Sacred Heart Major Seminary is entering a new phase this fall as it branches out to offer people around the country—and the world—a Sacred Heart education. The seminary is adding two fully online programs to its line-up: a Master of Arts in Theology and a Post-Graduate Certificate in the New Evangelization. The new programs open the door to Sacred Heart to those who are far from the Archdiocese of Detroit, as well as those who are near but cannot physically attend class regularly.
The M.A. in Theology has been offered for decades in a traditional format. The certificate is a specialized post-graduate area of study for students who already have an M.A., a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (M.A.P.S.), or a similar degree. The certificate in the New Evangelization provides an in-depth study on topics relating to the New Evangelization. A fully online undergraduate Certificate in Catholic Theology is already available.
Courses can be taken synchronously or asynchronously. Asynchronous classes engage students with lecture videos, reading, and other learning activities weekly. While due dates may be assigned, students enjoy flexibility as to when and how to access course content. Synchronous courses have pre-scheduled meeting dates and use dual-delivery technology. Students connect virtually to a live seminary class where they not only view the lecture in real time but also interact with their peers in the classroom to participate more fully in the social learning experience.
Leading the Way
Dr. Ryan Cahill, Director of Distance Education and Online Learning for Sacred Heart Major Seminary, chaired the ad hoc committee that explored the feasibility of a fully online graduate degree.
“I had the privilege of chairing this committee in our exploration of the academic, financial, administrative, technological, and logistical implications of the potential decision,” said Dr. Cahill. “One of our committee’s greatest accomplishments was the resequencing of the lay graduate offerings, which not only enhanced the efficiency in course offerings but also created a predictable scheduling pattern that ensures students the opportunity to complete a Master of Arts in Theology using either traditional seated classes, synchronous online classes, asynchronous online classes, or a blend of all three options.”
Though the seminary had been taking steps behind the scenes to offer an online master’s program, Dr. Cahill spent the last year working to make it happen. John Lajiness, who recently stepped into the role of Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management for Sacred Heart, expressed his gratitude for Dr. Cahill’s efforts.
“I arrived here at the tail end of what has been years of hard work on his part to make this a reality. My role is to reap the benefits of what Dr. Cahill has done,” Lajiness said.
Adapting to Change
Dr. Donald Wallenfang, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Sacred Heart, joined the faculty in the fall of 2019. He had taught several online courses at his previous post at Walsh University in Ohio and was then fully immersed in online instruction at Sacred Heart when the COVID-19 pandemic forced remote learning during the spring semester of 2020.
“I think many of us have this romantic idea of being a professor, wearing our tweed sport coat and bow tie, walking into a room where everyone is studying the classics, with students hanging onto every word we say in the classroom before they line up for office hours,” said Dr. Wallenfang. “But as a global Church, we can’t just bury our heads in the sand. We have to engage with the culture. And so in our approach to higher education, especially in a seminary, we are called to be the salt, leaven, and light within the culture, within the world.”
Dr. Mary Healy, Professor of Sacred Scripture, has taught two courses fully online, one of which included a student in Italy. When online education was first introduced over a decade ago, she was concerned about the loss of the intellectual community that comes from professors and students interacting in a traditional classroom.
“We have to be honest that there is something lost in terms of fostering the intellectual life together as students and professors,” said Dr. Healy. “But at the same time, we gain a lot in enabling people to participate who otherwise could not. Also, I found students shared and expressed themselves more openly in discussion boards online than they would in a seated class. Students offered some beautiful online reflections and appropriate personal sharing. And they really did grow in community with each other online.”
Making online instruction personal and interactive rather than generic and passive can be a challenge. Sacred Heart faculty engage in ongoing training for online education to ensure an optimal experience.
“We try to make distance learning as incarnational as possible,” Dr. Wallenfang said. “We have to think of the foundation of our Catholic faith and the incarnation of God as he became human in Jesus. It’s important for us to continue to personalize online education and build a meaningful fabric of interpersonal relationships. We never want to approach it in a utilitarian fashion where people are trying to get something from each other that’s less than personal.”
Sacred Heart’s reputation for high-quality Catholic formation and education, coupled with the New Evangelization, make the seminary the ideal institution to launch new online programs. With the ability to deliver courses simultaneously online, more people can take advantage of all the seminary has to offer through virtual, live face-to-face interactions with professors and peers.
“We have something beautiful at Sacred Heart in that we have a highly qualified faculty who all love the Lord and love the Church and who are trustworthy in terms of what they teach,” said Dr. Healy. “On the graduate level, we have a faculty who recognizes that Pentecost is the perennial paradigm for the Church. Pentecost is meant to be renewed in every age and to be the grace that powers our evangelization, our catechesis, our ministry, and everything we do. It’s fantastic to be able to offer that much more widely now.”
While many students who are enrolled in the new programs won’t be visiting the seminary regularly, they’ll still be part of the connected Catholic community that makes Sacred Heart special.
“We are a seminary. The seminary is always going to be our primary mission. But most people don’t realize that while we typically have 100-125 seminarians, we always also have 300-400 active lay students,” Dr. Cahill said. “This makes for a vibrant community because you see in the classroom the same dynamics that happen in a parish—the laity have to work to support the priest. It’s wonderful to see them being formed and growing together. And the same dynamic will happen online.”
As Sacred Heart goes global this fall, students on their laptops in Florida, at a library in Madrid, or right here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, will all be studying and learning together—a glimpse of the universal Church.
Learn more at shms.edu/online-programs