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Church21 launches its first online education course

Hope Villella '02 took BC's first web-based Church21 course in her brother's Brooklyn, New York, bedroom. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Hope Villella '02 took BC's first web-based Church21 course in her brother's Brooklyn, New York, bedroom. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

By Paul Voosen

Fifty-one students from 19 states and the Virgin Islands participated last fall in a four-week noncredit class taught by Boston College faculty, inaugurating a program of online education for lay Catholics.

Sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Initiative (Church21), which BC created in response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis and its effects on American Catholics, "What Makes Us Catholic" focused on how to incorporate Catholic faith into daily life. The course was taught by the theologian and author Thomas H. Groome and adjunct professor Barbara Radtke, and was based on Groome's book of the same title. It was cosponsored by BC's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (IREPM), which Groome directs.

"We're interested in providing people a way in which to learn more about their faith," said Robert Newton, a special assistant to the president who has also directed the Church21 Initiative. "[Church21] wants to be of service to the U.S. Catholic population, and not just to the relatively minuscule number of people who can come physically to the Boston College campus."

Among students taking the course last fall, women outnumbered men two to one. In age, they ranged from their twenties to seventies, with half of them under 50. Pam DiDente of Bend, Oregon, a registered nurse and mother of a BC student, signed on for the course, she said, in response to the "polarized" atmosphere of her Oregon diocese. Like Boston, her diocese has been roiled by clerical sexual abuse charges and by accusations that a sitting bishop ignored the abuse. Some of DiDente's friends have left the Church, "people that I never imagined" would do so, she said. "Desperate to find something in the Church that I could relate to," DiDente seized on "What Makes Us Catholic."

Romeo Marquis, a 65-year-old consultant from Worcester, Massachusetts, who specializes in helping educators to develop online programs, says he took the course to engage in a considered conversation about faith and the crisis in the Church. "Online discussions can be more thorough than face-to-face discussions," he said, and the Web can be a better venue than "everyday" parish life: "You go to Mass, you have coffee after Mass," said Marquis. "There aren't many opportunities to have . . . in-depth discussion."

"What Makes Us Catholic" was taught entirely through the course website, which students gained access to a week before class began. This gave students time to introduce themselves to their conversation groups—the class was randomly divided into five equal sections—and calmed fears like those expressed by DiDente, who said, "I wasn't sure if I could manage the mechanics of it." (She reports finding the technical demands "straightforward.")

Each week began with students, at their own convenience, watching three video streams, between four and 15 minutes in length, featuring Groome and Radtke talking on subjects drawn from Groome's book (the course's only text). Students were asked to respond by posting reflections on their respective group's message board. Radtke and four graduate students from IREPM served as facilitators, prompting and answering questions, and mediating. A class-wide board was available for general announcements.

One week, the topic was the "sacramental" view of life: "The deep conviction," as Groome said in the video, "that God is present to us through the ordinary and everyday . . . and that we respond likewise." Catholicism's seven sacraments, he explained, are purely the high points of this everyday experience of God. At the video's end, Radtke asked students to reply with what "you want to hold on to and deepen about your sacramental outlook."

The responses were "the heart of this experience," said Radtke. (There were no graded assignments, and the course does not offer credit toward a BC degree.) Participants posted 911 messages by the course's end. Answering Radtke's query, one student wrote about working as a pre-marriage counselor with young couples and learning of the "spiritual connection most brought" to their "sexual lives." Radtke, as facilitator, reflected that the experience serves as a reminder "that we are made in God's image—both body and soul."

Conversations did stray, often ending up at the Church's scandals of the past three years. Students shared their discouragement, some saying, as Groome later paraphrased, "I'm embarrassed to tell my neighbors that I'm Catholic because they ask me all kinds of embarrassing questions about our priests." Groome responded online by posting a course-wide message: "The 'heart' of Catholic faith is . . . the person of Jesus Christ," he said; within the "hierarchy of truths" that form Catholicism lies room to disagree with bishops on some issues. Invoking St. Paul, he said, "Hope is most a virtue when it is most needed, when there is ample evidence against it."

DiDente said her time in the course served as a mini-retreat—"it was so constant throughout those weeks to read, watch the videos, [and] write to people." The discussions helped her see that the struggles of Catholics "aren't just here in central Oregon, they are clearly across the country. And there are people like us who are . . . trying to find a way to stay in the faith that is sincere."

According to Newton, Church21 Online will add two courses in 2005–06, with similar growth planned for future years. New courses will continue to address the principal themes of Church21: the roles and relationships of the laity and the hierarchy of the Church; sexuality in Catholic teaching and community; and how to live and pass on the Catholic faith. The University recently announced a plan to reconstitute the Church in the 21st Century Initiative as a permanent center. The search for a full-time director is in progress.

The spring semester of "What Makes Us Catholic" began on January 24 with 119 students enrolled—including one each from Japan, Mexico, and Belgium. A second online course, "Parents Handing on the Faith," will begin March 28; some 30 students were enrolled by late January. All courses span four weeks and require a fee of $75. Additional information and a registration form are available at the Church21 Online website.


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