Posted on

Venn Diagram for People to Experience Wellbeing on Catholic Retreats

There are 3 elements that combine to make an ‘Experience Wellbeing’ faith formation retreat an empowering and uplifting one. Firstly, begin with the pastoral needs of the participants. Secondly, match their pastoral needs with Catholic theological anthropology messages and Catholic spiritual practices. Thirdly, match their pastoral needs with evidence-based wellbeing strategies for individuals and groups. When these three elements are integrated thoughtfully and efficiently, participants thrive in retreats.

Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (#128) that effective, empowering and loving sharing of the Gospel starts with listening to the cry of the heart of the other person in a spirit of humble learning and walking together. Planning a Catholic retreat starts with deep reflection on the needs of the participants.

Catholic theological anthropology affirms the dignity of each individual and shows the way towards a vibrant, thriving community. The Christian perspective of relationship with God is special and our spiritual practices are too. The theology and practices for personal and communal wellbeing are honed to the pastoral needs of retreat participants.

Evidence-based wellbeing research compliments and shows compelling rationale for Christian virtue ethics and many traditional retreat activities. Pope Francis says integrating these strategies within the context of faith is like turning water into wine. It’s not enough to just present positive psychology strategies on a retreat, but if we integrate the right ones that match the pastoral needs of the participants and complement the theology and spiritual practices chosen, these strategies fill out the retreat experience in powerful ways for the participants.

Posted on

Jesus Provokes us to Love His LIVING Relatives, the Poor

Kindergarten student John and his mum Flonnie in Katundu one of Project Kindy kindergartens in rural Malawi, Africa

To draw closer to Jesus, get to know and offer support to His living relatives, the poor, who are walking the earth in our time!

Hi, my name is Donna Power and I’m from the Brisbane-based charity, Project Kindy.  We fundraise for kindergarten children in extreme poverty in rural Malawi, Africa, providing them with daily polenta-style lunches and education that prepares them for success at primary school.

John was a child of our kindergarten until a month ago.  He lives in a subsistence farming community in the village called, Katundu, and is among the poorest demographics in the world.  He stopped coming to the kindy last month, because he was feeling shy since the mother could not afford to buy for him new clothes.  Tattered shirts and torn shorts are commonplace in these villages, so his clothes must have been very threadbare to stop him from leaving his home.  At the tender age of 4 he has felt the isolating hand of poverty push him into the distance, away from connections with community.

His mother, Flonnie, is 28 years old and she has another child of 11 months.  The husband and father left the family with no reason.   Flonnie is trying to help her family by selling charcoal but there is no money for clothes, school fees, shoes or even food.

Did you know that Jesus provokes us to love the poor who are living members of His family, walking the face of the earth in our time?  Why does He give the poor such a high status and how can we love Him through His brothers and sisters? Learn more from Project Kindy's Donna Power
John standing next to the bags of coal his mother, Flonnie, makes and sells to get by

When Sr Giovanna, the Canossian Sister we work with at the grassroots level, realised he was not at kindy, she and the teacher searched for him in the village.  They discovered the barrier that poverty had created and provided John with a uniform and warmly invited him back to the kindy to receive daily lunch, pre-school education and most importantly, connection with the rest of his community.

Flonnie is very grateful that some of the burden of poverty has been lifted off her and her children. Her son has food and a uniform, and he is learning to interact with others and to take care of himself.  She says that words don’t seem to express the depth of relief and gratitude she feels for the community who has loved her son in this way. 

Did you know that Jesus provokes us to love the poor who are living members of His family, walking the face of the earth in our time?  Why does He give the poor such a high status and how can we love Him through His brothers and sisters? Learn more from Project Kindy's Donna Power
Agnes, mother of 6, her youngest 2 are currently at our Nsanama kindergarten

Agnes is a mother at another one of our kindergartens, in the villaged called Nsanama.  She was born in the village of Nsanama, and she could go to school only until year 5. Her parents were farmers and they could not afford to send her to school past this point, which is commonplace in Malawi. In spite of this, she always treasured the gift and the importance of education. She told herself that she will do all that is possible to send her children to school.

She says that the promise she made to herself – to educate her children – is still very much alive in her mind and heart now that she is 39 and has 6 children. Her older four children are now in primary school after going to our kindergarten where her youngest two are currently enrolled. She says that she is very happy when they come back from kindy and they can sing in English, count and read and even write their names. She says the school opens their mind and prepares them for the primary school.

