Is online education an appropriate forum for adult faith formation? The folks at the Steubenville, Ohio-based Pastoral Solutions Institute seem to think so. “We need new ways to reach adult Catholics,” said Gregory Popcak, president of the initiative Heart, Mind & Strength University for Living.
Tailor-Made for Busy Adults
“This is our response to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ call in their 1999 pastoral plan, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us. The classic models of outreach are not enough.”
In an effort to reach out to time-strapped adults, the Institute has launched Heart, Mind and Strength University for Living, a private, independent, lay initiative in cooperation with the web-development company the Ridgefield Group. The endeavor is the first online, adult, faith-formation program designed for Catholics. The not-for-credit workshops, which will begin in March 2004, are designed to help participants apply faith concepts to their lives in an interactive environment.
“We connect learners to well-known experts who will serve as ongoing personal mentors and help them meet specific goals in their faith and relationships,” explained Popcak, a Catholic psychotherapist who serves as the instructor for two of the six-week workshops with his wife Lisa, a Family Life Educator who co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio broadcast, Heart, Mind and Strength. The university’s web site describes the courses as “part retreat, part seminar, part small faith group.”
The beauty of the courses is their flexibility for already busy adults. Each course is divided into week-long units, allowing participants access to the course room 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
One of the program's instructors, Patrick Madrid, observed that the program was inspired by major universities that now offer online courses.
“There are many people who have the time and ability to attend courses at a campus of a university, but there are others who are unable to because of a job or because they are raising children,” said Madrid. “Heart, Mind & Strength University for Living makes courses more accessible to people who are unable to attend a class in the traditional way.”
Stressing the Practical
At the beginning of the workshop, learners identify practical goals that they want to achieve with the help of their mentors. Mentors then post learning assignments, provide feedback, and take part in the discussion amongst the course participants. At the end of each unit, the mentor posts a unit summary reviewing the major themes of the discussion and makes recommendations for further study.
Faculty for the first eight classes include a variety of nationally-known Catholic speakers and authors chosen for their ability to take large faith concepts and break them down into practical, livable ideas. All faculty members swear an oath of fidelity to the Magisterium and promise to teach only that which is representative of authentic Church teaching.
Ave Maria radio talk-show host Al Kresta will direct a workshop on bringing fallen-away Catholics back to the Church. Theology of the Body scholar Christopher West will lead a course on living the theology of the body. Catholic publisher Patrick Madrid will lead a course on defending the faith. Chastity educator Mary Beth Bonacci will lead a workshop for single adults. Catholic writer Mark Shea will lead a course on the Eucharist. Our Sunday Visitor columnist Amy Welborn will lead a workshop on how Jesus’ parables can transform people’s lives, and radio hosts Gregory and Lisa Popcak will lead workshops on marriage and family and parenting with grace.
While not affiliated with an accredited university or parish, Popcak stresses that the courses are about far more than mere knowledge.
“The HMSU model stresses practical application of the faith to the learner's specific problems and circumstances,” said Popcak. “Our goal is not to just help you be a more knowledgeable person, but to become a better person. Our job is to help you discern the next step in God’s plan for your life.”
Flexibility and Access: A Transforming Combination
To that end, the courses adopt a “coaching model” and are no larger than 15 participants. Students are encouraged to respond to their colleagues’ posts, and in some cases spouses can audit the courses at no-cost. The average cost per course is $360.
“That’s about the same price that you would pay for a weekend conference plus expenses,” explained Popcak, “but in this case you’re given six weeks of 24 hour, 7 day-a-week access to your mentor. At a conference you’d be lucky to be given five minutes.”
The institute’s future plans include developing weeklong Faith Blaster courses for catechists and online continuing education classes for counselors and other professionals. Their online format means that they are able to offer everything from brief seminars to extended programs.
“Heart, Mind & Strength University for Living offers the opportunity to really know your faith and to transform your life and relationships through the application of timeless Christian truths and the power of God’s grace,” concluded Popcak. “That’s what Heart, Mind & Strength University for Living is all about.”
For more information visit Heart, Mind and Strength University for Living at www.hmsu.com or call 1-866-FAITH4U.
© Copyright 2004 Catholic Exchange
Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register and editor of Saints of the Jubilee and There We Stood, Here We Stand: 11 Lutherans Rediscover their Catholic Roots. He resides in St. Cloud, Minnesota with his wife and five children.