MCLEAN, Va. — The walls of the convent or cloister pose no barrier to Catholic women religious seeking to obtain a classical Catholic education, thanks to a new online program from the Virginia-based Institute of Catholic Culture.
The Magdala Apostolate is an educational program that connects Catholic nuns and religious sisters through Web-conferencing technology into an online classroom. The women religious learn seminary-level courses, taught in real time by a live, orthodox Catholic professor, without having to leave the motherhouse.
“We are serving these sisters, some of whom might be out in the middle of nowhere, by giving them an opportunity to get a seminary-level education taught by faithful, orthodox educators, which is what they need,” said Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo, executive director of the institute.
Carnazzo told the Register that the Institute of Catholic Culture is a nonprofit Catholic educational institute with a mission to re-evangelize society through educational and cultural projects that are both free and open to the public.
“The institute was founded six years ago to give people a taste of the liberal arts, the classical Catholic education they would have received, were we not in the educational crisis we find ourselves in today,” Carnazzo said.
The Magdala Apostolate launched in fall 2012, and courses have covered the Old Testament and New Testament. Sisters participating in the program just need the Internet and an email address, where they receive a link and create a password, which gives them access to the class. They then can listen and watch the professor and each other, as well as ask questions of the lecture. Classes are also recorded in case a sister misses a class.
“True education is a personal experience,” Carnazzo said. “It should be done in a live setting. Your teacher is your guide, so students should be able to ask their teacher questions, and their teacher should be able to engage with them.”
The Vatican’s investigation of the U.S.-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and its finding that American communities had a “need for sound doctrinal formation — both initial and ongoing — for women religious and novices” inspired Carnazzo to set up the Magdala Apostolate.
He said that, in many cases, novices have only the Catholic education they received in the parish, in school or at home, without having an opportunity to go deeper.
“They are in their convents, faithfully praying and doing their apostolic work, so their access to education is severely limited,” Carnazzo said.
Sister Bernadette, novice mistress for the Sisters of Our Lady Immaculate in Cambridge, Ontario, told the Register that flying a professor to their rural convent to teach or driving the sisters two hours one way to the nearest university posed too great a burden on time and their limited financial resources.
“Since [the Magdala Apostolate program] was free, I thought, 'We simply have to take advantage of this,'” Sister Bernadette said.
Four novices have taken the program this past semester, and four more are signed up for the summer.
“It’s a great addition to any formation program and will really help out sisters in their apostolate,” she said.
Sister Margaret Mary, a second-year novice, said the program has been very helpful to her in carrying out the order’s primary apostolate of teaching catechetics to youth and adults and its secondary apostolate of caring for the elderly.
“People often say, ‘Oh you’re a sister, you should know that,'” Sister Margaret Mary said. “So it’s a very useful tool, where you can help them unpack the Scriptures.”
Sister Margaret Mary said the “interactive” nature of the program meant she “never left a class without knowing what was actually there in the Scriptures.”
Sister Gabriella at the Byzantine Catholic Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio, told the Register that the education she received in the Scriptures from the Magdala Apostolate enriched her spiritual and prayer life.
She explained that, during Lent, the sisters read the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which covers salvation history from the fall of Adam to the time of Christ.
“This year was the third time I prayed the Canon, and then I realized: I know who all these people are,” she said. “So it’s really provided me with a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures, which I can better explain to the people I am encountering.”
So far, eight women’s communities from California, Canada, Missouri, Washington, Nebraska and Ohio have taken advantage of the Magdala Apostolate.
Dr. Sebastian Carnazzo, Sabatino Carnazzo’s brother, teaches at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Lincoln, Neb., and taught the Magdala Apostolate’s first classes.
“I love it. Teaching the sisters is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” he said.
Dr. Carnazzo added that the online experience was similar to his experience teaching religious sisters face-to-face in the Diocese of Lincoln.
“It’s not too different, when you get used to it,” he said. “It’s a live classroom setting. We can hear each other, and I teach in real time, even though we are not in the same room.”
Sabatino Carnazzo said the Institute of Catholic Culture is equipped to connect more orthodox Catholic professors with students as the program grows. He hopes to expand the Magdala Apostolate to offer three-four classes per semester, taken from the institute curriculum, and educate 50 or more sisters per year.
The institute curriculum covers theology, philosophy, sacred Scripture, catechetics, Catholic political theory, literature, history, liturgy and more.
Carnazzo said the institute's program is offered at 13 parishes in the Northern Virginia/D.C. area, which host two-three events per week that draw 200-300 people.
However, Carnazzo explained that finances pose the biggest challenge to expanding the Magdala Apostolate.
And while the institute’s overhead for the program is low, the cost to pay the professor’s stipend alone is $6,400 per course.
“We never, never charge our sisters or the students at the institute,” Carnazzo said. “You cannot charge for what Christ has given us freely, so we have to find ways to support education like this.”
He said he hopes the Magdala Apostolate’s investment in teaching the sisters will mean an investment in those passing on the faith to future generations.
Sister Bernadette said she and her fellow sisters hope to take advantage of the program for years to come.
“I’m hoping it will become a staple in our formation program,” Sister Bernadette said. “As religious, we need ongoing formation, both professional and spiritual, especially when we are involved in apostolate all year-round.”
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.