Sr. Sarah Rudolph has a year left in a Master of Divinity program at Regis College. Michael Swan

The new seminary this Fall

By 
  • May 30, 2020

Canada’s seminaries have survived the spring onslaught of COVID-19, but they’re looking across the wide expanse of summer holidays and wondering what the future holds.

In terms of academics, the professors of Scripture, patristics and pastoral theology have all learned to Zoom and Skype and Google their way into their students’ kitchens and dining rooms. Delivering lectures, answering questions, leading discussions online has become part of the job.

“Courses quickly moved to an online format and, as airports were closing down, the seminarians were eventually directed to return home, self-isolate where it was deemed necessary and complete the final few weeks of the academic year online,” St. Peter’s Seminary director of lay and pastoral formation Bernardine Ketelaars told The Catholic Register by e-mail.

For the seminary in London, Ont., the faculty’s “number one concern will be the health and well-being of all who reside, visit, work and study at St. Peter’s Seminary,” Ketelaars said.

But seminaries and faculties of theology aren’t just in the business of cramming knowledge into pliable young minds. Seminaries are supposed to form future priests, religious sisters and brothers. By means of shared life experiences, they equip them for ministry.

“The documents of the Church say that a formative community is essential. We’re talking about an incarnational theology,” said Christ the King Seminary rector Fr. Matthew Gerlich of the Benedictine monastery at Westminster Abbey in Mission, B.C. “To do stuff online, it’s just not the same as being there in person. Much of formation — as Pope Francis and the documents rightly insist — it’s accompaniment.”

Sr. Sarah Rudolph is halfway through the five- to seven-year process of formation in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, better known as the Loretto Sisters. She’s got a year left in a Master of Divinity program at Toronto’s Regis College, where she studies alongside Jesuits, lay people and other vowed religious.

“I actually found that the transition to online (classes) was quite smooth,” Rudolph said. “It was easy to recreate, I think, the classroom experience.”

Rudolph appreciates the sweat and stress professors and students have expended to learn new technologies and new ways of doing things. But academic discussion isn’t quite the same as the experience of community in a live classroom. It’s one thing to query the variant translations of a line of Scripture during a Zoom meeting. It’s another to open up about faith and doubt, hope and discouragement, loneliness and prayers that seem forever bottled in one’s throat.

“I live in a religious community. I have people around me that I can talk to, that I interact with every day,” said Rudolph. “But my classmates, some of them are on their own in apartments.”

Rudolph and a Jesuit classmate have been running an Ignatian discussion group for about 20 Regis students since early this year. Based in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, members of the group follow a structured plan of spiritual reading, prayer and contemplation, then get together once a week to share what they have experienced in prayer.

“What you need for the sharing is a sense of trust, that this is a sacred space, that there’s confidentiality here,” she said. “Building that online will be interesting.”

The spring term Ignatian discussion group went online for its last month. But that group carried with it an established comfort level from months of in-person meetings before venturing into digital faith sharing. The summer group will include new people who don’t necessarily know each other from in-person interactions.

“This will be the first time for me to be co-facilitating a group that will be brand new,” Rudolph said. She hopes the new group will experience the same level of trust as the first.

“Whatever challenges we’ve experienced, whatever graces or joys we’ve experienced — it gives us a chance to share with each other,” she said.

Rudolph counts herself lucky that she completed the field placement portion of her Master of Divinity before the novel coronavirus hit the headlines and hospitals. For the incoming class of divinity students, how, when and where they will gain practical experience in ministry is an open question.

“We will find a way. That’s not going to be an obstacle,” said Regis College academic dean Sr. Susan Wood of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.

"[The pandemic] has given us a chance to look at pedagogy and think, ‘OK, when we go back to normal — whatever and whenever that’s going to look like — how do we do things differently?’"

Field placements are an essential part of studies for a Master of Divinity. Unlike purely academic studies in Scripture, Church history, ancient languages, philosophy and theology, an M.Div. is the basic degree intended to prepare students for a life of practical ministry. All the book learning is to prepare students to minister in a parish, prison or pastoral placement.

“Field placements, those will probably be on hold,” Wood said. “We’re not going to put students in danger of any kind.”

But Wood is certain those ministry opportunities will open up and no one will fail to graduate because they couldn’t find a field placement. 

At Regis and throughout the Toronto School of Theology, which includes the theology faculty at St. Michael’s College and St. Augustine’s Seminary, professors are planning on offering all classes online in the fall. There’s plenty of talk about offering mixed live and remote classes, but the technical challenges are enormous — and expensive. This fall Wood expects to see students rarely and professors expect to spend long days in front of screens.

The dangers of live classroom settings aren’t just in the classroom, Wood points out.

“Many of them (students) have long commutes on public transportation. They may be hunkering down in other parts of the country or in other countries,” Wood said. “So it seems to us right now, that because you have to plan in advance — it’s very hard to do things at the last minute — to plan on opening remotely (in the fall).”

The administration at Regis is still assigning classrooms for this fall’s seminars and lectures, but they don’t really expect they will be used. Discussions about daily Mass in the Regis College chapel and the larger 1 p.m. Wednesday student community Mass are ongoing, Wood said.

In British Columbia, Gerlich has more questions than answers about how his monastery-run seminary will operate in the fall.

“We have some outside teachers who commute daily, or two or three times a week, to the seminary to teach. What do we do about them?” he asks. “We’ve got the Redemptoris Mater guys (missionary seminarians of the Neocatechumanate movement) and there will be some more of them coming. They’re going to Vancouver and then they’re coming here. So what do we do? I have no idea.”

Gerlich has similar doubts about assigning pastoral ministry to students in the fall. 

There were 19 seminarians at Christ the King for the academic year that ended April 30. The monks also run a minor seminary (high school) on their property. This summer is going to be spent thinking through some of the basics of the education offered, Gerlich said.

“It has given us a chance to look at pedagogy and think, ‘OK, when we go back to normal — whatever and whenever that’s going to look like — how do we do things differently?’ ”

At Regis, the accredited pontifical faculty is coming to grips with all the advantages and disadvantages of remote teaching.

“We have to just say it’s different, and in being different there are advantages, disadvantages, losses and gains,” Wood said.

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