participants and communities.

Catholic Faith formation is a beautiful and exciting way to contribute to and facilitate the re-membering, reimagining and rebuilding of the Catholic mission at this time and we can offer retreats with confidence because they will benefit our participants greatly.  Elements of positive psychology, neuroscience, sociology or other sciences, yoga, Buddhism and general relaxation techniques can be useful tools in a retreat if they serve and illuminate the Gospel, not replace it.   Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium that when we use modern research for the benefit of evangelisation is ‘like turning water into wine’.  

You know your retreat is Catholic when it offers life-giving, empowering Catholic faith formation for a broad range of participants.  In this article, I will discuss three overarching hallmarks of the Catholic ethos of faith formation, “Catholic Theological Anthropology”, “Whole-Person Engagement” and “Formation Capacities” and how faith formation retreats can be developed and evaluated accordingly by either internal or external facilitators.  By the way, this article serves to inform and develop me as much as those I am hoping to encourage as I am still learning the art of faith formation facilitation.

Firstly, I will describe the hallmarks of Catholic faith formation as laid out by the National Catholic Education Commission and Brisbane Catholic Education.  Secondly, for each hallmark I will reflect on the key priorities for faith formation ministry as I see them.  Finally, for I will share my evaluative questions for each hallmark to assist in the preparation and review of retreats.   My hope is that internal and external faith formation facilitators will have a renewed confidence in offering lifegiving Catholic spiritual retreats to a broad range of participants.

Two of the most instructive documents regarding the hallmark of the Catholic ethos of faith formation for mission in Catholic schools are A Framework for Formation for Mission In Catholic Education” by the National Catholic Education Commission and “Catching Fire Spiritual Formation Framework” in the Brisbane Catholic Education (BCE) document.[1]

Even though my focus is education, these frameworks and implications can be applied to and modified for other Catholic organisations, too.  The authors emphasise that faith formation is of urgent, strategic importance for the people and the mission of the Catholic school and that the standard of formation offered must be excellent, intentional, systematic, developmental and well-resourced.

The first hallmark, “Catholic Theological Anthropology”, must ground and give the orientation for Catholic faith formation in schools (indeed, the whole life of the Catholic school).  The NCEC summarises the theological mysteries that explain how we see the human person’s bestowed dignity from God, the person’s position in relationship with God and the call to love and serve others with the below points:

  • The Trinity reveals the relational, creative and loving nature of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit,
  • The human person has innate dignity and goodness due to being made in the image of God and animated by God (Gen 1:26, 1:31 and 2:7) and that human nature is essentially good,
  • God gives the human person free agency and moral responsibility,
  • Sin is separation from God’s love and the human person has the capability of repentance and ongoing conversion in response to God’s mercy,
  • The human person’s goodness is preserved by God and salvation is given through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,
  • Life is seen as a gift from God to be affirmed and defended,
  • The human person is relational, mirroring the Trinity, is never self-sufficient and is always in need of God’s grace and the fruit of that grace is faith, hope and charity,
  • The ongoing journey of discipleship and mission of individuals and the Church with the ultimate hope of living with God for all eternity.[2]

The first priority, as I see it, for increasing the engagement in faith formation retreats ministry is to find ways to welcome and affirm the broad range of participants effectively.  To acknowledge and welcome all participants to the table, the conversation, the experience, no matter their world view has a powerful effect on their willingness to open up.  Without this foundation, any further development, discovery or discussion of theology will not be as well-received or delved into as deeply.

Find language that connects in with the participants about theology such as the Trinity, sin and suffering, salvation, the soul, grace, spirituality and the Church .  For instance, see my article on using broader language to explain the soul and spirituality that engages theists, agnostics and atheists in meaningful reflection.

A helpful definition of the Church is that it is a conversation, even a fight at times, and the more people at the table there are, the richer the dialogue becomes.  Therefore, all participants are welcome to this experience. Intentionally create space for participants to feel free to be themselves, to feel safe to explore their own stories, to feel that their lives are sacred and their relationships matter.  God is already at work in their lives, loving and redeeming them.

I have found it is empowering to unapologetically and explicitly offer the Catholic view of the human person, which is a radical stance in this world, as a way of affirming the goodness in the participants and offering them a route to deepen the resilience of their identity.  It is important for faith formators to have a firm grasp on the scriptural basis of this Catholic perspective of the human person.

 “Then God said, “Let us make humankind[a] in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26 NRSV).

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).

“then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7).

According to the Genesis creation stories, we come alive by the very life, love and breath of God which is a beautiful affirmation of our value and our goodness is never lost.[3]  The two narratives, one from the Yahwist tradition and one from the Priestly tradition, explain that the unity and meaning of ourselves, all other people, nature and the whole cosmos is found in relationship with God.[4]

Even though God is radically different to humans, we are made in God’s likeness, in the way that we are essentially relational, loving and creative.[5]  We find growth through relationship with others, creation and God and the pinnacle of our human potential is to love and be loved.[6]

The Priestly account offers us confidence in life itself and the world because God created and sustains everything and that the finite world is good.[7]  God is lovingly creative and inspires and empowers us to be lovingly creative and preserve the good in others and ourselves.

