Ascension offers formation insights beyond its ministry through Mandorla

April 1, 2020


Ascension is tapping its formation programming and expertise for a new venture called Mandorla aimed at inspiring "spiritually centered leadership and living" beyond the bounds of the ministry.

A teenager stands in his troubled Baltimore neighborhood in a scene from the documentary Inherit the Earth. The film was one of the first projects by Mandorla Media, one part of Ascension's new Mandorla venture.

The venture's motto is "Inner work for the common good" and its mission is to help people explore internal spiritual resources to serve a larger purpose, said Celeste Mueller, vice president of ministry formation for the St. Louis-based health system and the president of Mandorla.

Its name reflects both the spiritual and community focuses of its mission. In religion, mandorla is the almond shape surrounding the figure of a holy person; in geometry, it is the figure created by the intersection of two circles, as in a Venn diagram. Mueller said Mandorla will use spirituality centered programs to help people find, within the intersection of the individual and the community, "the sacredness in every part of ordinary life." While the programs are fully aligned with the Catholic faith tradition, they will be accessible for those who profess other religious beliefs or life philosophies, she said.

Cultivating spirituality
Mueller said it had long been a vision of Ascension leadership to make broader use of the "deep riches in our own ministry formation department, but also deep riches in the spirituality centers created long ago by the sisters (who founded Ascension ministries)." Last autumn the vision fell into place and Mandorla officially launched.

Mandorla doesn't have a dedicated staff and while it is based in St. Louis and Austin, Texas, its programs will be offered nationwide and to both religious and secular clients or communities. Executives, facilitators, practitioners, researchers and artists who are employed by or connected to Ascension will present the programs at Ascension sites and elsewhere.

Funding for the nonprofit effort will come from fees, donations and grants. "The business model is that we would charge fees for work for audiences who can pay those fees, and we also want to serve audiences who can't," Mueller said.


Patty Speier is executive director of Seton Cove, an Ascension-owned interfaith retreat center in Austin and senior director of formation for Ascension. She's also a co-founder of Mandorla and its vice president. She said Mandorla's programs will build on those that have been popular for years at Seton Cove. They include leadership training seminars and contemplative prayer groups.

"Over the years we have seen spirituality enter more and more into businesses. There is a longing for deeper meaning and purpose as well as for an enhanced sense of community," Speier said.

"Leaders can feel isolated in the hypercompetitive corporate world. There is a desire to move beyond competition to cooperation and collaboration. Seton Cove has designed and offered programs in contemplative and integral leadership for 25 years. Now seems like the right time to take our programs and expertise beyond Ascension into the marketplace."

A greater source
Seton Cove will now fall under the Mandorla umbrella along with six other projects. The goal of all of its parts, Speier said, "is to help people understand that there is a source greater than their ego, to give them practices to connect to that source and to hopefully have them operate from that source more often than not."

In addition to Seton Cove, Mandorla encompasses the following projects:

  • Presence Lab, which offers coaching, training, consulting and reflective practice to individuals, businesses and organizations who want an integrated experience of leadership formation rooted in character and meaning.
  • Cor Unum Leadership, which provides formation experiences that will draw on Catholic theology and spirituality. Latin for "one heart," Cor Unum echoes Pope Francis' call for "integral human development of persons, communities and creation and service of the common good."
  • Mystic Heart Wisdom School, a spiritual formation program exploring a diversity of faith traditions and what the world's spiritual traditions have in common.
  • McPhee Symposia, an annual lecture and workshop series in Austin that began in 2002 and honors Sr. Mary Rose McPhee, DC, the founder of Seton Cove. It offers leaders in business, health care, education and community an opportunity to reflect on spirituality and work.
  • Sacred Journeys, guided pilgrimages to sacred sites around the world.
  • Mandorla Media, producer of podcasts, video interviews, short documentaries and other resources that explicitly serve the common good.

One of Mandorla Media's first projects was a short documentary called Inherit the Earth that focused on several children grappling with the effects of poverty, drug dealing and family dysfunction in a gritty section of Baltimore.

Robert Fish, senior director of ministry formation at Ascension, was executive producer of that film and two others that are in the works as part of Mandorla Media. He said all of the media project's output will be directed toward advancing human dignity and the common good. He hopes the media project will allow emerging filmmakers to tell stories that are "inherently meaningful" for them and that resonate with wide audiences.

"One way to say what we're trying to do is to take the spirit of Catholic health care into the world," said Fish.

Higher cause
Mueller said all of Mandorla's offerings "come out of our experience of what we have seen happen in the lives of individuals and communities and organizations over these years of doing formation." Formation has shown them how to develop deeper inner spirituality and outside connections, she said.

She is hopeful that by offering those insights beyond Ascension through Mandorla, the health system can help people find the best part of themselves and bond with others and the world around them.

"I think we have firm evidence that persons flourish when they are aware of the deepest part of their being, when they're in touch with meaning, when they are building and being part of community, and when they're able to use their gifts in service of a need or a cause greater than themselves," Mueller said.

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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