Her children don’t have uniform and they go from home each morning without food, but the kindy and school provide a polenta-style lunch for them, so she is at peace.

Agnes said it was very difficult during the lock down, when the kindergarten and school were closed because of Covid 19.  Her children could not get the polenta meal they rely on, and so they were hungry. Also, they spent the whole day playing and she realised they were losing interest in education and even forgetting what they had learned.

She wants them to grow and have a chance in life. Agnes says that faith and education are the two treasures to cling to in this life.  Agnes is a very hardworking woman, still young and full of energy. She thanks the Lord for the gift of life and the family and is happy she had a chance to share her story with us.                                                                            

When our family members suffer, we suffer too in a way.  When someone offers relief to our family member, it means the world to us.  For instance, when one of my child is having a hard time, I feel for her, and carry the burden along with her.  On the other hand, when someone else in the community supports her, I feel filled with relief and gratitude for their kindness because they’ve had a healing or empowering impact on her.

God knows this about us because He wired us for connection.  He loves families and there are many times that He teaches us a great deal about Himself through the frame of family life.

Our families profoundly shape us and reveal crucial information about us and this is also very true of Our Lord.  God’s Living Word, the Scriptures, invite us to learn about Jesus in connection to His family.  These insights are like rain from Heaven, the Bible says, coming down to us to nourish and bear fruit in our lives.  It’s through the Old and New Testaments we can get to know God, the Father of Jesus, who is essential to our understanding of Christ Jesus, who is One with the Father and is the Word of Life for all eternity.  It’s through the Gospels that we can get to know Mary, the Mother of Jesus and Joseph, his earthly ‘step father’, who show us that God’s invites and involves people to love Him and join in His redemptive work, too.  

But, did you know that Jesus calls – no commands and provokes us – to get to know His own living relatives?

In the Matthew 25:34-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, Jesus says:

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’

Other versions say, as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, or followers or simply ‘these’.  But I have been drawn back to that interesting phrase in the NRSV, ‘who are members of my family’.  It’s  another way of saying my brothers and sisters, but it encourages me to think in a different way about how serious He takes all of this.  Fascinatingly, He says they ‘are’ not ‘were’ His family, even though He says the actions took place in the past. 

Jesus is inviting us to understand that He is connected to the suffering of the disadvantaged and heavily burdened people who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, imprisoned.  He feels when they are made to suffer more.  He feels when their chains are lifted.  Why?  Because they are His brothers, His sisters, His family.  He is very close to them. 

Why would Jesus give the poor such a high status as members of His family?  This is a direct challenge to the popular human tendency to give the highest status to those people who have money, power, privilege and positioning.  If we all honoured and loved the poor, what sort of society would we have?  Wouldn’t it be different?  We are called to do that at the level of the individual but also to challenge and heal systemic injustice that creates the disadvantage. 

He is plainly saying that if we don’t empower, heal, visit, provide for and lift the burden of those who suffer, we won’t be spending eternity with Him.  That is a very serious statement and one that we must hear as core to our Christian life.  It’s not an optional extra, or a political left vs right argument.  Jesus says, come and get to know my family, who are the least of your society, and you will understand my redemptive love more fully and you will relieve my own pain when you dress their wounds.  And you will be close to me forever.

The stories I shared at the beginning are examples of how these two mothers in Malawi felt relief and hope when the community helped their children with kindergarten, ensuring hope for their future and daily food when there was none at home.  It is a privilege to hear their stories, which they were happy to share with us. For me, Project Kindy has provided a formational experience where Jesus continues to shape my worldview and values as He calls me to listen to the poor in our world.  Really listening means asking deeper questions about the shadows in our world and envisioning how to shine our lights more brightly.  Listening to the poor provokes the comfortable part of me, the one that forgets the element of luck in life, to join in the work for Jesus’ family as well as my own.

Who is the poor that you could sit at the feet of and learn about Our Lord from?  Who is suffering in your family, neighbourhood, church, school, work, state, nation, world?  We can start by really listening to the poor and offering relief in one way or another.  Let’s all do our bit to relieve the suffering of the least of these, who are members of Jesus’ family, and in doing so, draw close to Jesus Himself now and for all eternity.

I hope you have been inspired by the stories of John and his mum, Flonnie and Agnes and her 6 children, to love the poor because when you do, you’re loving Our Lord, too.