The second hallmark of the Catholic ethos of faith formation programs, “Whole-Person Engagement”, relates to the process of engaging the head, heart and hands of the participants.  The NCEC and BCE frameworks explain that facilitators must incorporate all the below aspects in order to provide contextualised, experiential, transformative and affective formation experience for participants:

  • (head) The Christian orientation of the program must be made explicit and substantive theological knowledge and understanding in the Catholic tradition must be provided to educate the mind,
  • (heart) Personal ‘heart’ connections with God are to be offered through reflection on personal stories and experiences of a variety of prayer styles derived from the Catholic tradition,
  • (heart) An affective experience of sacramentality, incarnation, liturgy and the Eucharist is to be offered,
  • (hand) Learning and application of life-giving spirituality practices for daily life is to be offered, e.g. see my article on Virtue Ethics in Retreats 
  • (hand) Opportunities to grow in communion with the school and wider Catholic Church are to be offered,
  • (hand) Personal confidence and commitment to be a disciple of Jesus and play a role in His mission is to be developed.[8]

The area of priority here, by my assessment, is the reflection on and sharing of personal stories and how they connect to the Christian story.  The NCEC and BCE emphasise that God is already at work in the participant’s sacred life and the facilitator’s role is to offer a process to build on their experiences and the participant’s role is to find their answers with the help of the Holy Spirit.[9]

There is great importance given to sharing, reflecting upon and discovering deeper life-giving perspectives of the participants’ personal stories.  This element is an time-honoured gateway to the heart and faith in Jesus.  Sharing and reflecting on our stories increase our capacity for empathy with ourselves and others and help us reframe our experiences and challenges in life-giving ways.[10]

Pope Francis writes that the first step in a respectful and gentle dialogue in a pastoral, faith formation conversation is for the other person to share his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones or other heartfelt needs.  Only then is it possible to bring up God’s word and share the beautiful and essential message of God’s love through Jesus.  The essential Gospel message has to be shared with a humble heart, acknowledging that we, too, are learning and the mystery of God’s love is so rich and deep we never fully grasp it ourselves.  Then it is good for the person receiving the message to know that they have been listened to and understood and their particular situation has been placed before God and God’s word is meaningful to their lives[11].

The third overarching hallmark, “Formation Capacities”, are the discernible marks of a catholic educational community growing in holistic, connective, respectful way towards God.[12]  According to BCE, the participant and school are growing in the capacities of “presence, prayer, principle, welcome, ritual, journey, purpose, commitment and fidelity”.[13]  These capacities have their source in Scripture and early Christian communities.

Both documents stress the importance of affirming the participant as she or he finds a place in the journey of discipleship with Jesus and mission in the world shared by their school, the Church and the many pilgrims who have gone before us.  The two formation capacities I prioritise are ‘journey’ and ‘presence’.

The journey of the pilgrim is a searching for meaning, truth, identity and direction.  The Catholic perspective is that we are a part of living tradition, an ancient conversation, an ancient and current pilgrimage of more than 2000 years of reflection on human experience.[14]  The Catholic experience is an ongoing, living, ever-expanding conversation of people just like us trying to figure out what it means to be Christian in their day and age.  I find that to be very empowering language that appeals to and includes a broad range of people.

Whatever a Catholic perspective is, it should be life-giving and if it’s not, it should be evaluated, hammered out and creatively reimagined by as many people as possible.[15]

The faith capacity of ‘presence’ is one that is able to sit calmly amidst the good times and the bad, through times of certainty and times of the ‘dark night of the soul’.  As Pope Francis says, it is important to approach pastoral dialogue with others from a perspective of being humble, acknowledging I am a fellow pilgrim who will never fully grasp the depth and mystery of God’s ways and love.  Whatever image, story or explanation shared with participants will never completely explain the whole truth of the mysteries we grapple with. This can be both a source of frustration and liberation at times.  To be truly present is to let go of my imperfect images of God and to allow myself and the participants to be more comfortable with the mysteries of faith and in the world.  As you are “more aware of the oddity, the uncontrollable quality of the truth at the heart of all things… you can honestly confront whatever comes to you without fear of the unknown.”[16]

The success of a Catholic retreat can be evaluated by measuring how life-giving it is for the participants individually and as a community. 

These three overarching hallmarks of Catholic ethos can be used to audit and develop faith formation programs.  In the planning and reviewing of retreats, for example, the below questions can be answered by the facilitator, the leadership staff and the participants:

Catholic Theological Anthropology:

  1. Are the underlying beliefs, orientation, content and activities of the retreat consistent with the Catholic perspective of the human person in relationship with the Trinity and the world?
    1. Is there any way it could be more fine-tuned or made explicitly known?
    2. Is there any area of confusion or blind spots observed by the staff or participants?
  2. Do the participants feel affirmed in their goodness and invited to step deeper into their loving, ongoing relationships with God and others in a way that is life-giving for them?
    1. Is there any way the language or activities could be more fine-tuned to gain more buy in from more people?
    2. How can the retreat be more life-giving for the participants?

