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ICL's acclaimed programs strengthen and share ND's Catholic identity

Author: Arts and Letters


What is the truest face of Notre Dame’s Catholicism?

Is it the Grotto? The Basilica of the Sacred Heart? The theology department? The place where consecrated Communion hosts are kept?

Or is it the Institute for Church Life (ICL)? Put another way, if ICL were one of the University’s vital organs, which would it be?

“It’s gotta be the heart,” says John Cavadini, the institute’s director.

“And the circulatory system,” adds Matthew Zyniewicz, a co-administrator in this more than 30-year-old endeavor. Tucked as it is on the 12th floor of the Hesburgh Library, it has a low profile on campus. But in the world outside, bishops and diocesan and parish leaders are increasingly taking welcoming notice.

History and commitment

More than three decades ago, President Emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., established the institute when he realized that Notre Dame’s many outreach efforts should include a direct partnership with the Church, and that the relationship should be a two-way street.

On one level, such a relationship would keep the University’s Catholic identity true and fresh.

“If the University, which derives its identity from the Church, isn’t thinking about the needs of the Church, then it’s not really thinking about its identity as Catholic,” Cavadini says. “The Church is a communion of hierarchies and charismatic gifts. Building that up is building the body of Christ.”

ICL administrative staff members are palpably faith-filled, and when they use words like “charism” and “communio,” office lingo lilts with conviction. But while the value of this University-Church exchange is intuitive to them, these administrators can be both funny and sad about just how difficult it is to partner with the Church, whose various diocesan and parish entities all seem to have different rulebooks and whose leadership is cautiously protective of its authority.

But just what does the Church need? Says Lenny DeLorenzo, who directs ND Vision and works with ECHO, “The needs don’t always present themselves. When you’re creating these programs, you have to find the needs yourself.”

Help wanted

Vatican II called for openness to the laity. But in the period immediately afterward, the Church still was amply supported—and its important jobs were conducted—by members of religious orders. The earliest version of the ICL organized summer master’s studies in theology for priests and nuns. In this way, the Center for Liturgy became a national resource for inspiring liturgical renewal.

In the decades since, religious orders have declined as dioceses have been beset with fiscal problems brought on by abuse scandals and other hardships.

“What really happened is the jobs we were meant to reach out to haven’t gone away, they’re just done with a different population,” says Thomas Cummings, director of the online religious education program called STEP. David Fagerberg, director of the Center for Liturgy, remembers a time when summer conferences were attended by diocesan directors of the Office of Divine Worship. “Those positions have been lost,” he says.

Gerald Baumbach, who joined ICL four years ago, became a lay minister in 1972 for a parish with a very forward-thinking response to Vatican II. As such, he was part of the first wave of what now is an aging population in catechetical leadership. Now, as director of ECHO, he helps prepares future diocesan and parish lay ministers through a two-year program of emersion, mentoring and an intensive summer theology master’s program.

What ECHO participants are preparing for, Baumbach says, “is catechesis, cradle to grave. These young 22- and 23-year-olds go into undefined structures, develop new programs, work with existing leaders that might be tired, and become the new future for many.”

Affordable and accessible training

Diocesan and parish staffs need new blood; they also need renewal. The STEP program provides almost 60 courses—less expensively than many dioceses could—by marrying the University’s technical capabilities with the experience of its outstanding theology faculty. Cavadini, also chair of the theology department, is credited with maximizing the ICL-theology department partnership.

STEP is basically a transporting vehicle,” notes Cummings, who is particularly pleased with the growth of its deaconate preparation program. Cummings also fills individual dioceses’ requests for customized programs. “Who’s on the other end can be very broad,” he says. “It’s a practical way in which we’re trying to fill a need.”

Encouraging literacy and connection

Cavadini is passionate about religious literacy—among the Church’s youths as well as their parents. “You can just see there is a need for increased catechesis … a basic account of the faith,” he says. “And it just doesn’t mean addressing young people, it means addressing their parents.”

ECHO is a part of that, as is ND Vision, a spiritual summer camp for high school students, who get to live in Notre Dame residence halls and whose counselors are Notre Dame students. ND Vision helps build an ethic of vocation to the Church, and the high school enrollees aren’t the only beneficiaries. Cavadini points out that while the sessions are formative for the high school participants, they also are a form of lay ministry apprenticeship for the college-age counseling staff.

At a Notre Dame reception last fall during meetings of the American Conference of Catholic Bishops, bishops expressed their awareness and appreciation of ICL programs, particularly those that work with young people. “It wasn’t just flattering, it was commendable,” says Cavadini. “It made me think good things about the future.”

The bishops also have warmed up to the seminars and workshops of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative, one of which took place on campus last summer. A group of bishops, Notre Dame faculty and other specialists oversee the agenda, which was forged in the wake of recent scandals. Their purpose is to generate better interaction between bishops and other Church representatives.

Signs of success

Each of the program administrators has his own sense of the ICL’s burgeoning success. To Cummings, it’s a 30 percent increase in enrollment each of the past five years. Fagerberg is managing a commitment from a partner to increase the size and influence of their joint publication on liturgical scholarship. This summer, DeLorenzo will open a new ND Vision experience directed at campus and youth ministers—the very leadership that will help high school students sustain their Vision experiences. Baumbach is pleased to see ECHO graduates being hired as lay ministers. But he also relishes the story of the ECHO students who invited the local bishop for dinner and a little post-meal songfest. “Imagine a bishop having dinner with four young people,” he said.

“There’s something happening in the institute to bring together all the programmatic elements as a whole for the good of the Church. It’s a diverse ministry, but it has this core value,” says Cavadini.

Internal and external evaluations of the programs encourage Cavadini’s optimism (and surely make him blush with their effusive praise of his leadership).

“The recent bishops’ conference … held on the campus … is a good indicator that Notre Dame is now recognized as a place where a conversation between the Church and the academy can take place,” noted a 2005 external assessment team. “The programs, like seeds, are just beginning to take root and some are in early bloom,” added the committee, whose members encouraged the University to invest in ICL’s further growth.

Institute for Church Life programs

ECHO (The flagship program of the Center for Catechetical Initiatives ): The two-year service program prepares lay ministers by placing them in diocesan and parish settings. Close mentoring relationships, living arrangements with other apprentices, and intensive master’s-level summer theology study define the program’s rigor.

ND Vision: Summer conferences bring high school students to campus to explore how to answer God’s call to the Church. Summer 2007 opens the experiential renewal and education program to youth ministers, high school campus ministers and high school religion teachers with a program called ND Vision CYM (Campus and Youth Ministry).

Center for Liturgy: The most senior of the ICL program, the Center for Liturgy was founded 35 years ago and has become a national resource for promoting excellence in liturgy through seminars, publications and a conference on campus every June.

STEP (Satellite Theological Education Program): With classes taught by Notre Dame theology faculty, STEP provides quality continuing and formative theological education via the Internet for lay and ordained Church leaders. Since its inception it has developed almost 60 online courses.

Center for Social Concerns: Although an independent campus entity, the CSC has a place at the institute’s table by virtue of its mission to facilitate community-based learning, research and service in the Catholic social tradition. Plans to one day bring both the CSC and the ICL under one roof will make the closeness of their relationship more obvious and fruitful.

Originally published by Gail Hinchion Mancini at on February 15, 2007.