Project Kindy's Girls Night Out event fundraising for the poor in rural kindergartens in Malawi. Held at The Loft, in West End, Brisbane, and run by Donna Power
Posted on

11 Halloween Children’s Activities to put the Holy back into Secular Halloween

halloween children's activities

What are your feelings about Halloween?

It’s been a dilemma for me to work out how to adjust to the relatively new and mostly secularised Halloween culture in Australia.  As kids we always went to Mass for All Saints and All Souls Days but here in Brisbane, Australia, in the 80s and 90s we never dressed up in costume, went trick or treating or made any scary decorations. In the last few years, I have resisted any involvement.  This week, however, I have been pushed to work out my new approach to Halloween. 

Cara, our 4-year-old daughter, attends a Kindergarten and the teachers have been really into Halloween costumes and decorations and so now she is too. Why early childhood centres are keen to have scary costumes and decorations without any context is beyond me.  See the bottom of this blog to see an example of the Halloween activities the Kindy children are doing.

Now, I’ve worked out my answer. Instead of it being an ‘either/or’ situation, I’m going to fill out this Halloween experience for Cara with faith and meaning through All Saints and All Souls children’s activities.  So my husband and I are creating new traditions for home to go along with her secular experience at Kindy.

Our Halloween Children’s Activities Bucket List

1) Explore the history of Halloween in conversation, explaining it’s context as the evening before the Church’s All Saints Day which is then followed by All Souls Day.

2) Go to Mass both days in person or virtually

3) Explore, make and wear Saint costumes.  Keep it simple and pick a colour robe, dress or outfit and a symbolic prop.  For ideas see google.

4) Have an All Saints Day Fancy Feast where the snacks link to different saints. See the list below with 15 of our family’s favourite Saints with symbolic snack ideas to start you off (including Woolies links)

5) Create a little prayer table with photos of family and friends who have passed away and light a candle and say a prayer for each one and pray a litany of the saints

6) Create glass cups candle holders for the All Souls and All Saints prayers.  Write (with colourful, permanent pens e.g. Sharpies) the names of loved ones who have passed away and favourite Saints on simple 75 cent glass tumblers from Kmart

7) “Souling” part 1**: Reach out to a couple of neighbours or friends and offer to pray for their loved ones who have passed away and any other intentions they have. If need be, take a special ‘prayer notebook’ to write the names and/or intentions in. 

8) “Souling” part 2**: Make “soul cakes” and share them with friends and neighbours. I found this easy traditional recipe online. However, using that traditional recipe for inspiration, my oldest daughter and I will make simple cookies with a cross cut into them

9) Visit a cemetery and pray for the dead

10) Watch Saint Videos on youtube or you can purchase Saint movies through Christian suppliers too

11) Watch Disney’s movie, “Coco” as a bridge between secular and faith world

** “Souling” – the original trick or treat – was when poor children would knock on their neighbour’s doors and offer to pray for the people’s family members who had passed away. In return, the neighbours would give the children ‘soul cakes’ with a cross marked on them, like hot cross buns at Easter.

Please note:
To celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days, from today through to Nov 30, all purchases of Rosary Beads will include free white organza bags!

All Saints Day Fancy Feast Ideas

I will print out this list, ideally with a pictures of each Saint and matching symbolic food included, and place it on the table for reference.

1) St Mary Mother of Jesus: heart-shaped biscuits as she shares the heart of Christ or make your own. Or Queen or mother-themed treats.

2) St Joseph: bake simple flat bread or buy barley bread as this what he would have eaten daily

3) St Peter: a ‘rock’ themed treat e.g. rockmelon or a fish-themed treat e.g. Fish Fingers

4) St Mary Magdalene: anything spiced-themed or Easter egg- themed e.g. hardboiled eggs and the kids can decorate the shells like Easter eggs

5) St Thomas:  hummus, cheese, olives, tomatoes and dried fruit – what the disciples would have eaten at gatherings

6) St Matthew: gold coin chocolates

7) St Francis of Assisi: Caramello Koalas (or any animal themed treat)

8) St Helena: carrot sticks and cucumber sticks (or anything) in the shape of crosses

9) St Anthony: anything brown to symbolise his robe or anything like a halo e.g. cinnamon donuts (brown coloured halos! – also, my daughter requested donuts)

10) St Teresa of Avila: I love her ‘interior castle’ made of crystal metaphor, so we’re simply going to serve ‘crystal ice cubes’ in water in ‘crystal castle’ cups

11) St Rita, anything brown or rose-themed e.g. Roses chocolates

12) St Gabriel the Archangel, anything white-themed or wing-themed e.g. Chicken wings

13) St Mary MacKillop, cups of tea

14) St Josephine Bakhita, rice or polenta dish

15) St Nicholas, the first Santa, anything red e.g. red strawberries

That is our family’s bucket list of Halloween children’s activities to bring the Holy back into Halloween… We will see which ones actually happen!  Although, we’ve got the whole month of November, really, thanks to the Church!  I’m sure teachers could take one or more of these children’s activities too!

