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Blazing Digital Pathways in Higher Education and Outreach

Equipping Disciples for the New Evangelization with First Full-Fledged Distance Education Program

by Lisa Martinez

Walking the hallways at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, it’s easy to sense the enthusiasm among students, faculty, and staff at the start of a new academic year. This fall, such familiar enthusiasm was palpable—only now, it’s not limited to Sacred Heart’s hallways and classrooms.

The pilot year for the seminary’s new distance education program began this September with fifty-two students enrolled to pursue an online Certificate in Catholic Theology (CCT). Although the seminary has previously offered online courses, the CCT program is the first fully digital curriculum offered by Sacred Heart, a response to requests for more flexible online learning opportunities for lay theology students.

After a formal request to inaugurate the program was approved by the Higher Learning Commission in May, the seminary began taking steps to utilize advances in technology to better serve those who cannot access a traditional classroom setting but are discerning a call to serve the Church through ongoing formation.

In addition to allowing greater access to lay formation students, the distance-learning CCT program is a way for the seminary to live its core mission as expressed in Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, to form priests, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers by offering high-quality education and formation rooted in the heart of the Gospel, according to Sacred Heart’s rector Msgr. Todd Lajiness.

While expanding its digital reach to students, the distance-learning program also has attracted new faculty and staff to support and fuel the growth. Dr. John Gresham, who successfully introduced online courses at the Paul VI Catechetical Institute in the Archdiocese of St. Louis for the past fifteen years, was appointed earlier this year as Sacred Heart’s first full-time director of distance education and online learning, while Ryan Cahill—who is pursuing a doctorate in educational technology at Central Michigan University—is serving as an educational technology specialist to assist faculty in developing online courses. 

Together, the pair is building on the vision and foundation established by Dr. Matthew Gerlach, dean of the Institute for Lay Ministry, and Astrid Caicedo, assistant dean of studies, who guided Sacred Heart in the early planning for the strategic priority.

Online Learning, but ‘On-site’ Education 

Though the program is primarily about offering distance learning online, Dr. Gresham prefers to think of his role as facilitating “on site” education—not at Sacred Heart, but in students’ homes, places of work and in the public square where their vocations are fulfilled.

“This ‘on-site’ education is incarnational in nature,” Dr. Gresham said. “Students are not called to live this out in a classroom, but rather in the places where they are living and now learning.” 

While Dr. Gresham expects students to engage well with the new digital format, which utilizes user-friendly educational technology, he and other faculty remain intentional about offering exceptional personal instruction that harmoniously develops and integrates all aspects of the human person. To ensure that remains the case, professors are committed to teaching and accompanying students throughout the entire online learning process, including being present and engaging with students online, facilitating meaningful discussion among classmates, utilizing online tools, and providing well-crafted, timely feedback on student work. 

Students participate in the program through a learning management system called Canvas. The customizable system allows professors and instructors to tailor the platform to suit their course needs, including video lectures, PowerPoint presentations, links to further resources, and discussion boards. Students can interact with their professor and learn from one another through various collaborative tools. 

A Strategic Start

Piloting the online Certificate in Catholic Theology lays the foundation for a more significant launch of the program in the 2019-20 academic year, according to seminary leaders. Starting with a smaller program enables Sacred Heart to evaluate the concept’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing for refinements based on feedback from students and professors. 

The online CCT program is foundational for seminary students in more ways than one, Dr. Gresham said. Not only do students receive basic theological instruction and formation, but the 13-credit-hour program also can be used as a stepping stone to other degree programs after its six courses are completed. The certificate program can be applied toward either associate or bachelor’s degree applications, as prerequisite work for a master’s degree, as discernment for the diaconate, or as partial fulfillment of the requirements for archdiocesan professional certification for lay ministers.

Importantly, Dr. Gresham said, it provides a theologically sound approach for those who wish to grow in a better understanding of their Catholic faith.

“Students will come to know the Lord better and grow in intimacy with him,” Dr. Gresham said. “As they deepen their knowledge of the faith, they are more equipped to teach and share it with others.” 

New Method for the New Evangelization

While the majority of those taking advantage of Sacred Heart’s distance-learning program are lay ministry students, clergy and religious also benefit from the flexible schedule and online teaching.

After a 25-year hiatus from higher education, Brother Peter Pio Picciolini of the Missionary Servants of Divine Mercy recently enrolled in the CCT program at the recommendation of his religious superior, who suggested he find a “holy, credible Catholic university that maintains a consistent and solid Catholic expression.” 

Along with Sacred Heart’s reputation as an evangelization and mission-oriented seminary, the ability to take classes online toward certification was a key motivational factor that drew Brother Picciolini to Sacred Heart’s online program. 

“Classes began in September, and I just love it,” Brother Picciolini said. “The staff is amazing. Dr. Gresham is my professor. He is extremely knowledgeable, and very patient considering my lack of university experience.” 

The curriculum, Brother Picciolini added, “is very Catholic and challenging, but the support from my fellow classmates and teachers is spectacular.” 

Dr. Gerlach, who is teaching the first Introduction to Liturgy and Sacraments course, has been impressed with both the quality of the online experience and the students in the distance learning program. Though the coursework is online, he and Dr. Gresham are working to establish community among the students and professors both on and offline, guided by the principle that all interpersonal exchanges should foster mutual self-giving. 

While most interactions take place through the Canvas system, students are routinely invited to come to Sacred Heart for activities throughout the academic year and to meet with professors and fellow students at the seminary—an opportunity of which many take advantage. 

“The students like to come to the seminary; they feel like they are coming on a retreat,” Dr. Gerlach said. “We extend these invitations to keep them connected to the seminary community.”

Sowing Seeds for Future Growth 

While the all-online CCT program is new to Sacred Heart, the seminary is not a stranger to the digital classroom concept. 

In total, eighty-three students are currently enrolled in online learning at Sacred Heart, which includes priests studying in the seminary’s graduate evangelization program the Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) in the New Evangelization, has offered an online component for several years, in addition to intensive on-site classes at Sacred Heart during the summer.

While the seminary plans to grow and expand its online Certificate in Catholic Theology program, Sacred Heart’s leadership is conscious of the need to balance convenience and ease-of-access for students with the resources available to maintain a high-quality, world-class formation experience. 

But as plans are in the works to develop courses in formats that better serve students both inside and outside the traditional classroom setting, Sacred Heart’s primary goal remains the same, as Unleash the Gospel says, to “embark upon the new evangelization, to employ new methods and a new fervor in unleashing the Gospel.”

Studying at Sacred Heart is more than academics! You become part of a supportive, faith-filled community of faculty, seminarians, commuter students, and staff who share the same passion for Christ.

If you are interested in learning more, contact our admission office at (313) 883-8696 or visit

by Lisa Martinez

Lisa Martinez

Michigan native, Lisa Martinez, now lives with her husband in Austin, Texas, where she runs both her small business and Catholic nonprofit; yet remains a storyteller first and foremost.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.