Whole-person Engagement:

  1. (Head) Is the input explicitly Christian and are the participants offered substantive Catholic theology that is relevant to their lives and appropriate for their developmental level?
    1. What were the strengths and what were areas for improvement of the language used and activities for this group of participants?
  2. (Heart) Are the participants invited and given enough time to experience a heart connection with Jesus through reflecting on personal stories and a variety of immersive Catholic-based prayer experiences?
    1. What worked and didn’t work for the participants and how can the heart connections be extended?
  3. (Hand) Are the participants given appropriate input and time to practice positive strategies, grounded in the Catholic tradition, to build their personal healthy spirituality?
    1. What did these participants value and what are ways to improve?
  4. (Hand) Are the participants welcomed into closer relationship with the local and wider Catholic Church and more deeply committed to their own way following Jesus and contributing to His mission?
    1. What are the strengths and weaknesses in this area and how can it be improved for these participants?

Formation Capacities

  1. Presence, prayer, principle, welcome, ritual, journey, purpose, commitment and fidelity. Are these markers discernible in the participants and the school community during and after the retreat?
    1. How can the encouragement of these capacities be better balanced throughout the retreat? Does any capacity need more attention?
    2. Do these participants have a particular pastoral need for some capacities above others? How can this need be met more readily?

The exploration of the life-giving Catholic ethos of faith formation invites us to reinvigorate our commitment to faith formation ministry.  We can feel confident that we are aligned with the national and local governing bodies as we design, deliver and evaluate retreats with Catholic theological anthropology, engagement of the whole person through theology, personal stories and commitment and prayer experiences and to contribute to the development of formation capacities in the individuals and communities.

It is liberating to view oneself as a pilgrim on the journey with many others both ancient and present, to be free to rest in the oddity of mystery without needing to fully grasp it and to be called to empower others to find life-giving spiritualities to help them find fulfilment through loving relationships with God, themselves and others.  I hope other internal and external faith formation facilitators feel encouraged by the NCEC and BCE frameworks and ask the question, “How can the retreat be more life-giving for the participants?”

Copyright  Donna Power 2019


[1] The National Catholic Education Commission.  A Framework for Formation for Mission In Catholic Education (Sydney: The National Catholic Education Commission, 2017), 1-28.    Brisbane Catholic Education Archdiocese of Brisbane. Spiritual Formation and Evangelisation. Catching Fire Spiritual Formation Framework for the Mission of Catholic Education, 2nd ed. (Brisbane: Brisbane Catholic Education Archdiocese of Brisbane, 2009), 1-50.

[2] A Framework for Formation for Mission, 6-7.

[3] Groome, T. H. What Makes Us Catholic? Eight Gifts for Life, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2002), 50.

[4] Sachs, John R. The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 12-16.

[5] Sachs, Christian Vision of Humanity  12-16.

[6] Groome, What Makes Us Catholic?  50.

[7] Sachs, Christian Vision of Humanity  12-16.

[8] Catching Fire Spiritual Formation Framework, 16-20. A Framework for Formation for Mission, 12-18.

[9] A Framework for Formation for Mission, 18. Catching Fire Spiritual Formation Framework, 22, 30-31.

[10] Jacobs-Vandegeer, Dr Christiaan.  Lecture Notes at THCT504: Catholic Ethos and Care of the Person in Grad Cert in Leadership and Catholic Culture(Melbourne: ACU, 2019) Tuesday March 19.

[11] Francis (2013). Evangelii Gaudium (#128), see , (accessed March 22 2019)

[12] Catching Fire Spiritual Formation Framework, 25-29.

[13] Catching Fire Spiritual Formation Framework, 25-29.

[14] Jacobs-Vandegeer, Lecture Notes ACU.

[15] Jacobs-Vandegeer, Lecture Notes ACU.

[16] Rolheiser, R, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 6.

Extra Readings

Resilient by Dr Rick Hanson

Lessons in Spiritual Development: Learning from Leading Christian-ethos Schools by Dr Ann Casson, Trevor Cooling and Lesley Francis

The Culture of Catholic Schools: A Study of Catholic Schools 1972-1993 by Marcellin Flynn

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead   By Brene Brown

Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization   By Dave Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright

Psychological Impacts of Singing Together Without Performance Pressure  By Christopher Bergland

Building on Prior Knowledge: How does the student brain learn?  By Marlieke van Kesteren

Scientific Benefits of Meditation (summary of research articles in categories)  By Giovanni Dienstmann

The Gifts Of Imperfection  By Brene Brown

Brene Brown’s Videos

Raising Girls  By Steve Biddulph

Raising Boys in the 21st Century  By Steve Biddulph

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t   By James Collins

Kholberg’s Stages of Moral Development 

Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness  By Sara W. Lazar et al

Sing Your Heart Out (Research)  By Tom Shakespeare and Alice Whieldon

Learn more about Experience Wellbeing Retreat Programs

See a Sample Retreat Program

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Why Virtue Ethics is so Empowering in Retreats

soul is like a campfire

The goal of Christian faith formation retreat is to assist the participant to grow in discipleship with Jesus and in community with others so she/he is closer to living a fulfilling life of love.  Virtue Ethics with a Christian perspective is a very helpful in my work as a retreats facilitator because it engages retreat participants in a process of whole-person moral development which is very conducive to faith formation. 