What do you do for Halloween?  I’d love to hear about what you do and I can share it with our daughter!

Secular Halloween children’s activities from my daughter’s kindergarten

From the daily newsletter:

“This morning when we came into Kindy we discovered that our book ‘Room on the Broom’ had turned into a giant version! We think it was the witch who has moved into the Kindy room and into our new witch role play area. She cast a spell and we all came up with ideas about what other spells she can cast. After reading the story we decided to think of spooky things that we would add to our own witches brew. 

What next: Just a reminder that we are inviting the children to dress up for Halloween tomorrow. Come in your spookiest or prettiest costumes! “

secular halloween book

I had been kind of struggling with the scary and superficial nature of the secular Halloween stuff that has taken over my daughter’s kindergarten. Why early childhood places feel compelled to decorate with skulls, spiders, ghosts etc without any explanation of a loving, faith context is beyond me. To me, it seems consistent with the effects of a culture of death, hedonism and consumerism that I see in other areas of our society. I feel compelled to show her there’s way more to it.

And now, I’m grateful to the kindy because I had neglected this beautiful part of our faith and now I’ve embraced it more than ever. This Halloween, we’re going to have a fun and meaningful time and grow in faith and love as a family.

By the way, our daughter ended up going to Kindy as Glinda the Good Witch from Wizard of Oz after we talked about the good and wicked witches in that story.

Posted on

Leading the Mission: To Be One Who Casts Light and Confronts Shadows in Leadership

leading the mission in catholic schools religious life of the school faith development essay lonergan ACU shadows of leadership

This is one of my final assignments for the ACU course in Leading Mission in Catholic Organisations. It gives you some insight into my ongoing development as an authentic person, retreat facilitator and follower of Jesus. I share this to offer you some fellowship and confidence as we all grow in understanding and skills as leaders of the mission.

One who Casts Light

The most important thing I learnt from this unit is how to cast more light as a leader through cultivating the skills to be a more authentic, self-transcending learner and leader, a more courageous confronter of shadows and a more grateful, creative follower of Jesus’ mission.  Firstly, I will discuss how helpful I found Lonergan’s explanation of how a person truly learns, leads and loves to be for my retreats ministry.  Secondly, I will discuss my experience of stepping into the vulnerable space of confronting shadows privately and in the Catholic culture of today help me to become a healthier and more whole-hearted facilitator.  Finally, I will share with you my first mission statement which is a very helpful take-away for me from this unit.

“Human authenticity is a matter of following the built-in law of the human spirit.” [1]   

Lonergan’s explanation of self, moral and religious transcendence was very helpful for me to learn.  As a retreat facilitator I am fascinated to learn how a person can most authentically learn, decide, act, lead and love. His work will inform my approach to retreats in general to bring out the best in the participants, to explain the importance of moving from selfish or pleasure/pain motives to motives of living by worthwhile, good values and to inspire them to fall more in love with the world and with God.   I got a lot out of the group process of asking questions about a work issue through being attentive, intelligent, reflective, responsible and I am sure that retreat participants would benefit greatly, too.  Specifically, my reflection questions for the participants will be influenced by these questions when appropriate, to encourage them to reach for their potential in understanding their own stories and leading authentic lives.  

I particularly enjoyed his inclusive and beautiful explanation of religious conversion, especially how he says that being in love is a stabiliser for living noble values amidst challenges.  I will incorporate that content into some of my retreat presentations.  It fills in some gaps for me between living by values and where to get the power to be able to live a self-transcendent life.  Cognitive identification of values to live by is a great first step, but retreat participants will be doubly empowered if they are also encouraged to fill up the deep well within by falling in love with the world, humanity, nature, God, family, community, the poor and thereby unleash their full capacity to give of themselves for the other, as God does.

