Spiritual Needs

At the quarter-century mark, the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry enters a new era

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry long ago saw the need to prepare the laity for greater roles in the Church and the 25th year of its existence is seeing that foresight borne out.

This year, for the first time in its history, a majority of the IREPM student body - 56 percent - is comprised of lay people, said IREPM Director Claire Lowery, representing an anticipated turning point in the institute's evolution. At the quarter-century mark, with several new programs in place or in readiness, she added, IREPM is ready to meet the challenges that come with its new direction.

"Vatican II lifted up the vocation of the laity and in 1996 we are seeing and educating people who have heard the call," said Lowery, an adjunct associate professor in the Theology Department. "In the past, most of our students were priests or religious people who had experienced formation in their religious communities. Now, with the changes in our student population, we have to consider how we can foster this kind of development."

IREPM includes over 20 permanent and part-time faculty and staff. More than 1,000 of its graduates serve as Catholic ministers and religious educators across the US and Canada, and in countries such as Argentina, Lithuania, China and Uganda. Their numbers include a local director for hospice care, a social worker in a Boston hospital, a volunteer for a Hungary mission program and a seminary professor in Kenya.

IREPM Director Claire Lowery.

The institute will formally celebrate its 25th anniversary July 21-27, with a series of lectures, discussions and other public events. Some events will address themes such as ministry to the poor, working for social justice and the impact of liturgy on the parish, while others explore ways of relating ministry to specific issues or social needs.

One important event during the celebration, Lowery said, will be an open forum in which participants reflect on IREPM's past, present and future. Among the topics to be discussed will be the launch this fall of several initiatives.

One such effort is the Leadership Certificate program. It is aimed at men and women working in pastoral and educational ministries who desire continuing education, theological updating and other types of skill development, Lowery said, and helps fulfill a need expressed at discussions during the institute's 20th anniversary.

"Today, people feel they need certification and licensing so they will be more effective and better prepared in providing services," Lowery said. "We are continually exploring new models for ministry, one with collaborations between disciplines and professions."

Among the examples of these innovative models are IREPM's joint master's degree program with the Graduate School of Social Work, Lowery said, and the doctoral studies program it coordinates with Theology and the School of Education's graduate division. The programs reflect the University's mission to educate individuals committed to the pursuit of social justice and who wish to bring a spiritual perspective to their professional training, she said.

"What we've been seeing over the years, and preparing students for, are broader opportunities for serving in a theological framework," Lowery said. "IREPM addresses the need to be flexible in the way we regard our vocation and development, whether in a hospital, a campus ministry or an elderly care facility."

The experience of one IREPM graduate demonstrates the importance of such education, Lowery said. The alumnus was recently appointed as Maine's first pastoral administrator, and she will attend to most areas of ministry in the state, thus filling a vital need for the Church. In rural areas, such as those in New England, Lowery explained, there is a growing role for pastoral associates, who will participate with priests in outreach to the young or infirm, for example, or help provide religious education.

"Many of our students come without a fully informed understanding of their faith, but possess a great desire to learn," Lowery continued. "They want to see connections between religion, faith, culture and society. The task before us is to envision a model of spiritual formation and theological education which enables the lay minister to attend the needs of his or her community, and the pastoral life of the Church."

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