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A Conversation with School of Theology and Ministry Dean, Mark Massa, SJ

Mark Massa, SJ (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Feb. 13, 2014

The School of Theology and Ministry (STM), which opened in 2008, is the newest school at Boston College. How would you describe its mission and goals?

The School of Theology and Ministry is the most exciting development in Catholic ministerial and graduate theological education in a generation. There really are no analogues to the STM in the world of American Catholic higher education. Our closest institutional models are the great Protestant divinity schools founded in the 19th century: Harvard Yale, Chicago and Duke.

Notre Dame, Harvard Divinity and Yale Divinity are the three places we most commonly compete with for students.  Like them, we describe our mission as preparing well-trained leaders in ministry and theological education (from parish coordinators of religious education to training theologians for the academy).  But unlike Notre Dame, we are a free-standing faculty of theology separate from the Theology Department; unlike our Protestant and nondenominational competitors, we are deeply committed to serving the Catholic Church locally, nationally and internationally. So, while we overlap with other elite institutions of ministerial and theological education, our own identity is somewhat unique: We are a mission-driven professional school at Boston College, educating and forming highly qualified students who want to serve the Catholic and Christian communities.

We have a number of different degree programs through which we deliver the education our students need to be excellent ministers and rigorous theologians. Our masters of divinity prepares men from five religious orders – the Jesuits, Capuchins, Redemptorists, Edmundites, and Assumptionists – for ordination to the priesthood, but it also prepares an impressive group of lay students for careers in diverse ministries, including campus ministry, hospital chaplaincies, and teaching in high schools. Our PhD in religion and education has produced many of the leaders in the field of Catholic higher education, while our MTS (Masters of Theological Studies) prepares academically focused students for doctoral work in some of the best theological faculties in North America.  The list is long and varied, and my sense is that we have accomplished a great deal since our founding in 2008.

Our strategic goal is actually a simple one: We want to become the professional school where the Catholic community in the United States does its best thinking about theology, ministry and ministerial formation, as well as the place that Catholic Church leaders turn to when seeking the strongest ministerial and theological personnel.

The STM has a significant international population, and the student body is a combination of laypersons, ordained and members of religious orders. What impact does this diversity have on teaching, learning, and the community as a whole?

The STM is the most diverse professional school at BC: Fully a quarter of our students come from outside the US. Two-thirds of our students are laymen and women; the other third are “religious” of various kinds. Besides the men from the five religious orders who come to us to prepare for ordination, we have religious women from Vietnam and Africa.  We have a cadre of lay students preparing for work directing the religious education programs in newly-formed dioceses in China. We also attract a number of Protestant students from both mainline and evangelical denominations. What this means is that our community is an incredibly rich mix of many people from various geographical and religious backgrounds.  

The single best place to see all of this in action takes place every Thursday at noon. The school gathers as a community for an all-school liturgy, followed by “repast” – a simple lunch set up all along the first floor corridor of our building. I always tell my students that during those two hours “the school reveals itself to itself”: Students sit with professors; Jesuits from Latin America sit with nuns from Vietnam; lay women from several Texas dioceses (supported here by fellowships funded by donors) talk to Capuchins – it’s like a religious United Nations, without the wrangling.

This rich diversity spills over into classroom discussions about doctrine, practice, preaching, and how to get the attention of teenagers when talking about God.  This challenges us – in the best sense – to rise above our narrow views of what “church” and “worship” mean to take in a much bigger picture. I often say that many US Catholics have Congregationalist tendencies – for them, the “church” is what their local parish does, and doctrine is what the local pastor says. It’s hard to remain congregationalist at the STM with so many different types of Catholics sitting around you, at meals, at worship, and in the classroom.

The STM is part of the Boston Theological Institute (BTI), a consortium of divinity and graduate schools. What advantage does that give your students?