“Religious love is the basic fulfilment of our conscious intentionality, of our questions for intelligence, for reflection, for deliberation. It is a fulfilment that brings a deep-set joy that can remain despite humiliation, failure, privation, pain, betrayal, desertion. That fulfilment brings a radical peace, the peace that the world cannot give. That fulfilment bears fruit in a love of one’s neighbor that strives mightily to bring about the kingdom of God on this earth.” [2]  

In a different part of my ‘Experience Wellbeing’ ministry/business, Lonergan’s questions help me navigate challenging experiences with clients (those staff members who book me to facilitate a retreat).  As a sole operator, I feel a particular vulnerability when my client gives negative feedback and this theory will help me reach a better, whole-picture understanding more accurately.   My goal is to find a small group of sole operators to share the commitment to Lonergan’s authentic learning, leading and loving with.  It would be fantastic to apply the process we enjoyed in class to our small business challenges so we can develop our skills for attentiveness, intelligence, responsibility and understanding as professionals and benefit from each other’s questioning and insights.

“This includes a willingness to address forthrightly whatever hinders the process of understanding in oneself and in one’s organisation.” [3]  

Building on Lonergan’s theory, Stebbins challenges me to be an effective leader by pursuing the correct understanding of myself and those I lead by attentively cultivating an authentic way of knowing, acting and loving and I find Brene Brown’s work echoes these ideas.[4]  To be an authentic retreat facilitator, I must have the courage to ask sensitive, scary questions and overcome challenges that hold me back in my private life.  Otherwise, I at least prevent an abundance of light to nourish my relationships with clients and retreat participants due to a lack of energy, clarity, confidence and peace and at worst I start casting shadows.  This has been difficult, tiring work but it is very helpful and fortifying as I have become more peace-filled and resilient through discovering and putting into practice the resources I found and I look forward to how much freer I will be in my retreats as a result. 

Johnson’s prompt to investigate and deal with the shadows of leadership extended this reflection process for me.  We cannot become light-giving leaders if we never talk about the shadows of leadership. I have journaled on my own power and privilege as a facilitator, and its risk of shadows and potential for light, using some prompting questions from the lectures.  I want to use my power to create conditions for retreat participants to grow and to recognise that my spirituality is at the core of my work and effects the outcome for the students and staff I work for.  For example, I will be conscious of offering small and big affirmations and invitations to ensure the participants feel safe, respected and involved and that the conditions of the retreat allow them to flourish as a result[5].   

Johnson and the ‘Spotlight’ movie also prodded me to think about the systemic shadows in the Catholic church.  The movie was confronting for me and made me feel re-sensitised to the gravity of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church.  I will endeavour to use more creative, agency-affirming, all-encompassing language when encouraging participants to connect with the mission of Jesus, together with the rest of the Church.  For example, I became aware that the way I had been referring to connecting retreat participants to ‘the Church’ unintentionally prescribed a passive relationship between them and the traditional capital ‘C’ Church.  This missed a crucial opportunity to welcome, include and encourage participants and decision-makers to be change agents in our Church as well as to shine a light on God’s bigger mission beyond the confines of the Catholic community.  A specific example to demonstrate is that I changed a few sentences in my drafting of my guiding principles in my mission statement.

From: “Connection to Church builds resilience for participants”

To: “Finding new ways to follow Jesus personally and communally builds resilience as participants are strengthened by growing in God’s love and by joining our large, diverse and creative pilgrim Church community.” 

This unit has been such a valuable experience as I was guided to write a mission statement, vision, values and guiding principles for my ministry.  The concept that my retreat ministry does not have a mission, but Jesus’ mission has my retreat ministry is very reassuring and grounding for me. 

“The church does not so much have a mission as that the mission has a church. The church is not about itself; it is about the Reign of God that it preaches, serves and witnesses to, and this makes all the difference.” [6]

I am struggling to find a way to balance a confident, professional voice and a humble, grace-dependent voice, considering that I am only doing this ministry as a grateful response to God’s grace but I want to instil confidence in faith formation for staff.  I am still to work out how to make that clear.  This is now on my ‘About’ page on my website. 

The journey to become a whole-hearted, authentic retreat facilitator is a lifelong process of learning, leading and loving, confronting shadows and seeking out the leadership of Jesus and the creative, pilgrim Church.  This unit has offered me such deeply rich resources for my ongoing professional and personal development and I am very grateful.  The profound and practical teachings from the course have empowered me as a leader, facilitator, business-woman, family member and Christian.  I look forward to implementing the lessons and growing as an authentic leader who allows more light into her own self so she can cast more light for others.


