By Gordon Nary
Gordon: You have several titles at the Sheil Catholic Center where you serve as Pastoral Associate and Director of the Christ the Teacher Institute. Please provide our readers with an overview of your responsibilities in each of your assignments.
Mary: As the Pastoral Associate, I provide leadership and direction in pastoral areas in the absence of or at the request of the Director and Chaplain. In that capacity I am often a sounding board for the Director as he envisions the future and I collaborate with him and the rest of the staff to coordinate the mission of Sheil. In addition, I have particular oversight of formation and education. I do spiritual direction and pastoral counselling with students and share responsibilities for retreats.
The Christ the Teacher Institute houses Sheil’s adult formation program. As it’s director, I help arrange for and teach some of the Sheil Seminars (mini-courses on theology, history, liturgy, morality, scripture, and contemporary Catholic thought. I also direct our Catholic Scholars Program helping undergrads integrate their adult faith and their college life and oversee the Catholic Fellows in Church Leadership which gives students a chance for hands-on experience and mentoring in various areas of leadership. Finally I work with students and associates to bring in speakers and to choose a winner for our the Simpson Essay Prize which explores the relationship between Catholic theology and imagination and a student’s chosen field of study.
Gordon: Your earned several certifications including certifications in, Campus Minister, Pastoral Associate, Annulment Support Minister, and Virtus Facilitator. For our readers who may be interested in Church leadership, could you provide some information on these certification and some of the studies required?
Mary: Certification as a Pastoral Associate and a Campus Minister follows the national norms of certification recognized by the USCCB, National Association of Lay Ministry, and Catholic Campus Ministry Association. The requirements include a minimum of a Master’s Degree in Theology, Pastoral Studies or a related field, a supervised ministry or internship experience (field ed), and 1-3 years of experience working as a minister. The Annulment support minister and Virtus Facilitator certificates require a certain number a workshops/training sessions. Each diocese generally offers training sessions in these areas which usually follow a standard form.
Gordon: Approximately how many students, staff and their families does Sheil Catholic Center serve?
Mary: Catholicism is the largest single denomination on Northwestern's campus. Some 23% of undergrads identify themselves as Catholic which means about 2300 students have some relationship with the Church. I’d be lying if I said they all came to Church every Sunday. In general, we see about 300-400 students every week with an additional 100 showing up to something other than mass. We are also the Church home for an additional 500 people, about 70% of whom are faculty, staff, grad students, or alumni/ae of Northwestern and about 30% are area residents who choose to come to Sheil for a variety of reasons.
Gordon: You earned a M.Div from Yale University and a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Early Christian Literature from Northwestern University. When did you develop an interest in Early Christian Literature and who are some of your favorite authors and their writings?
Mary: I have always loved Scripture – even when I was younger. When I became a student at Yale, I was blessed to have some wonderful scripture professors and I realized that scripture was a place I heard the voice of God the loudest. It made sense that studying and teaching scripture would help make that voice clearer. My dissertation was actually on the commands to “remember” in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible, but I have taught courses on the Gospels and Revelation with equal passion. My favorite Hebrew Bible book is Jonah, followed by Genesis and some of the Wisdom Literature. My favorite gospel is Mark. I also like the writings of Irenaeus, Justin martyr, Ignatius of Antioch. I’m not responsible for anything after 400.
Gordon: You are also a popular author and have written Remembering God: Finding Rest in the Midst of Life, Mothers, Lovers, Priests, Prophets, and Kings, What the Old Testament Tells Us About God and Ourselves. and Daybreaks: Daily Reflections for Advent and Christmas. .Could you comment on what inspired you to write each of these books?
Mary: I love the stories of scriptures and the way we find ourselves and God in them. My first book, “Mothers, Lovers…” was a collection of biblical stories from the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) which were chosen precisely to show us who we are and who God is. Each story is accompanied by a brief context (what’s going on when we encounter the story in scripture), a reflection on what the story tells us, a meditation, and a prayer. The book on Remembering God takes a contemporary look at the questions that plague us most like “Who am I” and “How will I make a difference?” and invites us to find a place of rest in our memory of who God is and how he supports us. The Advent book is a series of reflections on each day of Advent and Christmas that is not necessarily tied to the lectionary readings of the day, and so can be used over and over again. I have also done many reflections on the readings of the liturgical year for both Liguori Press and Liturgy Training Publications
Gordon: Based on your experience in working with students, what in your opinion inspires some of your students to pursue leadership roles in their parishes?
Mary: There are two main things that inspire young adults to take on leadership roles in their church. The first is a personal and positive encounter with someone who is in a leadership role. This is the kind of experience that makes a person say: “I want to do that. I want to be like him or her.” The second is an invitation from that person or a friend or family member to consider a leadership role. “I wonder if you have thought about becoming a priest (or sister, or campus minister, or lay ecclesial minister). I think you’d make a good one.” I would also say that the more opportunity young adults have to serve and to hear and tell the story of their faith, the more likely they are to want to continue doing that,
Mary: Mark Gray makes some interesting points in his article, particularly concerning the inability of young people to discern the difference between what the Catholic Church teaches (re: for instance, faith and science) and what other Christian denominations teach. I think general knowledge about religion and connection with faith at all is lacking. They are exposed more and more to different faith traditions and no faith and are hard pressed to articulate why or even what they believe. But truthfully, in my encounter with college students for the last 35 years, the supposed conflict with faith and science and the inability to articulate the hope of their faith are not the principle reasons they leave. These students have been taught from birth that we are all equal, that no one should be left out, that everyone and everything has value.
Consequently when they hear that their gay friends are “intrinsically disordered,” that women are not to be admitted to ordination, that Catholicism is better or contains the fullness of the truth more than any other faith, it strikes them as inherently unfair and inconsistent with the values we have given them. They have a hard time reconciling what the church teaches (and sometimes the way the church teaches it) with the societal value that no one person is better than another (and, consequently, that no one’s truth is better than another one’s truth). The other thing they have a hard time with is that the Church moves very slowly. In a world in which we are impatient when the microwave is taking a long time, the movement of a global church (and the recognition that America is a very small percentage of the Catholics in the world and doesn’t get to dictate where the world church should go next)) seems glacial.
Gordon: You are also a popular speaker at many Chicago area venues. Could you share with our readers the titles of your recant presentations and where you presented them?
Mary: I present mainly at parishes and retreats. The three most common areas in which people ask me to present are scripture, prayer, and my books Here is a list of most recent titles:
“Remembering God” at St. Anne’s Church, Barrington (I did a presentation on Mothers, Lovers…the year before)
Wine, Chocolate, and God: Being Guests In Our Own House” – A Deacon’s Wives Retreat
Celtic Spirituality” St. Raymond Church, Mount Prospect
Interfaith Panel on Religion, Sex, and Sexuality” SHAPE student group at Northwestern University
“Encountering the Living Christ” Parish Leadership Day, Archdiocese of Chicago
Let There be Peace on Earth” Soul Space Women’s Interfaith Retreat
Gordon: Sheil Catholic Center is an exceptional and valuable resource, and your and your colleagues leadership is a blessing for all of us. Thank you for taking time for this interview.