Eileen Meinert (centre) with Lay Centre residents heading to St. Peter's for Holy Mass with Pope Francis - opening of the Synod on Synodality, Oct. 2021
ROME — Eileen Meinert is concluding a diploma in spiritual theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. She began the course online in February 2021 and did her last semester in Rome. Originally from Houston, Eileen holds a master’s in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas Houston. She earned a certificate in spiritual direction in 2013, and soon after trained to give the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
She sees people for spiritual direction — on her big outdoor porch since COVID-19 — gives retreats, and is the head of a team of volunteers who provide retreats and ongoing spiritual companionship to people who have experienced homelessness and are in recovery from addiction. She has served as a catechist, spiritual director and retreat facilitator, which she intends to continue after her studies.
She has been married for 22 years to David, an engineer. They have a 20-year-old son, John. In addition to conversations over coffee, she enjoys exercising outdoors, gardening, travel and dancing.
We asked Eileen to talk about her studies and time in Rome and to share some of her favourite photos with us.
What led you to study for a diploma in spiritual theology at the Angelicum?
The long-ago root of the story is that as an undergraduate I ignored a desire to study theology and it could only be ignored so long! The more pertinent information is that in seeing people for spiritual direction, I listen to stories of their spiritual lives as they seek to grow in their relationship with God. So, I wanted to study more thoroughly, and in a more academic way than what was offered in my spiritual direction certificate program, the area called spiritual theology. Spiritual theology is hard to define but, in a nutshell, it is the juncture of moral theology with the lived experience of God around the question, “What is my heart’s deepest desires?” Spiritual theology includes studying people who had deep spiritual lives — like Catherine of Siena and the Desert Fathers — and studying the way the spiritual life develops and matures in a person.
There is no accredited program in the United States. I knew the Angelicum had what I wanted, but when it kept coming up as the only place to study I repeatedly said, “Well, I am not going to Rome,” since I am married and had a son in high school at the time. The Angelicum does not have accreditation for online education.
One morning in January 2021, I woke up with a thought: “I wonder if the Angelicum is online because of COVID.” I had not been thinking about this at all, but there it was that morning. Yes, classes were all online, and it was the final week of registration. I found out that a normal course load is six classes, which meant I could finish half of the program in one semester, so I signed up, not knowing if I’d ever complete the second half. My husband is a dear man and, when I asked his thoughts about the possibility of my going to Rome for a semester, he said, “Well, that’s a really long time!” But yes, he was willing.
St. Catherine of Siena, Eileen’s favourite statue, can be found at the end of Via della Conciliazione, near Castel Sant’Angelo. “She apparently walked to Mass at St. Peter’s often, and I just like this purposeful stride she has,” said Eileen. “I think it captures her spirit.”
What were the challenges of studying online?
The biggest challenge for me was the general lack of interaction of the class with the professor. I am, however, that person in the class who will ask the question when no one else will, which was more of a stretch online with no one else asking questions, but still I did it. When I arrived to class in person, I learned that people remembered me — and my bookcase which appeared in my Zoom view — because I was the one that interacted with the professors. It ended up giving me a connection to people I had only seen online before.
The Lay Centre has been your home during your stay in Rome. How has the experience of living in an international and interreligious community enriched your time here?
There is so much new information, seeds of awareness planted and a cross-fertilization of ideas that it’s actually a bit overwhelming. That overwhelm is good though because it makes me see myself more clearly and it enriches my perspective. It has been said that experiencing Rome helps one to see that we are all “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Living in the community of The Lay Centre helps me to be clear that I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people of great heart, mind and will to serve the Church. My heart is full with the richness of sharing in this community.
Sunset from Eileen's window at The Lay Centre
How will your studies help you in serving the Church?
Among other things, my classes have clarified and validated some of my instincts and given me words to address and ways to approach some common spiritual issues. I became fascinated with the dynamics of the Desert Fathers and would like to find a way to bring some of their style of living spirituality into the parish. In general, I have more awareness of and appreciation for the fellowship of all the sinner-saints who have gone before us. I also have many new avenues to consider for retreat topics.
Could you give some advice to people thinking about coming to Rome to study at one of the pontifical universities?
If God has planted that desire in you, look for how he is making the way possible. Remember that an education in Rome is not simply the education at the university. The city and its history and the people you will meet from so many places and variety of backgrounds, cultures and faith traditions will enrich your life in ways you won’t even know until later. It is completely manageable, especially with living at The Lay Centre. And if a woman who hasn’t studied in decades can do it, then you can too!
Eileen with Lay Centre residents pushing carts of food to our nearby parish, Santa Maria in Domnica, for the Monthly charity collection.
Photos courtesy Eileen Meinert and Lay Centre residents. Main photo features Lay Centre residents: from left to right: Shishir Rozario (Bangladesh), Olena Shust (Ukraine), Eileen Meinert (U.S.A.), Elia Gittardi (Italy), Adrian Oancea (Romania)