Lonergan, Bernard J.F. “Self-Transcendence: Intellectual, Moral, Religious,” in Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980, vol. 17. Edited by Robert C. Croken and Robert M. Doran. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

Bevans, Stephen. “The Mission Has A Church, The Mission Has Ministers.” Compass 43 (2009): 3-14

Stebbins, J. Michael. ‘Leadership, Discernment, and the Elusiveness of Understanding.’ In Business as a Calling: Interdisciplinary Essays on the Meaning of Business from the Catholic Social Tradition. Edited by Michael Naughton and Stephanie Rumpza, ch 13. 2004.

Johnson, Craig E. Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow.  Los Angeles: Sage: 2012.

Jacobs-Vandegeer, Dr Christiaan.  THCT505: Leading the Mission in Catholic Organisations Lecture Notes.  Sydney:  ACU:  2019.

1.   Bernard J.F. Lonergan, “Self-Transcendence: Intellectual, Moral, Religious,” in Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: Philosophical and Theological Papers 1965-1980, vol. 17. ed. Robert C. Croken and Robert M. Doran. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 318-325.

2.  Lonergan, “Self-Transcendence,” 326.

3.  Michael J. Stebbins, ‘Leadership, Discernment, and the Elusiveness of Understanding,’ in Business as a Calling: Interdisciplinary Essays on the Meaning of Business from the Catholic Social Tradition, ed. Michael Naughton and Stephanie Rumpza, ch 13. (2004), 7.

4.  Dr Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer,  THCT505: Leading the Mission in Catholic Organisations Lecture Notes.  (Sydney:  ACU:  2019).

5.  Craig E. Johnson, Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow.  (Los Angeles: Sage: 2012). 4-12.

6.  Stephen Bevans, “The Mission Has A Church, The Mission Has Ministers.” Compass 43 (2009): 3.

Posted on

How the 4 Main Principles of Catholic Social Teaching are Demonstrated by Project Kindy

This article can be used as a teaching resource over 4 lessons.

Project Kindy is my small, grassroots charity which raises funds in Australia to provide for kindergartens in rural Malawi, Africa.  Please see to get acquainted with our work.  The kindergartens are initiated and run by the local communities and overseen and managed by the Canossian Daughters of Charity.  The partnership between the local village communities, the Canossian Sisters and Project Kindy demonstrates the Catholic Social Teaching principles of Human Dignity, the Common Good, Solidarity and Subsidiarity.

Human Dignity

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27

Genesis 1:27 proclaims a very powerful message, that humans are made in the image and likeness of God.  This is powerful because it bestows immeasurable value onto every single person no matter who they are, where they are, what they have got or what they have done.[1]  It affirms that each person is created for relationship with God and with other people, just as the Trinity models unity of one God in three persons.  

The human person flourishes when he/she loves and is loved by God and other people because he/she is created for relationship with God and other people and one relationship fulfils and strengthens the other.  In every area of society we are called to create environments where each person’s inherent dignity is protected and upheld and each person is able to flourish into who God intended him/her to become.[2] 

The children’s dignity is honoured in several ways through Project Kindy.  Firstly, the provision of access to early years education empowers them to develop as a whole person with a special focus on literacy, numeracy, life skills and social skills.  There is much research that confirms kindergarten experience improves the child’s school readiness which is a key indicator for improved and sustained success through primary, secondary and tertiary school and as an employee, leader and active adult citizenship in society.  This research also indicates that not only does the individual have an improved chance to flourish, but so does the local community and the country at large.

“Giving children a good start through kindergarten not only counters the worst effects of poverty, but may also be the most effective means of halting cross-generational poverty. When equity in access to early education and learning is improved, greater economic benefits accrue to individuals themselves and collectively to society.”     United Nations Children’s Fund:  New York, Updated in April 2012

Another way we honour the dignity of the children and the village communities is in the way we present them to donors and supporters on our Project Kindy website, in our emails, social media and public speaking presentations.  The photos and videos we use of the children, teachers, village leaders and mothers are natural, strengths-focused and elicit a feeling of equality and respect.  The stories we tell emphasise their noble efforts to work, learn and flourish amongst such difficult circumstances of pervasive poverty and that only luck of birth separates us from them.  We invite people to stand in their shoes and imagine that if we were born there, we might hope to be the same leaders, teachers and mothers trying to improve the standard of living for our children.