The virtues are easily accessible anchor points for a broad range of participants especially given the time-constraints of a retreat. The process of learning the importance of virtues from and alongside admirable, virtuous people gives retreat participants a whole-person method of moral development. The living of a virtuous life is respectable this gives the retreat participant a sense of noble confidence and identity that transcends his/her material circumstances.  The vocation to build virtues into one’s character until they become habitual strengthens the his/her resilience through times of failure, loss, change or confusion because there is room to learn from all our experiences and recalibrate our character to more closely align with the virtues.  In the final section of the essay, I will outline an example of how Virtue Ethics influences the retreat experience.

Virtue Ethics offers anchor points that give retreat participants an inner compass for their everyday choices and sense of identity.  Broad ranges of retreat participants readily acknowledge the value of virtues and this enables deeper reflection in the time-restricted retreat context.  The framing of personal moral development in terms of virtue is an inclusive and time-efficient pedagogical tool. Analytical discussion of Natural Law reasoning, Kantian theorising or Utilitarian arguments would be too onerous, academic, impersonal for a retreat setting and may even exclude a portion of the participants.   As Pope Francis emphasises in Amoris Laetitia, according to Bishop Robert Barron (2018), rules are good but on their own they are an insufficient formation process for moral development.  Virtue Ethics gives space to develop one’s character and sensitivities to relationships and circumstances, not just fulfil obligations or do one’s duty.

As an apprentice painter sits with, observes, imitates and learns from his teacher, so the retreat participant learns how to be virtuous by being educated by a virtuous community and by following virtuous role models.  In the retreat program, participants learn from a particular Scriptural story or passage that reveals the character of Jesus to gain a broader understanding of the reasons for the virtue, not simply how to apply the letter of the law.  The participants gain inspiration, encouragement, motivation and wisdom from the role models present in the program and from the stories I share of role models in poverty-stricken communities in rural Malawi, Africa, where volunteers and Canossian Sisters run kindergartens to give hope to the children.  The more connected participants are to virtuous role models, the more they will develop their own virtues and lead more virtuous lives. 

To be a person of virtue is a respectable and resilient identity, one which can carry the retreat participant through the good and bad times, losses and gains, rich and poor times of life.  This is a powerful message for retreat participants who are often searching for anchor points as they work out who they are and what they value.  Virtue Ethics is helpful because it offers a whole-person vocation to living a virtuous life and it has an inbuilt way of dealing with inevitable human flaws and failings.  A person can use times of failure as a way to learn the importance of the virtue due to its absence and recalibrate their position on how to apply the virtues to their circumstances (Braun 2019, Virtue Ethics Lecture).  By recommitting to the virtue and recalibrating one’s understanding and application of the virtue to the circumstances, a person is still able to become more virtuous and thus retain their sense of identity and confidence. 

Virtue Ethics involves the whole person because it requires the development of a rational understanding and application of the virtues and an application of the virtues into their personal character through experience with the aim that they become habitual (Andrews & Miller 2009, p 67).  This process supports with the retreat experience which also appeals to the whole person.

The engagement of the retreat participant’s rational mind involves the following on retreat:

  • We explore passages or stories in Scripture to find out what virtues Jesus is demonstrating and/or teaching and why they are important.  For instance, we look at when Jesus tells His listeners during the Sermon on the Mount that they are ‘salt of the earth’ (Matt 5:13).  The meaning we extract from this passage is that like salt we are to preserve the good in others (as salt preserves food), protect the vulnerable (as salt protects wounds from infection), develop our gifts and share them (as salt gives flavour) and be confident in our worth (as salt was used as currency at that time).  So we discover the virtues of beneficence (preserve the good in others), justice (protect the vulnerable), charity (be generous to share our gifts) and modesty (have appropriate self-worth). The reasons why these virtues are important are revealed in the way Jesus is calling His listeners (and us) on a holy vocation to be virtuous, salt of the earth people but the exact application to any given circumstance is not offered.
  • I share stories about kindergarten volunteers in Malawi who demonstrate the application of these virtues amidst very challenging circumstances of extreme poverty.  The above ‘salt of the earth’ virtues are demonstrated by these volunteers in their context and this offers inspiration and confidence to the participants.
  • The participants then hear a story from one of the role models present on the retreat about how they apply these ‘salt of the earth’ virtues to their day to day choices.  The participants naturally find this very engaging and motivating.
  • The participants reflect on their own lived experience to explore the importance of the virtues.  In small groups, they share a story that demonstrates when they learned why a particular ‘salt of the earth’ virtue matters.  E.g.  a retreat participant will typically recall a memory of a time where they were impacted by the virtues of an influential person in his/her personal life.

