Jennelle Phillips, a convert to Catholicism and member of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, proudly shows off her certificate June 22. The formation program heightened her desire to learn even more about her faith. “I feel like a geek about all Catholic things,” she said with a laugh. (Rick Keating/Catholic Sentinel)
Jennelle Phillips, a convert to Catholicism and member of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, proudly shows off her certificate June 22. The formation program heightened her desire to learn even more about her faith. “I feel like a geek about all Catholic things,” she said with a laugh. (Rick Keating/Catholic Sentinel)

KEIZER — Some were converts, others cradle Catholics. One was a former seminarian. They hailed from across western Oregon — from Eugene, Portland and Grants Pass. Their ages spanned generations.

Yet the 23 participants of a new theology and pastoral ministry program were bound by a similar yearning: to probe the Catholic faith and grow in friendship with Jesus.

On June 22 at St. Edward Parish here, the students became the first cohort to complete the two-year Foundational Certificate program, offered through the Archdiocese of Portland’s Institute for Catholic Life and Leadership. The program forms those in parish ministry and individuals who feel called to lay ministry in the church.

“The knowledge I gained, it was kind of mind-blowing,” said 54-year-old Tawny Pruett, a member of St. Edward Parish in Lebanon and coordinator of religious education there. “You think you know your faith; you teach kids, go to Mass. This is so much deeper. It has become a part of who I am. When I have a discussion, I’m going to have more answers. But it’s not just about knowledge but about getting you closer to Jesus and the Trinity.”

Archbishop Alexander Sample spoke to such zeal — and the ability to remain firm in faith despite obstacles — during the Mass celebrating the program’s completion.

In his homily he pointed to St. Thomas More, the patron saint of conscience, who inspires Catholics “not to go with the wind but to hold fast to what Christ has given to us, our faith.”

“Be lights to the world,” said the archbishop, who presented each student with their certificate after Mass.

The two-year-long program includes human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral dimensions. But there’s also an additional element that “sets it apart a bit form other programs,” said Miriam Marston, coordinator of the Institute for Catholic Life and Leadership. “It’s the element of reconciliation and mercy, of forming leaders who know the mercy of God and can be agents of reconciliation in the world.”

Several students said studying the Old Testament and the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church was especially powerful.

“It helps you understand what’s happening today,” said Pruett. “When you look at the beginning of the church, from right after Pentecost, then up through Vatican II and what’s happening now, it helps you realize there’s nothing new; it’s happened before and will be OK.” In light of the current abuse crisis, “it gives you so much hope that God is in control,” she said.

Fellow student Jennelle Phillips, who says her conversion to the Catholic faith several years ago helped save her marriage, found the program challenging at times. “But hard in a really great way,” said the member of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton. Sometimes students would get so enthralled with a topic, said Phillips, they’d joke about “just ordering pizza and staying here and talking” after the eight-hour day.

Convert David Kingsella, 51, a member of St. Agatha Parish in Southeast Portland, said sessions offered a sage balance of “engaging the intellect and learning and then spiritual growth.” They also provided practical suggestions for how to address issues that can arise in ministry.

“And just watching others teach the material — it gives you ideas about how to present things,” added Kingsella, who leads confirmation classes and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Thomas Dooley, 30, had been seeking ways to deepen his understanding of Catholicism since discerning out of the seminary. Now a therapist, he found the moral theology class among his favorites.

“It looks at how theology shapes our practice around practical things, like why the church teaches against living with your spouse until marriage.”

As a therapist, he talks to clients about being congruent in what they believe and what they live. When actions reflect beliefs, people have a greater sense of well-being. “Moral theology lends itself to this reality,” said Dooley, a member of St. Edward in Keizer.

The archdiocese has offered lay ministry formation since the 1990s, but the certificate program is a revamping of it, “keeping in mind the world and culture look different than they did then,” said Marston, who coordinates the program with Rolando Moreno, director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation for the archdiocese. 

The new offering also contains the same content in the English and Spanish tracks; the latter began last year. Though the monthly daylong sessions are taught in different languages, they include a joint morning Mass and shared meals.

“So often the two cultures pass each other in the hallways,” said Marston. “This is one small way of building up unity.”

The second cohort of pastoral ministry students began studies last fall in Beaverton, and this September a group will start at Shepherd of the Valley Parish in Central Point.

Many students in the first cohort formed close friendships and intend to remain in touch. Phillips and another formation student are participating together in an upcoming Marian retreat.

Marston said she doesn’t expect participants to retain all the content they’ve learned in the past two years. “But they will be better equipped to know where to turn if questions come up,” she said. “Instead of the catechism collecting dust, it comes alive for them, and they feel comfortable using it.”

Her prayer is that students take the momentum and energy they currently have and bring it “first into their homes, families and communities, and then into their ministry, whatever that may be.”

“I hope they will be listening to the Holy Spirit, reading the signs of the times and the signs right around them and be able to respond boldly and with great love.”

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