Our support is offered to each of the children in each of the kindergartens regardless of their family background, religion, family finances or location.  They each have immeasurable worth in our eyes due to being children of God. Some are Christian, some are Muslim and some are not religiously affiliated. Some are orphans living with extended family and some are children still living with one or two of their parents.  We love them all.

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is the idea that every person is created by a loving God with inherent dignity is sometimes so challenging to accept?
  2. If it is true that every person has God-given worth and love, what are the consequences for society?
  3. Are there times in my life when I struggle to see the image of God in other people? When? How could I reframe how I see those people and improve my response to challenging situations?

Common Good

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12

The common good is the goal of creating social conditions where people are able to develop more fully and flourish more easily.  The right to the common use of the earth’s resources is fundamental to this goal.  God gives the earth and her resources to all of humankind and He does not exclude or favour any person.  It is imperative that societies with more resources share them with societies that are in need.  The single-minded materialistic pursuit of collecting goods while our neighbours suffer stifles the flourishing of both the poor and the wealthy.  We were made to be in relationship with each other and our destinies are entwined so that we are liberated only when we are ALL liberated.[3]

The national annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of Australia is around $50 000 whereas it is less than $500 in Malawi.  By luck of birth, we Australians have access to a great deal of resources and according to Catholic Social Teaching we must work to share these resources with other countries that are struggling to flourish.  Project Kindy strives for the common good and aims to contribute to the common access to the earth’s resources mainly through helping to provide short term help in the form of food security as well as long term empowerment through early years education.  Our donors share their resources with the kindergarten communities and in doing so they contribute to sharing the excesses of the Australian society with the poverty-stricken rural communities in Malawi.

In Malawi, people live a subsistence lifestyle, where they are reliant on the land and the weather for the small amount of food they grow for themselves and struggle to make an income. In 2016, the United Nations World Food Programme declared Malawi, Africa, a “Level 3” which is their highest level of emergency, identifying that 6.5 million (just over a third of the population of 18 million) Malawians needed immediate food aid.  The families Project Kindy supports only harvest their food once each year, roughly from April to July. For two thirds of the year, they cannot harvest anymore crops or access new food for their family. If their one harvest is bad, they are in very real danger of food crisis. 

Project Kindy funds daily lunch of ‘nsima’ (ground up corn or rice kernels cooked in water over a campfire) for the 700 children, Monday to Friday, for the 9 months of the year that they attend kindergarten.  In Malawi, the people eat ‘nsima’ for breakfast, lunch and dinner (or less frequently if they are running low in supplies).  The Sisters purchase 400 x 50kg bags of rice and corn kernels and store them in sheds for the year.  They mill the kernels each Monday morning and give representatives from each of the 11 kindergartens their week’s ration of flour.  This provides a much-needed safety net for these children and protects them from hunger and famine. 

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. What have you observed about the relationship between poor people and rich people across the world?
  2. How does working for the Common Good differ from working for material gain alone?
  3. What would the world look like if each society was built upon the idea of the Common Good?


“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40

Solidarity is an attitude of brotherly and sisterly love for our global family, believing that God is our common Creator and so we are inextricably linked through His love.  It is the right way to see our relationships as we receive, the love from our common Heavenly Father and reflect and channel it to each other which then further strengthens our relationship with God and so on.  Whenever we reach out to love, support or empower another person we are expressing our desire to work toward our common good and build unifying, right relationships with each other.  Those of us who are in well-resourced societies are called to share material support within the context of a kind of Christian sibling love with those of us who are in under-resourced societies.[4]  The most fulfilling life is found through empowering, serving and loving others, not just accumulation of material goods.[5]

When the Sisters talk to the leaders, teachers, mothers and village communities on behalf of Project Kindy, they tell them that we are not a big NGO, but a small number of their brothers and sisters in God across the seas.  Some of the village communities are Christian, some of them are Muslim and some are of no religion.  We extend our love and material support to all 11 village groups no matter what religion and culture they are.  When I was there in 2017 it was profoundly beautiful for me to see the children contentedly eating their lunches, playing their games, singing their songs, playing together and smiling away.  Not one of them is excluded from our love because we are all one family in God’s house.

We do not see the children, teachers and mothers as lower in status to us.  Instead we see them as equal partners in a mutually beneficial project, working together to achieve a common goal.  We benefit in many ways from being connected to them and working together towards their liberty which is tied up with ours.  We are wired for this connection and it simply feels good to be serving a noble purpose bigger than ourselves.  The direct relationship we enjoy with the communities through the Sisters is truly a source of wholesome nourishment for our own souls.  The gift of knowing we are making a real and tangible difference in partnership with the locals is a very special antidote to the frustration many donors have expressed to me as they search for deeper relevance in their day to day lives.