To develop their character on retreat, participants will:

  • Reflect on how virtues are safe in the middle, as opposed to being excessive or insufficient. For example, for modesty, participants will explore how an excessive emphasis on one’s value is egotistic whilst an insufficient view of one’s value is unduly self-depricating.
  • Choose one virtue that resonates with them as the most useful at the current time.  E.g. a teenager who is struggling with self-esteem will often pick ‘modesty’ because she/he wants to develop a stronger sense of identity and self worth. 
  • Commit to developing the virtue in their personal character. This is done in written and spoken reflection and symbolic artwork.  E.g. participants share their chosen virtue with a partner who then paints a symbol of that virtue onto a glass candle holder.  This special momento serves as a reminder to strive for and recalibrate back to the virtue.
  •  As participants extract virtues from their own personal stories, their self-confidence and resilience improves as they start to identify with the noble, moral life. 

The retreat offers several opportunities to develop the virtuous habit:

  • The participants are arranged into small groups where they have several challenges to accomplish such as team-building games and the respectful sharing of stories. 
  • They also have plenty of opportunities in all elements of retreat including meal times, free time and rituals.

The moral theory of Virtue Ethics is the most influential theory for my retreats because it engages the whole-person in moral development.  I find that integrating Virtue Ethics into the retreat experience to be a resilience-building, encouraging and motivating for a broad range of participants.

Reference List

Andrews, A & Miller, S 2009, Ethics in practice moral theories and the professions,  UNSW Press, Sydney.

Bishop Barron, R 2018, Bishop Barron on Pope Francis and Virtue Ethics, Word on Fire, visited 22/5/19  (comments on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia)

Braun, S  2019, notes from Virtue Ethics lecture in PHIL506: Ethics in a Faith Based Context, ACU Melbourne.

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How to Make Spiritual Language Inclusive for a Broad Range of People

A girls sketch of her soul

How do you define and describe the soul and spirituality for a broad range of people? 

The human soul is the life force within each of us, animated by God[1], our spirituality is how we cultivate and express that energy in either healthy or unhealthy ways[2] and the ultimate fulfillment of a healthy spirituality is to love and be loved[3]. 

Engaging language about the soul can form the basis of a new set of personal narratives for retreat participants that offer new possibilities[4].  In my retreat work with children, teenagers and adults, the above broad definition breaks open what it means to cultivate a healthy spirituality much more readily and invites all participants to reflect genuinely on their lives.

The above empowering definition of the human soul and fulfilment of human life is grounded in Genesis. The main lesson from both Genesis stories is that every person is alive by the love of God and we find fulfilment through living harmoniously with God, each other and the earth[6].  In Genesis 2:7 we learn that we come alive by the very life of God as we read, “and he breathed life into the earth creature’s nostrils to come alive”[7].  Rolheiser profers that our soul is something we are, an unquenchable desire, the very ‘life-pulse’ that makes us alive[8]. Groome explains that we are alive with God’s own life, our breath is his breath of love for us, and our soul is the animating principle of this[9]

This soul, this life-force within us, compels us to restlessness, not peace, according to Rolheiser[10].  It seems that our soul is constantly experiencing loneliness, an insatiable hunger for a deeper connection.  It always stirs us forward, outward or inward, striving to quench an unquenchable fire.  Made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) we are wired for connection and for transcending ourselves in love[11]

Everyone has a soul and spirituality.  Spirituality is how we cultivate and express that fire within us.  Our spirituality can be healthy, integrative and life-giving or unhealthy, dismantling and destructive.  A healthy soul and life-giving spirituality, according to Rolheiser, will keep us energised, vibrant and hope-filled as well as keep us ‘fixed together’, integrating our sense of how we belong and why we are here.  Our soul is our aliveness and the way we stay unified throughout our whole person.  The energetic and integrative aspects of our soul can be suffocated by too much order and dissipated by too much chaos, leading to loss of life [12].

The acknowledgment and empowerment of the human soul and development of a healthy spirituality can be a profound source of confidence, resilience and inspiration in a society that often denies human dignity and defines a human by what he/she can consume[13].   If a person identifies themselves as having a soul, a spirituality and a foreseeable path to human fulfilment based on love, then she/he has access to personal narratives that open up many possibilities regarding inner strength, resilience, peace, hope, joy, confidence, healthy relationships and courage.  Creating a new narrative in which the person is the main character shapes meaning and changes the way we interpret the world around us and our agency within it.  What we emphasise or neglect in our personal life narratives has real effects on us and how we behave in the world[14].

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis explains that the use of images can be a particularly impactful and relatable way of conveying the wonderful truth of the Gospel and awaken a desire within people to move towards love [15].  I have already found that using the above language and images has engaged 3 broad groups of teenagers. 

