LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Five years ago Dan Schneider was being evangelized by Baptists and began to doubt some Catholic Church teachings.
Today he evangelizes other Catholics by teaching adult education classes on Scripture and the sacraments for the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M.
“The more I teach about Jesus Christ, the deeper he becomes present to me,” he said.
Schneider's conversion and ministry stem from theology courses he is taking through the distance-learning program of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. The professors emphasize the need to “align yourself with the teaching authority of the Church” and to become involved in ministry, he said.
Using study guides and audiotaped lectures at home has enabled the 35-year-old husband, father and operator of three dry-cleaning franchises to complete eight of the 20 courses required for a master's degree in theology and Christian ministry.
Schneider is among hundreds of adults throughout the world who have converted their homes into pseudo-libraries with audio and videotapes, computers and print materials they use to expand their knowledge of the Catholic faith. They study through programs developed by institutions such as Franciscan University; Catholic Distance University in Hamilton, Va.; St. Joseph's College of Maine in Standish, Maine; and International Catholic University, an entity of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
The majority of students are middle-aged, employed lay Catholics preparing for ministry — a pursuit that has led to the life-changing experiences of Schneider and some of his counterparts.
“[The courses] have deepened and enriched every aspect of my life,” Schneider said. “If theology doesn't penetrate the heart, hands, feet and checkbook, it's just a head trip.”
He attributes success in his service business more to theology classes than to his degree in business administration. “The more I know about God, the better I handle complaints of customers,” he said.
Students in Franciscan University's off-campus program listen to taped lectures of college classes, read the required texts and can e-mail their questions to the lecturing professors, who then respond. Some courses will later be available online.
A master's degree in theology requires completion of eight undergraduate background courses and 12 graduate courses. Six credits must be earned on campus. Graduates must pass a comprehensive examination, administered by approved proctors. A $600 fee covers costs of tapes and print materials for each course, which should be completed in six months, according to coordinator Virginia Garrison.
The graduate program, which began in 1999, currently reaches about 350 students. Some live in Australia, Singapore, Kenya and Jamaica, Garrison said. The first two students will graduate in May.
Dr. Les Haddad, 59, of Savannah, Ga., completed the undergraduate background courses this year by studying at home and attending summer sessions at the accredited Franciscan University. His goal is “to serve the Lord” by praying with some of his emergency-room patients and volunteering as a hospital chaplain.
Other adults can participate in a variety of theology programs through the Catholic Distance University in Hamilton, Va., which currently enrolls more than 900 students. About 160 are studying for a master's degree in religious studies, and some 400 are taking undergraduate courses, which can be transferred to other Catholic colleges. CDU does not award bachelor's degrees and does not require any courses to be taken on campus.
Since opening in 1983, the university has enrolled more than 10,000 students. About 10 adults have received master's degrees through its 5-year-old graduate program, which is accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, according to Marianne Evans Mount, CDU executive vice president.
CDU charges $655 for a three-credit graduate course, which does not include textbooks. Undergraduates pay $450 per course, and those in the Continuing Education and Catechetical Diploma programs pay $125 per credit.
Adults in the four programs receive manuals containing lessons, the course author's lecture and reading assignments. Audio and videotapes are available for a few courses, and graduate courses will later be offered online, Mount explained.
CDU aims to foster spiritual growth in its students by deepening their knowledge of Church teaching — a mission some students see fulfilled in their lives.
Michele Milano of Stafford, Va., has completed 10 of the 12 courses required for a Catechetical Diploma. While her husband was stationed in Germany with the Army in the late 1990s, she gave hundreds of presentations in Germany and France on topics such as prayer, “housewife holiness” and God's love shown through his Church.
“When you're open to God in your life, he will use you in ways you would never expect,” Milano said. “God wants us to share our education.”
Deacon John Pontillo, 57, of Denver, shares his education with parishioners at Sts. Peter and Paul Church and with men in the archdiocesan diaconate formation program. He recently earned a master's degree in religious studies from CDU, which helped him appreciate “the purity of our faith that has been passed down through the centuries. You can never know enough about your faith,” said the deacon, who also holds a doctoral degree in ministry.
These students praise the flexibility and convenience that distance-learning programs provide. Pontillo, a full-time United Parcel Service supervisor, said, “It's ideal for a person in a work-a-day world who wants to complete a college degree.”
Distance learning is also ideal for Michael Kelly, 73, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who is taking continuing education courses from CDU. The diabetic outpatient cannot attend regular college classes, but said he likes “working at my own speed.”
Sue Davis of Tacoma, Wash., also values the independence that off-campus education provides. “There is no way I could attend a university,” she said. The mother of seven children and director of religious education at Holy Cross parish in Tacoma is studying at home for a master's degree from Franciscan University.
Distance learning benefits adults “who want to learn without the interaction” found in classrooms, which is more important to undergraduate students, said Dr. Stephen Miletic, dean of faculty at Franciscan University.
Franciscan Father Sebastian Cunningham favors off-campus programs in theology for “mature, responsible adults, as long as the institution is orthodox in its teachings.” Father Cunningham directs Holy Cross Retreat House near Las Cruces, N.M.
He said distance learning permits more Catholics to advance their religious education “so they can share it with the next generation.”
Joyce Carr writes from San Diego.