Certificate in Evangelization

Jul 27, 2021

Renewing Minds for Mission

The following is an interview conducted between representatives from the St. John Society in Portland, Oregon, and St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. Both institutions recently created a new Certificate in Evangelization, which “aims to equip Catholics to be luminous witnesses to Christ in the world through deepened conversion of the mind… The program is led by priests of the Saint John Society – a congregation founded in Argentina two decades ago to preach afresh the Good News – in partnership with St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.” The full interview can be found on YouTube here.

Michael (The St. John Society): The three of us are having this conversation because we've been working together on the development of a new theological Certificate in Evangelization. We wanted to take some time to share the vision of this certificate, but before we proceed, I wanted to nod to the partnership that's at play here between the St. John Society and St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. The St. John Society is a society of priests founded in Argentina dedicated to the New Evangelization and doing amazing work preaching the gospel here in the United States and across the world. I have firsthand experience with the work that they do and I’ve gotten to know the very contagious joy of their ministry that so many people can attest to and are empowered by. I’d say I’m one of the beneficiaries of their work here in Portland, Oregon, where they serve at St. Michael the Archangel parish. And as for St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, I’ve come to understand it as an academic institution that unites theology and sanctity. Dr. Kuhner speaks of a kneeling theology that seeks God both through study and in prayer. And not just study and prayer in parallel, but bringing the one and the other together in a reciprocal relationship. He assures me that on the St. Bernard’s campus in Rochester, the distance between the classrooms and the chapel is short, and that this is deliberate: students are encouraged to walk along this path.

I wanted to begin by taking these respective missions into view. What is the goal of the theological certificate program, how does it fit in with the work that you do, and what do you hope to accomplish through it? Fr. Ignacio, we’ll begin with you.

Fr. Ignacio (The St. John Society): Thank you, Michael. As you were saying, one of the main things the St. John Society does is to develop programs for the New Evangelization. One of the goals of this certificate of theology is to provide a deeper intellectual formation for those who maybe have been sent, have been part of our programs, or are currently doing some of our programs of evangelization. We do see that there's a great need for deeper intellectual formation and sometimes we disregard the importance of what we call "intellectual conversion." This certificate seeks to provide a deeper intellectual conversion. For example, in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans chapter 12 we read that we need to renew our minds - we need to strive for the renewal of our minds.

This certificate is a two-year program where you can focus on learning theology and apply it to evangelization in a deeper and more systematic way. That would be one of the main goals: to help people who want a deeper formation to accomplish this through this certificate.

Dr. Kuhner (St. Bernard's): Thank you so much, Father. That’s so well put. And thank you so much, Michael, for such a lovely introduction. The only thing that I might add to that, particularly from St. Bernard’s perspective, is one of the things that we try to offer is not just education but formation. One of the things that I love about this certificate in terms of its vision is that it's an attempt to form what's called - what we have been calling - “luminous witnesses,” luminous witnesses as the light of the world. What that means is not just to be educated, but to be formed - to be informed precisely by the truths of the gospel in their beauty and in their goodness. And so to that extent, to be a witness means to be transformed: not just to learn bits of data here and there, but actually to be transformed in our minds; not just to have stuff enter our minds, but to be transformed in our minds. And so I think that's part of what this certificate does is it supplies a sort of next level for one's conversion – a next level for one's progress in the spiritual life, namely, to know and love God at a higher level than maybe one was doing before. We become better agents of evangelization as it were, the more that we are informed by the beauty, truth, and goodness of the gospel in that way.

Michael: Great. So, thinking about the people who are well situated and good candidates for this deeper transformation or conversion, I think the next natural question is who would be a good candidate for the certificate program? Fr. Ignacio, given that you will be teaching the first course, we can even pose this question: who would be a good candidate for the first course that we offer and then the courses that follow along?

Fr. Ignacio: Well, the first course is going to be on what is the notion of evangelization. It’s meant to form people who want to be trained both in the theological underpinnings of evangelization, but also in the practical tools to become, as Dr. Kuhner said, a luminous witness in the world today.

