Cultivating a Catholic Ethos in Retreats

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

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