New masters in theology programs draw widespread interest

Newman University's new graduate program in theology is drawing interest from a wide range of people from across the Wichita metropolitan community.

The program, which began this fall, offers two degrees. One is a master of theological studies (MTS), which is primarily designed for people who wish to teach classes in Parish Schools in Religion (PSR), Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and other topics in their local parishes. The other is a master of arts in theology (MAT), for students who plan to pursue a doctorate in theology.

For the fall 2009 semester, 42 students have enrolled - 25 in the MTS program and 17 in the MAT program. Father Joseph Gile, Newman assistant professor of theology and director of the new program, said students are attracted to the program for different reasons.

"Most students in the program are involved in catechetical ministry at the parish level, but some are enrolled for personal growth and enrichment," Gile said. "We have probably 12 students who have different reasons for being in the program, and they come from all walks of life."

Gaining knowledge to help teach others
Renee Allerheiligen, who serves on the Diocese of Wichita Stewardship Committee and helps the diocese with leadership development education on a consultant basis, said she "enjoys the study of God for what it is." She adds, however, that she will also likely use what she learns to teach. Allerheiligen is one of many MTS students who enrolled with the help of a scholarship from the Wichita Diocese.

"I will apply it in whatever way God calls me," said Allerheiligen, who is also pursuing a masters degree in organizational leadership online from Gonzaga University. "This is not something that is just for me. It's to be shared with many other people."

Wichita family physician David Wall, M.D. said he entered the program in part because of an established friendship with Gile, who was Wall's teacher in his RICA, and to gain more knowledge to teach others.

"I already do some catechism at the parish level, and I've taught several courses at the Spiritual Life Center," he said. "But the vast majority of my expertise is self-taught, so I'd like something a little more formal."

Wall said the program so far is "everything I expected and more," and that he enjoys the curriculum and the reading. "You can get into a rut reading the same authors again and again," he said. "This program has introduced me to so many new authors, both contemporary and ancient."

Wall also appreciates the online format. The program is delivered to students almost entirely through modules, discussion boards and short essay questions over the Internet.

"If this were a traditional masters program, I probably wouldn't be able to swing it," Wall said. "With my practice I work in the day, so this allows me to do the readings and the discussion boards in my own time."

Flexible and fascinating
Fellow MTS student Pat Hanrahan, president of United Way of the Plains, said he too enjoys the flexibility of the online format.

"I would not have done this the traditional way - I wouldn't have the time," Hanrahan said. "With this, if you don't get a module done one night because you have a meeting you can do it the next day. It's not like missing a class session."

Like others, Hanrahan said he was attracted to the program for his own enrichment.

"I don't need the degree for a job, but this is a way to deepen my faith," he said. "I love history, and while the class is on theology, right now we're looking at Jewish history. It's a nice way to broaden your perspective."

Hanrahan added that when he retires he has thought of moving closer to his grandchildren, who live in the Denver area. "They have a good deacon program there," he said, "so if I get involved with that it would be nice to have a background in theology."

Like many others, Hanrahan praised Gile for his expertise and teaching abilities.

"I love the modules Fr. Gile has done," he said. "There is a lecture portion you would expect, but with the subject matter being so heavy he's also thrown in video of scenes from movies as diverse as 'Gran Torino' and the '10 Commandments' as examples of points he wanted to make."

'Don't settle'
Those seeking the MAT degree also have a range of reasons for joining the program. Donovan Bailey, who graduated from Newman last May with a theology degree, said enrolling in the program was the next logical step for him.

"I would very much like to continue my education in theology," he said. "This is my utmost goal and if it be God's will, I will finish my doctoral degree."

Rev. Patrick York, pastor of Church of the Magdalen, said his interest in the MAT program is both personal and academic.

"It's a personal enrichment," he said. "I have a master's in divinity from going through seminary school, but I always wanted to get a masters in theology academic degree. And, I have the privilege to be pastor to a group of young men and women, and I've always told them, 'Don't settle, don't stop learning.' So this was an opportunity for me to do the same."

MAT student Janet Moore said she also has had a longtime desire to earn a master's in theology degree.

"My faith is the most important aspect of my life," Moore said. "I am constantly thirsting to 'drink more deeply' of the inexhaustible well of Christ through the Church's Life and Wisdom, and it has been a dream of mine to get my masters in theology for over 20 years."

Moore also appreciates the online format and the material Gile has prepared for the class.

"Fr. Gile's video classes are filled with wonderful insights into the reality and the unfathomable love of God," she said. "We have been able to see video clips and hear Fr. Robert Barron speak about the attributes of God, see models of the ancient Jewish Temple and virtually go to Jerusalem and into the Temple."

Paul Saas, who owns a computer consulting business, is not Catholic, but said he enrolled in the program for his own enjoyment and enrichment.

"I have an interest in theology and philosophy as a hobbyist, so I felt this was an opportunity to learn more about it," he said. "I simply like to read and learn."

Saas said he too enjoys the online format, and that the quality of the presentations is good. "The presentations kind of whet your appetite, but there is quite a bit of reading," he said. "And the level of reading is deep enough to get your brain churning."

Husband and wife Christopher and Barbara Riggs in the MTS program agree that the course of study is demanding, but that Gile has done a good job designing and launching the program.

"It's fascinating course material - really enriching for us," said Barbara, director of RCIA for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. "This is something that I'm intimately involved in as a catechist, so to know more for that role is really valuable to me."

Christopher Riggs, editor of the Wichita Diocese newspaper The Catholic Advance, added that he and Barbara were drawn to the masters program after taking religious studies last year at the Spiritual Life Center.

"It was a wonderful little dip in the kiddie pool of theology," he said. "Now Fr. Gile has thrown us into the deep end. We're working hard, and learning that you have to dedicate some time every day to reading and studying. But it's well worth it. This program is perfect for our work."

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