“We have more students studying theology and catechetics than any other major on campus,” says Ron Bolster, the new head of the Ohio school's catechetics office. He recently replaced Barbara Morgan, the now-retired founder of the program.
“These students have fallen in love with the faith and with God,” Bolster adds. “They've had a conversion experience, and they want to do something for the Church.”
Indeed. This is the best year yet for the catechetics specialization offered by the school's theology department. More than 120 students expressed interest in the major for this semester and nearly 90 have joined the program.
Is this growing interest in the nuts and bolts of the Catholic faith a sign of things to come for the larger Church? Some close observers think so — and their number includes students themselves.
Steubenville Senior Philip Smith is one of them. Seeing so many peers discouraged with the state of the culture, he says, prompted his choice.
“They're looking for something more,” Smith adds. “If we have good catechesis, it's going to be effective because they're hungering for something.
“In my experience of high-school religious class,” he continues, “I had teachers who taught me the faith in such a way it's made a difference in my life.”
Thus inspired to pass along the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith to the generation coming up behind him, he found Franciscan's catechetics program a natural fit.
Along with its content emphasis on Scripture, the Catechism and papal documents, Steubenville's catechetics curriculum also includes components for tailoring classroom methodologies to best reach various audiences, supervising people and managing administrative duties.
“We study John Paul II's writings in our courses,” says Bolster. “One of them is Catechesis in Our Times. But our students are not just looking at official Church writings as something they have to force themselves through. The Holy Father speaks to them, challenges them to great things, and that is the content of our courses.”
Feeding the Hungry
Bolster points out that, while the catechetics degree is distinct from its theology counterpart, students are required to take so much theology they need only a couple more theology courses to declare a double major.
Smith, who became a seminarian for the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, this summer, chose to do just that.
Senior Kari Chatman, another double major, attended two state universities in Florida before realizing she wanted to work for the Church in some way.
“As soon as I started reading the description of the catechetics major,” she says, “I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Chatman has already put classroom experience to practical use, giving a talk on the Eucharist during the university's Young Apostle program at its Summer Youth Conference.
Using notes taken from her classes on analyzing doctrine and the new catechism, Chatman “formulated my talk around the Church's teachings and made it very personal as well.”
With her catechetics degree, she's looking forward to working either with high school youth or in campus ministry. “I'm also passionate about the RCIA process,” she says “and would love to be involved with that in a parish.”
Bolster points out recent grads with catechetics specialization are filling positions at the parish level as directors of religious education, adult RCIA coordinators and youth ministers. Others serve at the diocesan level as directors of family life ministry or youth ministry.
“The rationale for establishing the catechetics program was to provide professional training for students getting a theology degree,” says Bolster, who holds a graduate catechetics degree from Franciscan.
The department, he says, wants to prepare young people “to service the Church, to obtain positions in the field and to succeed in those positions.”
Grads and applicants also want to teach at the high-school level.
“Many incoming students had a significant experience in youth ministry,” says Bolster, “and they want to learn how to do that work.”
Initially, Ann Lankford turned to Steubenville for a theology degree. She was already long out of college and working as a youth minister. But to continue, she realized she needed to learn the whole truth of the faith — much seemed to have been skipped over during her own early formation.
When she came upon the catechetics program at Franciscan University, she knew she'd found what she'd been looking for.
“I looked at some of the books for the courses and I wanted to read every one of them,” she recalls. “I realized I wasn't formed very well at my own innocent level. Yes we need theologians, but even more importantly, we need good laity, religious, and priests formed in the faith and knowing how to pass it on.”
Today, as director of the office of catechesis and evangelization for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., Lankford always starts with the story of God's plan of salvation history.
“When people hear it, it changes them,” she says, explaining the approach she learned at Steubenville. “Every time I tell the story with artwork, they're moved, they get it — and they're drawn to read more Scripture.”
Michael Filamor, a 2002 graduate with a master's in theology-catechetics, constantly applies everything he's learned now that he's director of youth faith formation for St. Alban Roe Catholic Church in Wildwood, Mo.
“Where the rubber meets the road is where kids ask deep spiritual, theological questions,” he says. He can meet the challenges as confirmation coordinator for eighth graders preparing for confirmation and with teens in his weekly sessions for deeper study of Scripture and the Catechism.
“I would not have known where to begin had I not gone to this program,” he says. “It not only teaches you the Catholic faith, but teaches you how to teach the Catholic faith.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.