Lisa Kalscheur and Malina Zachman both entered the Dominican order of St. Cecelia following their graduation from the Catholic Studies department. Kalscheur, a 2004 graduate with a double major in Catholic Studies and philosophy, is now known as Sister Elizabeth Marie. She entered the convent in 2004. Zachman double majored in Catholic Studies and education and graduated in 2005. After entering the convent that same year, she is now known as Sister Karol Marie. Although their names have changed, their fondness for the Catholic Studies community has not.
For both women, their experiences in Catholic Studies were integral to their decision to enter religious life. As Sister Elizabeth Marie recalls, “My spiritual life was formed by my academic experiences in Catholic Studies. This intellectual formation laid the groundwork for my conversion to the fullness of the faith.” She adds, “It was my peers who argued with me for hours, battling against my long-held misconceptions about the Church, and it was also my peers during my year in Rome who filled the many holes in my catechesis and showed me how to live this glorious Catholic faith.” Sister Karol Marie remembers that, to her, “Catholic Studies was like a ‘second family’ that nourished and supported me in a time when I was seeking more deeply and looking for the truth to the question of what God was asking of me – my particular path to holiness and happiness, my path to him.”
The Rome experience played a significant role in both women’s choice of the Dominican order. While studying at the Angelicum, Sister Elizabeth Marie found herself profoundly affected by the Dominican friars Father Wojciech Giertych and Father Paul Murray. She remembers a course in fundamental moral theology as being particularly enlightening. “The Dominican approach to theology and philosophy, which is centered on the gift of authentic human freedom made perfect through sanctifying grace, the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, made me realize that, having tried for so long to be ‘free’ from imposing rules and teachings, true freedom actually consists in freely giving one’s life to God.” Sister Karol Marie also discovered that living in the Eternal City helped in the discernment process: “Being immersed in the heart of the Church in all its richness and fullness deepened my love and thirst for the things of beauty and truth and intensified my desire to seek God’s particular role for me.”
Both sisters are convinced that the Catholic Studies experience strongly influenced their vocational path. Sister Karol Marie credits Catholic Studies faculty member Dr. Mary Reichardt in affirming her choice to enter religious life. “I will never forget the enthusiasm and interest with which she received my news. It definitely encouraged me in a crucial stage in my discernment process and made me more excited about the possibility of having a religious vocation.” Sister Elizabeth Marie agrees, “I can honestly say that without Catholic Studies, I would not be a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia.”
Ryan Lewis graduated in 1995 with a double major in Catholic Studies and political science. He then went on to receive a degree in Sacred Theology in 1998, and he was ordained to the priesthood on June 5, 1999, in his hometown of Omaha, Neb. Following his studies at the Angelicum in Rome and then at Catholic University in Washington D.C., Father Lewis returned to Nebraska and now serves as vice-chancellor for the Archdiocese of Omaha. Lewis states, “The spiritual, sacramental and social aspects of Catholic Studies showed me that Catholicism – lived fully – permeates the whole of a person. It is very similar to how a vocation, detected in one’s life as a call directly from God and embraced by Christ’s Church, is so much more than just an occupation.”
In Catholic Studies, academic preparation and spiritual formation go hand in hand, and Father Lewis found his vocational call deepening through both. He remembers that a course on the thought and writing of John Cardinal Newman, taught by Center for Catholic Studies director, Dr. Don Briel, was important in his academic development. “I was only a freshman at the time and I must admit that I recall such works as Newman’s ‘An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine’ being fairly indecipherable to my 18-year-old brain. But I’ve been reading Newman ever since that course, and I even wrote my theology thesis on the development of Newman’s ecclesiology throughout his life.” He also credits his courses with helping him “see the spiritual components of ecclesiology – of coming to know Christ through his Church on earth and through St. Peter’s successor who is Christ’s singular vicar down here. Prior to that, the Church had always been just an institution for me.”
Lewis remembers how the spiritual model provided by the Catholic Studies faculty was also very inspirational. “Daily Mass was strongly encouraged and modeled by the Catholic Studies faculty. I can say that my own embracing of the practice was the single greatest factor in discerning my vocation. Offering the Holy Mass as a priest continues to be the highlight and most important activity of my day.”
As he sums up the importance of his Catholic Studies experience, Lewis states that “the program in all its aspects was crucial in forming me to be a person who could hear and respond to God’s call. I thank God every day that, for me, it was a call to the priesthood.”
The Catholic Studies Department has witnessed a number of marriages among majors and minors over the years. Two couples, Matthew and Michelle (Gacioch) Gerlach and David and Laura (Spaeth) Fischer found each other while undergraduate students in the program. Both couples credit Catholic Studies as not only providing the chance for them to meet but also for helping them form a solid basis for the everyday reality of married life.
Matthew Gerlach, who graduated in 1997 with a double major in Catholic Studies and philosophy, recalls one particular conversation with theology and Catholic Studies faculty member Dr. John Boyle who advised him that he must be prepared to work hard and without com- plaint, even at an unpleasant job if necessary, to support his family. “He helped me remain realistic about the future. In fact … I would never have guessed that I’d be doing such work [selling shoes] after graduation, but Catholic Studies gave me a respect for ordinary life and work and taught me that holiness is possible in any type of honest occupation. It provided me with the foundation to undertake all I do with a realistic and supernatural perspective.”
David and Laura Fisher both graduated in 2001. David double majored in Catholic Studies and philosophy, and Laura Fischer had a triple major in communication studies, journalism and Catholic Studies. Both remark that the various encyclicals they studied in their Catholic Studies courses, such as Pope John Paul II’s Gaudium et Spes, gave them profound insight into their roles as husband and wife. “In our vocations we are to be a total gift of the self to each other, as Christ was to the Church,” they state. “In our marriage, this is reflected in many ways as we work daily to serve each other and our children.” They add with wry humor, “Not to mention that all the best Catholic Studies courses seemed to be offered at 8 in the morning, and although this is a far cry from the 2 a.m., 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. wake-up calls of our children, it was great train- ing for parenting. We are convinced the Lord is trying to perfect us in this way – after all, who needs sleep?!”
Both the Gerlachs and Fischers were deeply influenced in their vocation to marriage by their time in Rome. In fact, Matthew proposed to Michelle near a fountain in St. Peter’s Square. Michelle recalls, “We were praying a prayer of dedication of our courtship to the Virgin Mary, which we prayed together every night. Before we made the final sign of the cross, Matthew got down on one knee and asked me to marry him – literally in the arms of the Church!” The Fischers believe that their time in Rome was the most memorable of their lives. “Catholic Studies does not just host a study abroad program in Rome, but it actually brings the Eternal City alive. The program introduced us to some of our most important roots as Roman Catholics.”