Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer
May 16, 2023 // Bishop

Bishop Commissions Notre Dame Master of Divinity Graduates

Jill Boughton
Freelance Writer

On Thursday, May 11, Bishop Rhoades celebrated a Mass with Blessing and Sending at Moreau Seminary for the 10 lay students, seven women and three men, graduating from the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Divinity program.  Eight seminarians have also completed the degree program. As Bishop Rhoades pointed out, “What a blessing it is for seminarians, candidates for religious life, and laity to study together. Surely that enriches the experience for everyone.”

Notre Dame’s Master of Divinity is a three-year program for lay ministers and those in formation for religious life. Seminarians spend four years earning the M.Div., but build community with the lay cohort by sharing coursework, field work placements, spiritual reflection, and formation, as well as weddings and the birth of children. This unique aspect of the program gives each student insight into different perspectives that will facilitate ongoing collaboration wherever they wind up serving. Students come from all over the country and bring a wide variety of backgrounds and professional and ministry experiences. Most will stay in touch with their peers as their formation continues beyond the academic setting. This particular class includes students of different ages, ethnicities, and experiences — one straight out of college and one old enough that her middle daughter led the prayers of the faithful.

Nicholas Guiney
Bishop Rhoades poses with graduates from the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Divinity Program following the Mass with Blessing and Sending that he celebrated at Moreau Seminary on Thursday, May 11.

After the homily, the candidates were presented by name and received a special blessing to be “missionaries of joy, icons transformed into the image of Jesus, those whose words echo Christ’s voice.” Each one received an icon of the Vineyard, with Jesus in the midst, especially fitting since the day’s reading from John 15 was the Vine and the Branches. Bishop Rhoades focused on the theme of joy, saying, “Sharing the joy of these graduates in a job well done.” This is one among life’s many joys — family, friendship, nature, travel, entertainment, and “hopefully you’ve found joy in the study of theology.” Bishop Rhoades pointed out that “all that brings us real joy has its source in God,” and that the fullness of joy is found only in union with Jesus. He said that joy is the fruit of selfless love and urged them to remember, “Gaudium de Caritate” (Joy proceeds from Charity).

Dr. Todd Walatka, who directs the academic aspects of the program, pointed out that Notre Dame has been ranked as the top theology department in the nation for three of the last four years. “We’ve built a program that excels in intellectual, pastoral, human, and spiritual formation.” Stacey Noem serves as Director of Human and Spiritual Formation. Three years of supervised ministry placements (a ministry of presence with the vulnerable, a ministry of catechesis, and a chance to exercise leadership) offer students crucial opportunities to integrate theological studies with experience, reflectively developing their ministerial identities. Each student also does a “synthesis” seminar that engages a pastoral topic in light of at least two different areas of theology. Thanks to a Lilly grant, intercultural competence is also addressed, with “immersion” experiences like a pilgrimage to Mexico City and accompanying migrants at the southern border.

Julia King entered the M.Div. at age 21, immediately after graduating from University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. Her Irish/German and Mexican grandparents still live in the same Houston neighborhood, and South Bend was the farthest she’d ever been from home. All her formal education has been in Catholic schools. She considered a religious vocation as an undergrad, especially after her aptitude for theology changed her intention of majoring in business. However, her experiences in ministry with teenagers and college students deepened her sense of vocation to lay ministry, and in November at St. Casimir, South Bend, she’ll marry Alejandro, a Mexican-born Ph.D. student in theology.

King said highlights of her time in the M.Div. program included courses on theology of the Eucharist, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the dynamism of the sacraments. One class each semester was taught in Spanish, with a chance to read original documents in that language. M.Div. students made a pilgrimage to Mexico City last October. Her ministry placements included Notre Dame Campus Ministry, Assistant Rector in Ryan Hall, serving migrants on the Texas/Mexico border with Catholic Charities, and helping with youth ministry and confirmation preparation at St. Adalbert in South Bend, where she assisted Father Zach Rathke. In July, she’ll become Director of Youth Ministry there. She envisions her role as accompanying youth and their families as they encounter God and co-write their own stories with Him. Helping youth step into leadership roles in the parish in light of the Eucharistic revival is a related goal.

“The M.Div. program has been a really great experience for me,” King testifies. “I’ve gained a new depth of insight, though I have more questions than answers. That’s okay since formation is a lifelong process. The Holy Spirit is the principal formator.” She knew she wanted to be involved in faith formation but was a little surprised when that crystallized in a call to youth ministry.

Born in the Philippines, Fernando Garcia grew up in New Jersey, where he attended Catholic schools and served as an altar boy. His 2016 degree from the University of Notre Dame was in chemical engineering, and he spent four years in the Army using some of those skills. However, as he volunteered in a Texas parish, he found himself more drawn to working with people. He also realized he needed more education and formation in order to engage with the youth who were asking him questions about their faith. He’d met M.Div. students as an undergrad and was drawn to the way Notre Dame’s program connected academics with practical Church ministry. “I wasn’t that interested in the academics,” Garcia admits, “so I was surprised I grew to love it. Notre Dame theology professors are top-notch, but what inspires me is how everything they do is in service to the Church they love.”

Garcia’s ministry placements included serving as a chaplain at Memorial Hospital in South Bend (where his wife now works as volunteer coordinator), teaching theology at Marian High School, and serving in Notre Dame campus ministry. The Garcias have been attending St. Anthony de Padua in South Bend for a year and a half, so he’s eager to take up his new position as Director of Faith Formation and teaching theology to middle schoolers. The variety of roles he’ll be filling will enable him to keep growing and developing his skills. “My passion,” he says, “is helping others, especially young people, see themselves as beloved by God.” He added that being in the M.Div. program has helped him articulate this passion and make it concrete.

King and Garcia are two of the four graduates who will remain in this diocese. The others are Andrea Bodary, who will work with Catholic Charities locally, and Juan Miguel Alvarez, in Notre Dame campus ministry. Bishop Rhoades said he’s delighted with 40 percent, but would (facetiously) like to have a private word with the six who will be ministering in the wider Church.

The singing and liturgical responses were robust in a chapel packed with priests, seminarians, professors, formators, earlier graduates of the program, and friends of the current graduates, including many lively children.

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