A thirteen-year-old girl sketched these images at a retreat day recently.  Her first drawing responded to the question, “What does your soul look like today? 

“I have all this fire within me, and even my wings are on fire because I have all this love and happiness inside me, but I can’t work out how to express it to my family.”

Her second sketch responded to the question, ‘How would soul look if it was 100% confident?”

“If my soul was 100% confident I would know how to spread love and happiness easily and freely with my family and everyone. My fire wouldn’t be trapped.”

The following retreat activities invited her and her classmates to make commitments towards creating a healthy spirituality that finds expression in loving and receiving love from others, ourselves and God.  It was clear by the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness showed by the girls that this language engaged them meaningfully and empowered them with new confidence. This particular teenage girl thanked me after retreat for helping her to see new ways she can be confident and more loving in her world.  To me, that is the evidence of effective, empowering language around the soul, spirituality and human fulfilment through love.

The soul is our very life-force, given by God, our spirituality is the way we express and cultivate that energy in either life-giving or destructive ways and our fulfillment is found in loving and being loved.  This broader language is an exciting tool for me to use in retreats as a way of inviting participants to re-write the way they see themselves and their ways of being in this world.  When people are empowered to cultivate healthy spirituality they increase their toolset for building inner strength, confidence, hope, love, peace and joy and so engaging language around this topic is crucial for improving their wellbeing.

Copyright 2019 Donna Power

[1] Groome, T. H. ‘Who do we think we are? Living as graceful people’ in Groome, Thomas H., What Makes Us Catholic? Eight Gifts for Life. 1st ed., (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 2002) Page 50

[2] Rolheiser, R. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Page 6

[3] Francis (2013). Evangelii Gaudium (#39), see , (accessed March 22 2019)

[4] Freeman J, Epston D, & Lobovits D. Playful Approaches to Serious Problems: Narrative Therapy with Children and their Families. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. Chapter 3, Page 47

[5] Rolheiser, R. The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Page 6

[6] Jacobs-Vandegeer, Dr Christiaan.  Lecture notes during THCT504: Catholic Ethos and Care of the Person in Grad Cert in Leadership and Catholic Culture (Melbourne: ACU, 2019) Monday March 18.

[7] Groome,  ‘Who do we think we are?’  p 50

[8] Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: p 12

[9] Groome, ‘Who do we think we are?’  p 50

[10] Rolheiser, The Holy Longing’ p 3

[11] Francis (2013). Evangelii Gaudium (#39), see , (accessed March 22 2019)

[12] Rolheiser, The Holy Longing P 11-14

[13] Francis,  Evangelii Gaudium (#55)

[14] Freeman, Narrative Therapy with Children p 47

[15] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (#157)

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Ideas for Praying the Rosary with Children (repost)

class set of rosary beads

Why pray the rosary?

Children praying the Rosary have a chance to slow down, appreciate, find their anchor point and receive God’s love.  This is a particularly powerful prayer for individuals, families and communities during hard times. It is one way to build an integrative spirituality, where our soul is energised and well-directed.  The Rosary engages our senses and is excellent and engaging classroom prayer activity.

  • Praying the Rosary helps us move out of pain and shame and redirects us back to our noble mission.
  • Meditating on Scripture stories invites us to get to know Jesus and His family as a close friend does
  • The pattern allows us to slowly imagine the scenes, find deeper insights and listen to God speak to us.
  • The prayer experience is a gift from God so you can receive the love of Jesus and Mary for your journey.
  • The Rosary connects us with the ancient and modern, global church and with every person in God’s family.
  • Holding the Rosary beads helps your mind to focus and keeps you on track through the ancient prayer.
  • God promises to forgive, refresh, free, help, defend, reform, instruct, humble and connect to us through the Rosary and any time we come to Him in prayer.

The Holy Rosary is a meditation on important stories in Scripture and Church tradition that teach the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the life and love of Mary.  The stories are grouped in four sets of themes called “Mysteries”:  The Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and Luminous Mysteries.  Each Mystery of the Rosary has five stories.

The Rosary necklace has a few beads, a cross and a medallion at the starting point which signify the starting prayers.  Then there are 5 sets of 10 beads (or decades) representing the five stories from each Mystery and the 10 Hail Mary prayers for each story. You can read the story at the beginning or during the decade of Hail Mary’s.

Reading passages of the stories through the decade is called praying the “Scriptural Rosary”.  The Joyful Mysteries are about the birth and childhood of Jesus.  The Luminous Mysteries are about the public life of Jesus as he proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Sorrowful Mysteries are about the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  The Glorious Mysteries are about the Resurrection of Jesus and what happens after.  Pray between one and five decades of the Joyful Mysteries on Mondays and Saturdays, Luminous Mysteries on Thursdays, Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays and Glorious Mysteries on Wednesdays and Sundays. 

