Welcome to “The University”

One of the benefits of spending a little time in another part of the country means that you see how Catholics "elsewhere" do things, and do things very well. Last night I participated in an innovative adult-ed program called "The University," which is based in the northern part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. (My geography is a bit sketchy: I’m talking about towns like Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo.) Here’s the idea: a group of ten parishes get together each year to plan what they call a "multi-parish, adult-education program with more than 100 courses." After each parish contributes some funding, a group of parishioners meet months before the annual courses begin, usually around Lent, to determine what types of courses and lectures would most benefit their parishioners. As a result of this pooling of resources, the topics are wide and varied: church history, faith and science, liturgy, morality and ethics, marriage and family, prayer, Scripture, even archeology. While most parishioners do not use them towards any degree, catechists can receive credit for the courses. The cost for "students" is nominal. Last night I had the opportunity to speak to Mary Lou McGee, the current director of the program, and also a pastoral associate of Our Lady of Malibu. (Yes, that’s really the name of the church, a lovely airy structure that narrowly missed being burned to the ground in the October wildfires. Yesterday I saw that the burn line stopped short of only a few dozen feet from the church’s property: actually arresting itself immediately next to a large cross on a hilltop.) Ms. McGee said that during Lent there might be three courses each night, at different parishes, and the coordinators try to make sure that there is little overlap, in order that parishioners don’t face too many conflicts between courses they want to attend. So, for example, next Monday night there are courses by Felix Just, SJ, from the Loyola Institute for Spirituality in Orange, on "The Passion Narrative in Matthew;" by Pedro Villaroyo, director of Hispanic Ministries for the LA Archdiocese, on "Cuando Sobre el Hambre," (here Spanish-language courses are a matter of course); "Mega-Trends in Catholicism," by John Allen, NCR’s Vatican correspondent; and "Galileo and God," by Dr. Keith Lewis, professor of church history at St. John’s Seminary. That’s one night at four different parishes in the area. The benefits are obvious: plenty of good adult ed for everyone, a splitting of costs, sizeable crowds to attract speakers, reduced overhead, and, as an added benefit, a marvelous mixing of parishioners among the parish churches. After a talk last night one fellow mentioned to me how wonderful it was to get to know the other parishes. "You know, I’ve realized that each parish has its own charism," he said. How wonderful to get to know these distinctive charisms and learn something about the faith in the process. Then again, that is learning something about the faith. James Martin, SJ, in Los Angeles

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