St. Mike’s dean of theology James Ginther says the new interfaith program is particularly attractive to Catholic educators, teachers. Photo by Michael Swan

New interfaith program at St. Mike's reflects Toronto's changing face

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • February 28, 2019

A new program leading to a diploma from the University of St. Michael’s College is all about education with a purpose, St. Mike’s dean of theology James Ginther told The Catholic Register.

“Really, we think this is a way of helping people understand who their neighbours are,” said Ginther. “We think this is particularly attractive to high school teachers — Catholic teachers in high schools, but also right around the Catholic (school) system.”

The new 10-course program in interfaith studies kicks off with evening and weekend classes in September. St. Michael’s College expects to have registrations open sometime in May. 

Initially, the full price will be in the neighbourhood of $350 per course, with each course comprised of about 12 hours of classroom time, plus field work and reading.

An ambitious student could complete the diploma’s requirements in a calendar year.

While the most obvious target is teachers, anybody who wants to understand life in one of the world’s most multicultural and multi-religious cities has something to gain from this uniquely Catholic look at interfaith and intercultural dialogue, Ginther said. There are no entrance requirements. Students don’t need a university degree and professors are ready to work with students at any level, according to Ginther.

“It’s a way of also providing a specific service to our archdiocese here,” Ginther said.

There are thousands of new Canadians pouring into Toronto every year. With 2.7 million residents in the Toronto metropolitan area born outside of Canada — a total which grew 6.6 per cent between the 2011 and 2016 census years — the region is constantly being remade. 

The cultural fabric of the city consists of much more than new restaurants and cricket teams. People bring with them their most deeply held beliefs. Prayers and rituals which have defined people and their families through generations are a big part of the evolving city.

After an initial course in Catholic principles of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, students will have the opportunity to engage directly in local interfaith dialogue or map the religious practices and diversity in a Toronto neighbourhood. 

There will also be opportunities to look at specific religious traditions, from Indigenous spiritualities to the world religions of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism.

Catholic high school teachers see the evolving city in front of them in their classrooms, including as much as 30 per cent of their students who are not Catholic.

“Teachers want to know how to interact in a respectful and effective way with their students,” Ginther said.

To this point, the new program leading to a Diploma in Interfaith Studies is not incorporated into the official system of professional development for teachers — courses recognized by school boards, the teachers’ union and the Ministry of Education.

“What they need to see is what the program looks like and how it’s operating — that it’s in existence,” Ginther said. He predicts the St. Mike’s credits will be recognized for professional development credits in the school system before long.

The new diploma program is part of the legacy of the Scarboro Missions which began winding down active operations in 2017. An $800,000 gift from the Scarboros supports not just the salaries and classroom time, but will also make it possible to offer bursaries beginning in the second year of the program.

For more than two decades the Scarboro Missions interfaith department contributed to high school retreats, put on public lectures by visiting scholars and distributed its Golden Rule poster around the world. 

The university context should only add to the accomplishments of the now-disbanded Scarboro Missions interfaith department, said Ginther.

The new diploma is also a first step toward rebooting the St. Michael’s College school of continuing education — a priority of St. Mike’s president David Sylvester. 

Toronto’s Catholic university is the only Catholic institute of higher education in Canada which has its own school of continuing education, but the programs have been on hiatus the last couple of years while the college focused on building projects and the University of Toronto revamped its student information system.

For those students who do have an undergraduate degree, the diploma in interfaith studies could be a way of sliding into one of the St. Mike’s faculty of theology programs leading to a Master of Divinity or Master’s in theology, said Ginther.

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