Now in its sixth year, the Master of Arts degree program in Catholic Studies continues to offer students advanced interdisciplinary study of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Approximately 47 students are enrolled in the program, which is the oldest of only two such programs in the United States. Alumni like Alyssa Bormes and Jason Adkins (see alumni profiles) report having grown intellectually and spiritually as they investigated the ways in which the Catholic imagination, nourished by the life of the Church, has both enriched and been enriched by its engagement with culture.
The curriculum, consisting of 10 courses and a capstone essay, includes a core interdisciplinary two-course sequence, Catholic Thought and Culture I and II. In these two courses, students examine the origins and development of the Catholic intellectual tradition from antiquity to the present, reading authors such as Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Newman and Day in addition to examining works of art, architecture and music. Father Michael Joncas, a professor who teaches these courses, says, “Since we are studying the classics of Catholic Christian culture, immersing students in their influence gives them an appreciation for the Catholic heritage and challenges them to be similarly creative in their own engagements with the culture that surrounds them, a creativity that mirrors their deepening spiritual life.”
The remaining courses include three required courses in the areas of history, philosophy and theology, as well as five elective courses.
Since many students come to the program after entering the work world and may need a more flexible schedule, as Bormes did at the beginning of the program, the program offers options such as full- and part-time study, as well as a summer-only program. In addition, students can pursue a joint degree in Catholic Studies and law (sponsored with the University of St. Thomas Law School). Like Bormes, students also may take advantage of the opportunity to spend a semester or year in Rome, where they take courses at the Angelicum, the Dominican Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Alyssa Bormes, class of 2006 Bormes had already been making a good living as a bill collector for over a decade, and before that, selling shoes and appliances, when her spiritual director suggested to her that she might be “wasting her life.” She needed to change it, he continued, and change it soon, preferably by returning to school. At first resistant to the idea – by her own admission her undergraduate career was less than stellar – Bormes was given a strong push in the direction of the Catholic Studies Master of Arts degree by her good friend, the late Bishop Paul Dudley, who told her to contact the program without delay. He also advised her to plan on spending a year studying in Rome under the auspices of the master’s program, because, he stated, it was the only way to obtain the full “Roman experience.”
Like many new students, Bormes was initially unsure what Catholic Studies was all about. Despite being largely unfamiliar with the Catholic intellectual tradition, however, she was convinced that she was answering God’s call by enrolling. During her first year in the degree program she continued her work as a bill collector while taking two courses each term. This was not easy, she concedes, but it was not impossible either. At the end of that year she took the plunge – she quit her job, rented her house, put her car in storage and headed to Rome. There she was privileged not only to study under such master teachers as Father Paul Murray, O.P., but also to witness firsthand the events surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
While completing her master’s essay back in St. Paul, Bormes interviewed for a position at the Church of St. Peter in North St. Paul, where she is now director of religious education. When asked during the interview why she thought she was qualified for the work, she recalls that she surprised herself by stating with conviction “because I am called to do it.” For this sense of vocation and the intellectual skills to carry it out, Bormes is grateful to the Catholic Studies graduate program, and, of course, to Bishop Dudley.
Jason Adkins, class of 2003 Jason Adkins received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Thomas in 2000, graduating summa cum laude with a double major in economics and theology. After a short period of teaching humanities and theology at Trinity School at River Ridge in Bloomington, Minn., Adkins returned to St. Thomas in fall 2001, joining 14 other students in the inaugural class of the Master of Arts degree program in Catholic Studies.
Adkins uses Flannery O’Connor’s well-known aphorism in describing his experience of Catholic Studies as not so much a particular course of study than a “habit of being.” “It is,” he says, “an introduction into a world of culture, virtue, faith and beauty,” a world whose lineaments are often hard to discern in our increasingly fragmented contemporary culture, where the aim of Catholic Studies to educate the whole person appears truly countercultural. Adkins credits the Catholic Studies faculty with radically altering his vision of the world, of Catholicism, and of himself. “Dr. John Boyle and Father Arthur Kennedy showed me that Christianity and the Catholic intellectual tradition were far more rational than the alternative worldviews and lifestyles promoted today,” he states. Dr. Christopher Thompson taught him that “piety and virtue were not the same as prudishness,” and Father Michael Joncas “proved that the devil doesn’t have the best music.” However, the most important lesson he derived from the program, Adkins notes, is one about the true meaning of freedom: true freedom is not freedom from all constraints, but rather freedom for the pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful.
After graduating with his master’s degree, Adkins enrolled at the University of Minnesota Catholic Studies is not so much a particular course of study than a “habit of being.” “It is,” Adkins says, “an introduction into a world of culture, virtue, faith and beauty,” a world whose lineaments are often hard to discern in our increasingly fragmented contemporary culture. Law School, where, confident with the formation he had received at St. Thomas, he worked to insert a degree of intellectual diversity into a setting often tone-deaf to matters of faith. Among other activities, he published a scholarly article in the Minnesota Law Review proposing a creative method for overturning Roe v. Wade.
Adkins lives in St. Paul with his wife, Annemarie (who is also a St. Thomas graduate), and clerks for the Honorable Christopher J. Dietzen of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where one day he would like to serve.