Layman's doctoral studies will help fill void in New Zealand church

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Layman's doctoral studies will help fill void in New Zealand church

By Laura Ieraci

PALMERSTON NORTH, New Zealand — Few people have a life journey similar to Mark Richards. This past spring, his journey took him nearly 19,000 km, from New Zealand to Rome, where he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation in moral theology.

Richards, 62, said earning his doctorate from the Alfonsianum was “the completion of a hope” he had 30 years ago.

The native of Palmerston North, a small university town in rural New Zealand, entered seminary as a young man, after two years of law school. After three years of ministry, he was sent to Rome, where he completed a licentiate in moral theology at the Alfonsianum in 1986.

After leaving ministry, he worked in human resource management and consulting for 15 years, eventually shifting back into pastoral work and starting his doctoral studies in moral theology at his alma mater in Rome. 

Married with children, Richards said he chipped away at his doctoral dissertation for seven years at his kitchen table while working full time as the pastoral services manager for the Diocese of Palmerston North, a position he has held for the past 10 years. His varied responsibilities, include supporting the bishop in pastoral issues and strategic development, being the liturgy director, and teaching adult faith formation. He also lectures for the Tertiary Institute, and sits on the boards for Caritas and the National Liturgy Office.

However, he took a three-month leave to put the finishing touches on his dissertation and fulfill certain university requirements, prior to his defence, April 27. During this time, he lived at The Lay Centre in Rome. 

Richards described his time at The Lay Centre as “the most supportive and welcoming experience, with the addition of a whole element of acceptance of people in their diversity.”

“The non judgemental service permeates the place. It is founded on the strong base of personal involvement and responsibility,” he said. 

In addition to feeling very much at home, Richards said his experience at The Lay Centre offered him three key insights that he expects may impact his pastoral work going forward. 

“It is possible to form and live in a lay community with individual freedom and commitment, by having some simple common parameters: an agreed eating together, praying together, and everyone having a job for the community, not expecting to be served but to serve,”  he said.

His second insight, he said, is that “the ecumenical experience…is made to come alive when you live together, and share bread together.”

And, third, that “discussion of deep and important issues happens best when there is a formed relationship, and the ‘witness’ of the other’s opinion is supported by the authenticity you know in that person. When you know someone, you know not to judge an opinion or stance, but to listen because this is a person who is living their opinion authentically. So the diversity of position in the centre has been a real joy,” he said.

In addition to realizing a long-held dream, Richards said the completion of his doctoral studies will help to fill a void in his local church. 

“We are very short of qualified people to be involved in adult formation,” he said. “So my expectation is that my role will diversify more into lecturing and adult formation, and I will spend my ‘retirement’ in classrooms and living rooms, linking the Gospel to ethics and the moral life.”

He said he has a few new speaking engagements booked for the fall.

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