“When people love and recite the Rosary they find it makes them better.” – St. Anthony Mary Claret

 “There is no problem, no matter how difficult it is, in the personal life of each one of us, of our families…that cannot be solved by the Rosary.” – Sister Lucia dos Santos of Fatima

“The holy Rosary is a powerful weapon. Use it with confidence and you’ll be amazed at the results.”– St. Josemaria Escriva

“The Rosary is the most beautiful and the most rich in graces of all prayers; it is the prayer that touches most the Heart of the Mother of God…and if you wish peace to reign in your homes, recite the family Rosary.” – Pope Saint Pius X

“The Rosary is a prayer that always accompanies me; it is also the prayer of the ordinary people and the saints… it is a prayer from my heart.” – Pope Francis

“The greatest method of praying is to pray the Rosary.” – Saint Francis de Sales

 “The Rosary is a prayer both so humble and simple and a theologically rich in Biblical content. I beg you to pray it.” St. John Paul II

Our Modified Scriptural Rosary Prayer Experience

Fitting Deep Prayer into Busy Schedules

My version of praying the Rosary offers a deep spiritual experience in a short timeframe.  The Rosary is a gift from God for us to receive. By the grace of God the Rosary is a special time to connect with God and receive His love and peace. Through the contemplation of the Scriptures we get to know Jesus, Mary and the community as a child, friend and disciple.  Our senses are engaged by holding the beads and listening to the chanting of our group.  Hearts are engaged as we have the opportunity to pray silently or aloud together between each bead. 

This modified experience aims to introduce children, staff and families to the Rosary and hopefully lead to them praying it in its entirety.  There are several prayers omitted but this in no way is intended to imply they are not important.  Please feel free to add the Creed and prayers or pray more than one decade in each sitting.  The readings come from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Bible and are from where you can download audio recordings of the Mysteries for free.  May your group be truly blessed as you pray together.

One Decade at a Time

Pick up my Rosary Beads: become aware of the love God has for me and relax into my heart.

Sign of the Cross:  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirt, Amen

Single Bead:  Our Father

All:   Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your Name.  Your Kindgom come, your Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.  Amen

Each Bead in the Decade:  Hail Mary

  1. Contemplate and imagine the passage as it is read aloud by the leader
  2. Pray silently in my heart or pray out loud.  Ideas: pray for something/one, say thank you or praise God.
    1. After my prayer, say: “Lord, hear us” 
    2. After spoken prayer, respond with: “Lord, hear our prayer”
  3. Pray the Hail Mary Half of the group prays the first part andhalfprays the second part:
    1. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. 
    2. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

At the End of the Decade: Glory Be

All:  Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Recieve my FREE printable and PowerPoint presentation of the full Modified Scriptural Rosary with modern illustrations by email:Get Rosary Resource NowBuy Rosary Beads

rosary beads class set Australia for children or teenagers students at catholic schools prayer resource

I found the below great article offering some inspiring insights into praying the Rosary with children and teenagers:

12 Tips for Praying the Rosary with Kids

 posted in: Pray with Your Kids

A lot of Catholic parents would love to say the  with their kids . . . if the experience wasn’t quite so, erm . . . fraught. Here are twelve strategies for making it work.

This article is adapted from the book 77 Ways to Pray with Your Kids

A lot of Catholic parents would love to say the rosary with their kids . . . if the experience wasn’t quite so, erm . . . fraught. At our house, we barely make it out of the preliminaries before the littles are swinging their beads around like lassos . . . which inevitably become airborne missiles . . . and if you have ever been whacked in the face by a rosary mid-Hail Mary, you know it kind of ruins the mood.

Our older kids are better, but I personally remember doing some groaning and eye-rolling as a teen when it came time for the rosary.

Fortunately, we’ve come up with a couple insights that help us to pray the rosary as a family in a more sane and meaningful way.

  1. The rosary is supposed to be a form of meditative prayer. Listen to the words of Pope Paul VI: “Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas. . . . By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord” (Marialis Cultus #47). Realizing that the rosary is primarily a form of meditative prayer opens up whole new horizons for teens . . . and adults.
  2. The rosary can be adapted to kids. Mary is many things, but she is first and foremost a mom . . . a mom who undoubtedly understands what it is like to deal with kids! (Yeah, Jesus might have been a good kid, but she undoubtedly mothered the children of relatives and neighbors, too.) So why do we feel enslaved to saying the entire rosary with small kids? Realizing that we could do a mini-rosary with the littles made saying the rosary as a family do-able.

On this point, we have the words of St. John Paul as encouragement. “It could be objected

Photo credit: “Pray for Us,” by Rachel Titiriga. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

that the Rosary seems hardly suited to the taste of children and young people of today,” he says in Rosarium Virginis Mariae (#42). “But perhaps the objection is directed to an impoverished method of praying it. Furthermore, without prejudice to the Rosary’s basic structure, there is nothing to stop children and young people from praying it—either within the family or in groups— with appropriate symbolic and practical aids to understanding and appreciation.”

