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The History and Evolution of the Institute for Lay Ministry

Founded to keep the truths of the Catholic Church alive, equipping the faithful to evangelize in their corners of the world.

by Editorial Team

The History and Evolution of the Institute for Lay Ministry

Because our Catholic faith has over 2,000 years of history and tradition, it can be easy for its truths to remain simply as knowledge in the minds of the faithful. Yet well before Unleash the Gospel was written, the Institute for Lay Ministry at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary was founded to keep these truths alive, equipping the faithful to evangelize in their corners of the world. This mission helps the beauty of Catholicism go beyond knowledge to a lived relationship with Christ, changing the hearts of everyone who encounters him.

The mission begins

This mission inspired Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway, who had an instrumental part in founding the Institute in 1989 as a member of its Curriculum Committee. At that time, Cardinal Edmund Szoka wanted to establish a theologate at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. In response, the committee designed three degrees: the Master’s of Divinity, which was intended for men studying to become priests; a Master of Arts in Theology for laity that wanted to study the Catholic faith; and, a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies, the lay equivalent to the Divinity program, with academic, service and formation components incorporated. 

Then in 2000, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron came to Dr. Cooney, who by then was the chairperson of the MA/MAPS Degree Committee, with a grant application from Lilly Endowment for funding that would be awarded to a creative program in the formation of the laity for ministry. So the committee and administration of Sacred Heart joined with the Archdiocese of Detroit to apply, and was then awarded with the funding to further deepen and expand the formation component of the program, according to Dr. Cooney. 

Equipping the evangelizers

Since then, the Institute has blossomed into a well-rounded program, equipping its students to go on to enter important leadership roles in both the Archdiocese of Detroit and many parishes surrounding. “I think in terms of faculty and staff [at Sacred Heart Major Seminary], what they've realized is that service of the Kingdom in the Church is not just for priests and religious,” Dr. Cooney said.  “In Vatican II, the laity were also called universal holiness and universal call to mission. So the faculty were developing courses where both were present, with the laity receiving the same education and formation as seminarians.”

Dr. Cooney emphasized that the programs in the Institute aim to teach students this heart of mission central to the Gospel. This is what makes the MAPS program very unique: students are not only academically educated, but formed as people and taught important skills that help them in their relationships as well as their individual growth, so that they are better equipped to go on and evangelize. 

“The Church is [mostly] made up of the laity, so the Seminary, since the Institute’s founding, has extended formation and education at the undergraduate and graduate levels to lay people to help equip them, and then also to accompany them through their time here,” said Dr. Matthew Gerlach, Dean of the Institute of Lay Ministry.

“The big thing Seminary is known for is the New Evangelization, and so lay people are formed in such a way that they are always invited to think about how they can evangelize and help other people to come to know Christ in their various ministries,” he added. Since starting, there have been anywhere from 250 to 400 lay students involved in a variety of programs at Sacred Heart, according to Dr. Cooney, who have all gone on to serve in ministry in various ways. 

Serving in the heart of the city

A great fruit of the Institute over the last several years in particular, especially after Detroit’s Unleash the Gospel call to action, has been finding ways to impact the local community in their particular needs. One way they have done this is by serving the Hispanic community with courses offered at the seminary entirely in Spanish with faculty who are bilingual. 

And recently, the Institute hosted an event specifically for black Catholics in Detroit, an initiative led by Dr. Gerlach. Together with the Black Catholic Theological Symposium and a few parishes, his team at the Institute hosted the Symposium for the black Catholic community, which had a very successful turnout. 

Adapting to a time of pandemic

Now, the Institute has had to shift gears in meeting the needs of its own students, given the circumstances of the pandemic. Now, the classes that are a part of the theology programs are also held online — a unique, and at times challenging, opportunity to serve its students in new ways. 

Because of this, Dr. Cooney explained that the Institute has attempted to face those challenges head-on. Not only have they moved many of their classes online, they’ve also developed video courses for Catholics outside the graduate programs to better form them in their faith. Since their development, thousands have participated.

Whether its classes and initiatives are in-person or online, the ultimate goal of the Institute has been, and continues to be, to bring students to this encounter with God, which can then spread to others through their witness and ministries.

“My desire in all of this is to help people develop a personal relationship with God, to see God is real,” Dr. Cooney said. “And to learn how to find God in everyday life, to understand the Church's tradition on prayer so that they're able to share that with the Christian community.”

“I've always felt this, but the theologian Karl Rahner said, the Christian of the future will be a mystic, or nothing at all. And I think the rules and doctrine are very important, but people don’t realize God wants a personal relationship with them, and this is what enables them to live meaningful and purposeful lives,” Dr. Cooney continued. “This is what impassions men and women for evangelization.”

by Editorial Team

Editorial Team

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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.