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. Who is left behind in the world?
  2. Who is left behind in our own communities?
  3. How can we show solidarity with them?


“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. ” 1 Corinthians 12:12

Subsidiarity refers to the rights and responsibilities of different levels of society and how they should relate to each other for the common good.  The smaller, more local groups should be empowered to participate fully, have their voices heard and cooperate in the creation of that which affects their lives.  Higher structures such as managing bodies and governments must do for the smaller groups what they are unable to do for themselves and to respond to injustices appropriately.[6]

The smallest, most local group in our network is the teachers, parents and committee of each of the kindergartens.  They are in charge of running the lessons, cooking the lunches and solving the everyday problems of the kindies.  The Canossian Sisters sit above them as the overall managers and they educate, mentor and provide support for the local teachers, parents and children. Project Kindy is further removed from the project and so we listen carefully to and respect the advice from the Sisters as to the best course of action for how our funds are to be spent.  Above Project Kindy is the Australian Government who impose strict standards on the charity and the Canossian Sisters and local staff in Malawi to ensure their standards are met.

Each kindergarten is managed by a Parents and Community Committee with the approval from the village chief and each has a representative that meets with the Sisters and the other representatives regularly.  It is an empowering model of partnership and participation where the local people are truly active agents of change in their own communities.  It was clear during my visit that the local volunteers are very energized by this opportunity to work and provide early years education for the little children in their communities.  I cannot overstate the passion with which they spoke as they addressed the villages gathered for our visit.  I observed their great enthusiasm as they taught the children songs, literacy and numeracy.  This energy is very impressive given the oppressive nature of poverty in all aspects of life.

At times there are matters that are inappropriate for the local teachers, mothers, parents and community committee and village chiefs to decide upon.  In these cases, the Sisters manage the situation.  This is clearly seen in the problem of how to give incentives and thank the volunteer teachers.  At first, it was agreed upon between the Sister and myself that Project Kindy funds would be used to provide a small wage to the teachers as this is in line with the principle of the dignity of work.  Later, another Sister corrected this and pointed out that providing monetary wages would create a social injustice in the community.  She said the village volunteers are not equipped to deal with such an influx of money and it would cause conflict.  The Sisters resolved the matter with their solution to provide each volunteer teacher with bags of grain instead of wages.  In this instance, the Sisters had a superior view of the social dynamics of the 11 villages and how introducing wages would cause unnecessary difficulties.  Their decision-making enabled the smaller groups, the teachers, to continue to do their work unhindered and with appropriate reimbursement for their time and energy.

Reflection and Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it important that the local people participate in the decision-making and running of the kindergartens?
  2. Why is it important that the Sisters make decisions from their perspective?
  3. How do small community groups in your own area strengthen your society?

For extra research into the lifestyles of families in Malawi and how they compare to Western lifestyles in America, visit the real photos of people and their homes at,United%20States

The Catholic Social Justice principles of Human Dignity, Common Good, Solidarity and Subsidiarity underpin the work of the local teachers and representatives, the Canossian Daughters of Charity and Project Kindy, whether the individual people involved are aware of that or not.  It is a mutually beneficial project which proves the point that true fulfillment comes when we empower others to flourish and in doing so, we too develop more fully.  Ultimately, we are blessed to be in relationship with our siblings in a faraway land and we will continue to strive for our common good.


Massaro, Thomas. Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action. The Classroom, Edition. Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Pope Paul VI.  Populorum Progressio. Vatican: 1967., visited 18 August 2019.

 Benedict XVI.  Caritas in Veritate. Vatican: 2009,   visited 18 August 2019.

1. Thomas Massaro, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action. The Classroom Edition,  (Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 83.

2. Benedict XVI.  Caritas in Veritate. (Vatican: 2009,   visited 18 August 2019. #45 & #53

3. Pope Paul VI,  Populorum Progressio, (Vatican: 1967, visited 18 August 2019, #19, 22 & 23.

4. Pope Paul VI,  Populorum Progressio, #49.

5. Benedict XVI.  Caritas in Veritate. #5 & 7.

6. Thomas Massaro, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action, 93.

Posted on

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

Posted on

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 and 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 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 ‘know my great worth’ 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.

Posted on

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)