The STM and BC’s Theology Department are part of a network of schools in the Boston area that have been cooperating since the late 1960s in order to share faculty, courses, and library resources. Besides courses offered in BC’s Theology Department, our students are encouraged to consider taking Hebrew scripture courses at Hebrew College in Newton Center (the only rabbinical school sponsored by both the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in the US), a rich array of courses at the (nondenominational) Harvard Divinity School, courses at Boston University’s (Methodist) School of Theology, and Holy Cross (Greek Orthodox) Seminary in Brookline.

When the BTI catalogue was published in paper form, it resembled the Manhattan telephone directory; online it runs to literally hundreds of pages, so if you can’t find courses that interest you, you’re probably in the wrong area of study. This is a resource that constitutes an embarrassment of riches for our own students: courses on post-modern approaches to theology in Cambridge; state-of-the art courses on pastoral care and counseling at BU; courses on the Fathers of the Church at Holy Cross. All of this, in addition to our own superb faculty of 28 full-time and 30 part-time faculty, means that our students have available to them what is arguably the best spectrum of resources for Catholic intellectual and spiritual formation in the US.

The Hispanic/Latino population is growing in the U.S. How is the STM responding to this demographic shift?

The best estimates are that 30 percent of all Catholics in the U.S. are now Latino/Hispanic; it is also estimated that 40 percent of all Catholics under 21 today are from Hispanic backgrounds. The signals are clear, and have been clear for quite some time, that Hispanic ministry must be “front and center” in preparing for ministry in the US church in the coming decades.

This recognition was part of the founding of the school in 2008. From the get-go the STM has had a very fine master’s degree in Hispanic Ministry, supported by four distinguished professors who teach and publish in the field of Latino/a theology. Besides this, one of our rising stars, Hosffman Ospino, has been awarded a large grant to undertake a national study of the 9,000 US parishes that provide some form of outreach to Latino/Hispanic Catholics. Surprisingly this is the first study of its kind, so the results will be seminal to how the field develops over the next five to 10 years. When his findings – which were developed with the support of research assistants drawn from the STM student community – are published later this year, the STM will be positioned as one of the leading centers of Hispanic ministry research and formation in the US.

Beyond its degree programs, how is the STM connecting with and educating the faithful in the US and beyond?

The STM has been blessed with talented teachers and scholars who brought to the school many decades of previous experience and “outreach” to searchers who were not interested in – or didn’t have the time for – full-time academic work. We have two flagship programs that have grown out of these experiences.   

Tom Groome’s summer institute began four decades ago as a six-week series of courses offered to both American and international ministers. Now housed within the school, the STM Summer Institute brings students from Australia and Europe, and all over North America, to Boston College to experience a rich blend of classes, worship experiences, personal sharing, spiritual formation and field trips. Some of these students are working toward degrees, but many are participating to make them more informed and better educated members of parish councils, classroom teachers, and administrators in Catholic institutions.

While it’s delightful to welcome students to BC each summer, we also recognize that there are many who cannot come to us. So, through the wonderful vehicle that is the Internet, we’re reaching out to them where they live with our continuing education offerings. Starting in 2004, we decided to put a few non-credit courses online under the title “C21 Online” – opportunities for the faithful to engage in facilitated conversations to deepen their professional, spiritual, and theological formation. Ten years later, Jane Regan, the program’s director, now reaches upwards of 1,500 students every year through these online courses. She and her team have developed almost 40 different courses on everything from the Gospel of Matthew to hints on preparing a good homily. Four dioceses – San Francisco, Albany, Norwich, Ct., and Boston – now direct ministers working in their dioceses and Catholic schools to our online courses.  

Our continuing education efforts are not limited to the Internet. We also produce and run a vibrant series of on-campus events open to the public on a wide variety of ministerial and theological topics. Melinda Brown Donovan, who oversees this element of our continuing education program, reports that we reached almost 3,000 people through these events last year. Many of our events are the result of partnerships with other great organizations within Boston College – another example of how the richness of BC’s academic and theological environment is such a benefit for our students and the wider community we serve.

Read our next "Coversation" with BC Law Dean Vincent Rougeau here