By the way, if you haven’t prayed the rosary before, here’s how to say the rosary.  (Or find a one-sheet printable guide at New Advent.) And if you have been reluctant to pray the rosary because it seemed too simplistic or Mary-centered, check out the Talking Points section below for some reasons to give it a try.

So, without further ado, here are some different approaches to praying the rosary with kids.

Younger Children

1. Skip the beads, or get kid-friendly ones.
If you’re praying with children too young to follow direction, say the rosary without the aid of rosary beads. (Very young children may end up whipping them around.) When your kids are old enough, purchase a durable, kid-friendly rosary, such as a cord rosary. If you really want your baby or toddler to have a rosary like everyone else…or if you just want to keep them distracted long enough for you to say it, consider getting the Chews Life rosary…it’s made out of food-grade silicone.

2. Start with one decade.
Praying one decade of the rosary should take a little longer than five minutes. Be sure to introduce the mystery in advance; meditate on a different mystery each time, so that you eventually work your way through all the mysteries.

3. Shorten the decades.
Say the entire rosary, but only say three Hail Mary prayers for each decade. This is a good way of introducing your children to the order of the mysteries and the rhythm of the entire rosary; plan on spending about fifteen minutes.

4. Use pictures to aid meditation.
Find pictures (online or in a book) illustrating each mystery of the rosary. Display the pictures as you briefly explain and then pray each mystery. Or check out The Illuminated Rosary series from Gracewatch Media (yeah, that’s us—shameless but topically appropriate plug); each book contains works of sacred art illuminating a different set of mysteries; young children can follow the rosary by looking at the pictures (one per bead), and older children can use it to help them learn the prayers. If you don’t want to invest in books, pull together pictures on your own.

5. Set a prayerful mood.
Before you begin the rosary, set the mood with Smells and Bells, singing a Marian hymn, or practicing Thirty Seconds of Silence.

6. Ignore the kids and pray.
If your children act up while you’re praying, ignore them as best you can and pray the rosary yourself. Someday, your kids will “grow into” the practice, and in the meantime, Mary, mother of us all, surely sympathizes. A variation: just pray the rosary by yourself, or with your spouse. Tell your kids that mom and dad are going to have their “rosary time,” and shoo them away. That’s what Becky Arganbright did, and before long, all her kids were saying the rosary, too…because they wanted to. Check out her story in Our Accidental Ten-Minute Family Rosary.

Older Children and Teens

In addition to the ideas above, consider the following for older kids and teens:

7. Make your own cord rosaries.
Teens have been crafting their own knotted and dyed rosaries from nylon cord since the 1980s; you can find supplies and instructions at Rosary Army (

8. Introduce the rosary as a form of meditation.
As Pope Paul VI says in the quote above, the rosary becomes an empty ritual if it is nothing more than the repetition of words. Instead, take time to introduce each of the mysteries very intentionally, and go over the principles of meditative prayer with your kids. You may also find that introducing other forms of meditative and imaginative prayer—and mixing up the way you pray together as a family—supports and enhances your practice of praying the rosary. And once you’ve introduced the principles of meditative and imaginative prayer so that kids have an idea of what they’re aiming for, then for heaven’s sake, slow it down. Racing through the rosary, as several popes have pointed out, is not ideal. If time is an issue, then try praying a single decade slowly and meditatively.

9. Pray the Scriptural rosary.
As the name implies, the Scriptural rosary incorporates very brief, relevant Scripture readings before each Hail Mary; for example, the first joyful mystery, the Annunciation, would be interspersed with lines from Luke 1, taking the reader through the Biblical account of the Annunciation. You can purchase a Scriptural rosary book, or find different versions online. Alternatively, focus on one mystery (and pray one decade) at a time over the course of a month, reading the corresponding Scripture before praying the decade slowly and meditatively. You could also incorporate a lectio divinacomponent to your reflection.

10. Pray with music.
Try praying with soft instrumental music playing in the background; alternatively, preface each mystery with the relevant song from Catholic artist Danielle Rose’s excellent Mysteries, in which she has composed a gently meditative song with appealing contemporary styling for each mystery of the rosary; it’s well-reviewed on Amazon.

11. Get older kids and teens to lead.
Research shows that the more agency we give kids around religious practices, the more likely they are to retain and integrate those practices into adulthood. Letting kids lead prayer is always a good idea, with appropriate support and guidance, so don’t hesitate to let kids lead the rosary with the help of an appropriate resource. You might begin while they’re younger by inviting them to offer their own intentions.

12. Pray the rosary for your kids.
If all else fails, and you just can’t convince your older kids or teens to say the rosary with you, then pray it for them. As you pray, focus on entrusting your kids to the intercession of Mary and the care of her Son, and ask for the humility and grace you need to be a good parent.

Be creative in your family practice of praying the rosary…and be persistent. As Pope John Paul II says, “If the Rosary is well presented, I am sure that young people will once more surprise adults by the way they make this prayer their own and recite it with the enthusiasm typical of their age group.”