In general I would say that there are three main audiences:

  1. Those who have some type of association either with the programs of the St. John Society or the places of mission that we have, like St. Michael’s in Portland, OR, and St. Mary’s in Corvallis, Oregon, or some of our volunteers who do mission work at the campus ministries in Washington, D.C., and Oregon. That would be one first audience: those who have been more connected or associated with the mission work of the St. John Society.
  2. The second audience is anyone who is interested – those who want a deeper intellectual formation that maybe already do some formation by themselves, but want to go deeper. We have so many resources that are unfolding and developing in the last year like the Word on Fire Institute or the Augustine Institute - great places that are developing intellectual and faith formation resources. But we want to provide something that is not a master’s degree in theology, but a little more in-depth formation with a personal element. The idea of this certificate is to have interaction with the other members of the program and also a personal accompaniment. So that's kind of something specific about the program.
  3. And the third audience could be someone who is thinking about graduate studies in theology and maybe is afraid of making that step. This could be a kind of a first step, like getting your feet wet. The certificate courses are credit bearing, so they could be applied to a master’s degree in the future if you do want to continue studying theology.

So those are the three main audiences: 1) those who are part of our programs and are connected with the St. John Society, 2) in general those who want a deeper intellectual formation and something more than online resources, and 3) someone who is considering beginning a more advanced degree in theology, like mastering in theology in the future.

Michael: Excellent. So that's who we’re creating the program for. We're going to have Dr. Kuhner rearrange those three audiences and give us the format and approach of the program, as well as the thought behind how it’s arranged and how it operates.

Dr. Kuhner: Absolutely. I love, Fr. Ignacio, what you said about the personal element to all of this because you're exactly right. There are a lot of things out there that are canned videos: you can sit on YouTube all day and be informed about the faith in certain ways, but something that's really important for us in designing this certificate is to make sure we're being informed and transformed precisely as a community in so far as that's possible. Along those lines, we definitely want to allow as many people to access this. The backbone for each of our courses will be synchronously participated Zoom lectures. So via Zoom, while we can allow this to be taken asynchronously, but we really want to lay emphasis on participating in a live session where the instructor and the students can talk back and forth to each other, have some discussion, and then these lectures will be accompanied afterwards by discussion sessions where that will really be where the instructor or teaching assistant and the students come together to tease out some of the things learned in the lecture. So you can see already how the paradigm is community-based – a community of formation.

In designing this certificate, we thought of six courses designed to take place over two years. And while the whole certificate would be designed so you can work through one, two, three, four, five, six and then receive the credentials at the end of the certificate, we also allow each course to be taken ad-hoc - to be taken maybe one here, one there as your schedule allows. But if you were to take all six over the two years, I think you would have a really well-rounded sense of what it means to be a luminous witness in various areas of theological education and intellectual development. So those are topics that range from, as Fr. Ignacio was saying, what does it mean to be a missionary Church? What does it mean that the Catholic Church is missionary at its heart? What does it mean to be a human person within the vision of the Catholic Church, all the way down to philosophical foundations – extremely important philosophical foundations. What do we mean when we talk about human nature? What do we mean when we talk about the nature of God, and what does it mean to talk about the existence of God even as a propaedeutic to faith? And then all the way to what is our mission in the world in terms of moral action: how do we act having encountered the Lord? So these are all the different things that are covered across the nature of this course of learning, and it's really something that we've put a lot of thought into in terms of curriculum. We're very excited about it!

Again all of this is accessible to anyone around the country as we talked about, and we're going to be using a platform/learning management software called “Canvas” to support this and welcome everyone across time zones into the same space. We're going to try to design the actual synchronous sessions - the live sessions - to take place at times amenable to the different time zones, east coast and west coast, which is unique about our certificate in how it reaches across the country in that way. All of this is going to culminate on a yearly basis with what we're calling the “St. John Henry Newman Symposium” which will take place in person over a number of days in Portland, Oregon. It will be the climax of the entire program as it reaches its point in a sort of communal event of learning, discernment of gifts and also of spirituality - of growing closer to the Lord together as a group, God willing.

I forgot to highlight one aspect: these courses will take place over three different periods over the course of the year. We have a fall semester, a winter semester, and a spring semester. All those dates will be listed in detail. You can find those easily on our respective websites about the certificate. If you're not available to take all three in a row at those date periods, feel free to take one at a time at the time that suits your scheduling and your availability. Anything else I missed in terms of the "how?"

Michael: No, I think you've covered the essentials! Students will also have the opportunity to look through our course overview because even if you did cover everything, I’m sure people are bound to forget one or two details, so it'll all be available online.

You know what strikes me as significant in the many different phases that you lay out within our program is as you're looking over the direction of a single course, you can see we'll start off with the lecture, which you can call the “transmission phase;” and then you move to this “assimilation phase” where the student will begin to mull over questions posed by the lecture, submit certain responses and work with the material; and then come together with other students for these discussion sections which will be your connection or your “exploration phase.” You also spoke about the symposium as really a peak of this educational experience that would add a final movement: the “dimension of broadening.” So inclusive of all these elements we have the transmission, the assimilation, the exploration, the connection, and then the sort of stretching out and launching forward to continue their education. So yes, great overview of what we offer!

