This autumn is seeing a notable harvest of Catholic parents heading to school — not to check in on their children, but to take up studies of their own.
But even more surprising than the sheer number of grown-up students is the popularity of a particular degree that’s much in demand these days: master’s in theology.
The surge owes much to a number of innovative distance-learning programs at such schools as Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), the University of Dallas and the Augustine Institute in Denver. But these success stories don’t tell the whole tale.
Gil Niesen, a sales executive with the Kansas City Southern railroad system, says his decision to enroll in Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology several years ago was based on two things: He wanted to know his faith better, and he wanted to serve the Church.
“Even before I had thought about getting my master’s, I often would think to myself, ‘If our end goal is God, and we are going to spend eternity with him, why wouldn’t you want to spend as much time and effort as you possibly could understanding what you need to do to get to heaven?’”
At the age of 37, Niesen was back in school taking classes in Green Bay, Wis., where he and his family were living at the time. His courses through the Institute for Pastoral Theology were held once a month in an intensive weekend format. Both professors and a group of around 15 students would come to Green Bay for these weekend learning sessions.
The Institute for Pastoral Theology began in 2004 with just 13 students at one location. This fall the program welcomes close to 120 adult students at six locations across the United States. Ave Maria University is based in Florida.
Niesen admits that the idea of returning to advanced studies after many years away from formal education was a bit daunting. He says his saving grace was his passion for the subject matter. He admits that the program’s lack of a math component didn’t hurt, either. “I knew that my reading and writing skills were stronger,” he explains, “and I absolutely adored the topic.”
With four small children under the age of 10 at home and a full-time career in management with a transportation company, Niesen found that one of his biggest challenges was simply finding time to study.
“Knowing that I probably could not study as much as, say, someone who is retired, I had to make decisions on what courses I could pick,” he recalls. “That was a little disappointing at times because there was so much [more] I could have done.”
Niesen is quick to point out that he owes much of his scholarly success to his wife, Debbie.
“It was just as much of a commitment for her as it was for me,” he says. “While I had the fun part — hours and hours of reading and studying — she had to make a selfless decision and say, ‘Yes, I am going to take care of these kids on my own for much of the time while he is studying because of the good that is going to come out of this.’”
At Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., Bob Mish has been witnessing adult-education outcomes for eight years. That’s how long he has served as distance-learning coordinator for the master’s program in theology and philosophy.
Holy Apostles serves around 300 registered students — spanning in age from pre-seminarians to retirees — from all over the world. That number has more than doubled since Mish first began.
Distance students “attend” video and audio lectures in the comfort of their own home. They also have access to online course materials and can communicate with their professors and other classmates via e-mail and the Internet.
Mish says one of the program’s strongest selling points is its accessibility.
“I love it when people call and say, ‘I don’t know what I would do without this program. There is no Catholic school near me. I came across your program, and it has been an answer to prayer,’” says Mish.
“That is just so affirming,” he adds. “It just makes my day.”
For Beth Racine of Newtown, Pa., the distance-learning program at Holy Apostles has provided an opportunity to delve more deeply into the Catholic faith she has lived all her life. The mother of three is about halfway through her master’s in theology.
“I feel so blessed to learn all this information,” she says. “It has really helped me understand the depth of our faith, and I am able to explain it better to others.”
Racine takes one class a semester and even that, she says, can call for a balancing act.
“It’s challenging and at times a little hard,” she told the Register. “Any parent who is going to school is going to feel that way. It takes careful planning. I’ve been juggling and trying to make it all work. It seems like it’s working okay so far.”
Neither Niesen nor Racine have a grand plan when it comes to putting their degree into action.
Having completed his master’s in the spring of 2008, Niesen knows that, one day, he wants to work for the Church. He says he’s leaving the details, and the timing, up to God.
For her part, Racine says she wants to combine her work in Internet safety with her theology studies. Still a couple of classes away from tackling her thesis, she says she would like to focus on keeping children safe while so many are spending so much time online.
Both distance-learning parents concur that the hard work and long hours of study have been well worth the effort. They encourage other parents mulling a master’s to take the plunge.
“It helps everyone when you enrich your faith,” says Racine.
“I’m the type of person that would rather go through life saying I ‘gave it a shot’ versus having regrets about what I should have attempted,” concludes Niesen. “Also, the knowledge you gain in this course of study is directly applicable to the work of being a parent. This means being able to apply your new knowledge to teaching your children about the faith, and to helping them establish virtuous habits.”
How about it, Mom and Dad? Is God calling you back to school?
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.