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Creighton’s Online Ministries offer spiritual comfort at home

Fr. Andy Alexander, SJPerhaps the first thing you’ll notice about Creighton University’s Online Ministries is that it looks like a website that was built in 1998.

That’s by design. For a site that last year received about 70 million hits from 200 countries by people with varying levels of internet access, it’s better to err on the side of simplicity.

Creighton’s Online Ministries site, a digital repository aimed at making Ignatian spirituality accessible to all, is something of an anomaly on today’s World Wide Web. It is an old-fashioned site on a relatively niche topic that nevertheless proves to be extremely popular year after year.

This year especially, as members of the Creighton community and Catholics worldwide sequester themselves at home to limit the spread of COVID-19, the site’s mission remains all-the-more relevant, says the Rev. Andy Alexander, SJ, director of Creighton’s Collaborative Ministry Office and Online Ministries. Alexander co-created the site in 1998 alongside Maureen McCann Waldron, who retired from the University in 2016.

Online Ministries WebsiteThe site usually sees an uptick in visitors during Lent, Fr. Alexander says, thanks to the Praying Lent page, which offers prayers, audio retreats, meatless Friday recipes and more resources to deepen the Lenten experience. But this year, likely due to the pandemic, Fr. Alexander says he’s heard from more people contacting him through the site to thank him for it.

“I still get emails from people who say, ‘I just found your site, and I can’t believe all that’s here,’” Fr. Alexander says. “More and more, I’m getting them from people saying, ‘In these times especially, this was a comfort to me.’”

Recently, representatives of The Cloisters on the Platte – a Jesuit retreat center in Gretna, Nebraska – reached out to Fr. Alexander seeking permission to distribute the Online Ministries’ Online Retreat to its mailing list of more than 10,000 people while the facility remains closed due to the pandemic.

“During this time of great uncertainty, with the global spread of the coronavirus, our Online Ministries site is a beacon of hope and a bright light, providing spiritual comfort and peace on a global scale,” says Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, one of several Jesuits who have recorded downloadable audio retreats for the website.

Fr. Alexander attributes the site’s enduring popularity to its longevity. When he and Waldron decided to build it in the late 1990s, the internet was still considered by many to be a novelty, and some balked at the idea of using it as a resource to distribute religious content.

“People just didn’t understand what the web was going to be. They didn’t have an imagination for what it was,” Fr. Alexander says. But to him, he says, the idea of free access to information seemed completely reflective of the spirit of Ignatian teaching.

“It fits Ignatian and Jesuit spirituality that you can find God in all things,” Fr. Alexander says. “The instinct I had, was there is no such thing as a foreign place where this type of stuff doesn’t belong. I thought that it was fitting for a Jesuit institution to pioneer this kind of thing.”

Fr. Alexander and Waldron taught themselves basic HTML coding and launched the site in 1998. Over the years, its offerings have expanded, but one of its most perennially popular features has been the calendar of daily reflections on Scripture, written by Creighton faculty, staff and administrators alongside members of the Jesuit community.

The site also features a 34-week Online Retreat, which includes readings, prayers and exercises for anyone looking to connect more deeply with Ignatian spirituality throughout the Liturgical year. The retreats have been translated into several other languages, including Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese and Kiswahili.

Fr. Alexander and his team of three work-study students regularly update the site with new content, including messages from Pope Francis and reflections on world events. A recent post, written by Fr. Alexander and titled “Praying in the Time of the Virus Crisis,” directs readers to seek courage and heart from God.

“Most of all, faith and trust can help us replace our anxiety with our mission – the mission each of us has to love as we have been loved,” the reflection reads. “When we ask for the help – in our relationship with our God – to grow in compassion and care for those around us, a new level of purpose is given to us.”

Fr. Alexander hopes that prayers and reflections like these, along with the Online Ministries’ other resources, can offer thousands of people worldwide courage and a spiritual shot in the arm during a time of crisis.

“Fear is the enemy here,” Fr. Alexander says. “And faith really helps us in the midst of our fear. It helps us get from turning inward to turning outward and saying, ‘Who is hurting more than me? Who can I reach out to who needs support?’”

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