An awareness program and a theology course for St. Thomas University students

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An awareness program and a theology course for St. Thomas University students

By Elena Dini


ROME — After a successful Rome-based program in 2017, the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) asked The Lay Centre to organize another program this fall in Rome. 

“Working with The Lay Centre has been one of the real highlights over the past two years. Just about every student wanted to take this course on ‘Global Christianity’ because it allows them to study in situ and among all sorts of people who practice their faith,” said Amy Muse from St. Thomas University, who oversees the university’s study abroad program in Rome.  

Lay Centre director Donna Orsuto has been teaching the semester-long theology course, which will conclude before Christmas, as well as a complementary program, entitled “Awakenings.” 

“The idea was to complement the theology course they are taking with these additional opportunities to give the students the chance to think about Christian values and issues of great importance in the world today,” said Orsuto, a professor of spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

“The whole idea of the awakening program was to invite them to pay attention to what’s going on around them, to be astonished about it and to learn how to communicate it to others in word and action,” she continued. A poem by Mary Oliver, available at the conclusion of this article, was a source of inspiration for the program. 

The first session of the “Awakenings” program, held Sept. 18, was entitled, “Being a Christian Today.” It highlighted the personal commitments that various people made to follow their Christian vocations. The theme of the second session, Sept. 25, was “Living Christianity Today in Rome (Sant’Egidio Community: a case study).” The students learned about the Sant’Egidio Community and its commitment to the poor and marginalized. Some students participated in the evening prayer in Santa Maria in Trastevere Church.

On Oct. 9 and 18, the sessions focused on the question, “Who is My Neighbour?”During the first meeting, participants encountered Blessing Okoedion, who shared the story of her escape from human trafficking, and Fiona Kendall from Mediterranean Hope, who spoke about her work in welcoming refugees and advocating for them. On Oct. 18, the group heard from Father Aloysious Mowe, SJ, international director of advocacy and communications at Jesuit Refugee Service, who offered challenging words about how to live the Gospel values in a neighbourly way.

Each session provided time for dialogue and lively conversation. One session was followed by a delightful and surprising invitation: Orsuto and 14 students were welcomed to the home of Mary Wood Beasley, who attended a session of “Who is My Neighbour?”, and her husband, David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program. David spoke with the students about the spiritual motivation in his work, the humanitarian crises in various parts of the world, in particular in Yemen, and the importance of acting as a Good Samaritan,by doing concrete things to help others.

In addition to these sessions, the theology classes offered other particularly significant experiences. For example, students were able to breathe in the spirituality of St. Benedict during their visit to Subiaco, outside of Rome.

“I felt it was a real privilege to be with the students in Subiaco because an aim of the course and Awakening sessions was to give them space to reflect and to think about their life, who they are and what they are called to be. St. Benedict came to Subiaco in the sixth century as a young man asking similar questions about his life,” said Orsuto.

The students convened at The Lay Centre on two other occasions: for a presentation by Filipe Domingues on the theme, “Selflessness in the Age of Selfies,” and for a lecture by Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, “the pope’s astronomer,” Nov. 20, who engaged the students in an interesting lecture about “Faith and Science.”

“I was really so pleased that Brother Guy Consolmagno could join us because many of the students are science majors. Brother Guy offers a compelling argument for the complementarity of religion and science,” added Orsuto.

“Getting to hear from people we probably would never hear from in other situations is amazing. After the sessions, especially on the way back to the Bernardi campus, we go on talking about what we heard,” said Lily Langan, a student. 

As the end of the semester approaches, the course, too, will come to a conclusion. 

“Once these students go back home, my sincere hope is that they will have a deeper understanding of Christianity and also a greater desire to make a commitment to serve those on the peripheries,” said Orsuto. 

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention,

Be astonished;

Tell about it.  

        (Mary Oliver)

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