I want to ask one final question, just a quick word that I’m posing to you as educators and evangelists. What in that capacity do you find most appealing and energizing about the certificate?

Fr. Ignacio: Thank you, Michael. I think that my main dream or what gets me excited is the possibility of helping lay people develop or deepen what we could call a Christian worldview. I see that this is more and more needed as we face opposing views of what reality is and what makes us happy, what makes us human. We have different propositions nowadays that can be challenging and in many ways opposing to what we believe as Christians. So one of the things that gets me excited is this opportunity to help people know the truth of the gospel – how beautiful and how filled with light it is – and how optimistic the vision of Christianity is. To get to offer these studies and this interaction with other believers and Catholics who want to do the same, I think that's very exciting.

Secondly in the St. John Society we speak of the “missionary option,” how Christians should be in the world. We speak of being salt and light, of not fleeing the world, but being in the world and not of the world. That demands a lot of intellectual propositions, and as Dr. Kuhner was saying, a proper vision of the human person, a vision of how we get to know things, a vision of who Jesus is. So hopefully this also help us articulate what we mean by the missionary option, and what it means to be a lay person in the world today.

And finally as connected with the vision and mission of St. Bernard’s, we also feel a connection with the relationship between study and faith, between study and spirituality. So hopefully this is not just knowledge, but also a way to learn more about Jesus: who He is, falling in love with Him, and in a sense deepening our goal to be configured with Him through the action of the Holy Spirit. All the courses will try to connect theology with faith and spirituality. So those are the three main things that move me to help and invite others to this course.

Dr. Kuhner: Thank you so much, Father. Just a small thing to add: the Second Vatican Council – one of its greatest gifts I think to the Church – was re-sourcing the Church with this notion of the “universal call to holiness.” I’m not so sure that that call has fully been received yet or implemented in the Church for a variety of reasons, and I think in some ways this certificate is a small, but an important way, of helping that become a reality. We all are called to holiness, and part of holiness means not just being a witness, but being a luminous witness - a witness that shines in the darkness, that shines in the firmament. And I think in that sense this is to help all lay people everywhere receive the formation that they need in order to be that witness, in order to give that witness to the world in a time that so desperately needs it. And it's really important to us also that these people who take the certificate will go back to their communities and be that witness. We hope to provide for them a way to continue that formation in whatever way they see fit, whether it's continual and ongoing formation through other means, whether it's through a graduate degree at St. Bernard’s - whatever it is that one needs. But I think that formation and witness go together.

This certificate will be a coming together to be informed and then going outward to inform. It's like breathing: you breathe in, you breathe out - always together. And so I think the certificate provides a great opportunity to do that and to exercise the universal call to holiness, which I think is a major challenge to us today to live out as a Church as a whole.

So thank you, Michael and Fr. Ignacio. What a gift it’s been to work together on this.

Michael: And in line with what both of you are saying, I’d like to invoke St. John Henry Newman. It's always great to have him complete your thoughts, and he really does in this case. So drawing his words as a veritable mission statement for the program when he calls for the formation of a body of believers this is, what he says, he wants:

“a formation of a group of people who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

In this quotation, Newman goes on to say words that Dr. Kuhner and Fr. Ignacio would be happy to echo as their own desire for students in this program. He says, “I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism.”

So I would say we would affirm this as our goal for the certificate and add on to this basis of knowledge of which he speaks, the will to go forth and share the gospel. So Fr. Ignacio and Dr. Kuhner, thank you so much for your time. We're looking forward to the development and the launch of this Certificate in Evangelization.

The St. John Society is a society of Apostolic life dedicated to the New Evangelization. Their model of life is Jesus in His public life. They seek to configure themselves to Him in His itinerancy, His missionary zeal, and His merciful love, and thus prolong the very character of His ministry. The community of the Twelve, drawn into communion by the love of Christ, is the model of their common life. They live in the continual loving presence of God, offer their works to Him, and utilize for their own sanctification those same means they propose for others. Their specific mission demands that they be well-formed and able to form others, capable of comprehending what goes on in people’s lives and offering an opportune response. Philosophical and theological studies will be oriented according to the classical-realist tradition, which both the Fathers of the Church and the Scholastics assumed for the intellectual penetration of the faith.