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SHU, Bridgeport Diocese Offering Summer Theology Program to High School Students

Lilly Endowment grant to fund week of theological learning and reflection, community service, and more

From left are President John J. Petillo, Catholic Studies Chair Michelle Loris and Bishop Frank J. Caggiano in the Chapel of the Nativity.

A grant of nearly $560,000 from Lilly Endowment Inc. will help Sacred Heart University and the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport collaborate in hosting a week-long summer theology program this year.

“The SHU Journey: To God and the World through the Catholic Intellectual Tradition” will be offered to high school students .

SHU’s program is part of Lilly Endowment’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative, which seeks to encourage young people to explore their religious beliefs and their concerns about contemporary challenges by studying theology and examining how faith calls them to lives of service.

The grant, which will support the program for four years, will bring two dozen high school juniors and seniors to SHU’s Fairfield campus each year for a week of theological learning and reflection, community service, music ministry and fun. Catholic youth will become more knowledgeable about their faith, learn to relate the moral and ethical dimensions of their faith to their contemporary lives and become leaders in their churches and communities.

“We are thrilled to receive this Lilly Endowment grant that allows us to partner with the Diocese of Bridgeport and host a comprehensive and enriching theology program for local youth,” said John J. Petillo, SHU president. “It is also wonderful to work with the diocese on such an important project and continue to do work that so clearly supports our mission.”

The grant was generated from the University’s newly formed Department of Catholic Studies and its chair, Michelle Loris. Loris, who also serves as SHU’s associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, is author of the grant.

The program will involve collaboration among the departments of Catholic Studies and Student Life, the Office of Mission and Catholic Identity, Campus Ministry, and the diocese.

Loris emphasized that this grant is the natural extension of the Department of Catholic Studies’ mission: to preserve, develop and transmit the Catholic intellectual tradition. The department’s goal is to create interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations of this kind. Catholic Studies is the only University department that intentionally and directly reflects SHU’s mission and Catholic identity, she said.

“The focus of this grant is to engage young people in understanding the Catholic intellectual tradition as a conversation between the great thinkers of Catholicism and the cultures in which they live, asking fundamental questions about God, humanity, society and nature,” Loris said. “We want young people to understand the roots and development of the Catholic intellectual tradition and to see how it helps them understand themselves, their world and their relationship with God. We want to equip them with knowledge that will help them grow to become informed Catholics.”

Receiving the grant further positions SHU as a leader in Catholic higher education and aligns SHU with other grant recipients, including Catholic University in Washington and Loyola University in Chicago, Loris said. SHU is one of 82 private four-year colleges and universities in 29 states and the District of Columbia that are participating in the initiative. Although some schools are independent, many reflect the religious heritage of their founding Christian traditions. These traditions include Baptist, Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian and Reformed churches, as well as Catholic, non-denominational, Pentecostal and historic African-American Christian communities.

“I am very excited about this Lilly Endowment grant and our partnership with SHU,” said Sr. Mary Grace Walsh, secretary of Catholic Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Bridgeport. “We are grateful to the Lilly Endowment for its generous support of the grant. This new partnership between SHU and the Diocese of Bridgeport will help form high school students in the Catholic intellectual tradition and provide opportunities for community service enhanced with theological reflection on that service. While there are many opportunities for service presented to our youth, they often are viewed merely as good works done to those in need. This summer program will give participants a deeper understanding of what it means to serve others as Christ taught us.”

Students will be recruited from the diocesan Catholic high schools and local parishes. They will arrive June 26 and receive a tour of campus, move into residence halls, and partake in an ice cream social and community-building activities. In the following days, students will spend their mornings in classroom instruction on the theological foundations of the Catholic intellectual tradition, followed by small-group discussions. Afternoons will include community service arranged by the Diocese of Bridgeport, sessions of music ministry and a visit to The Cloisters, a museum in upper Manhattan that exhibits art and architecture from Medieval Europe.

Each day also will include Mass and prayer. Recreation will be set aside for the evenings. Students will end the program with a closing ceremony.

University theology faculty, including June Ann Greeley and Anthony Ciorra, as well as Evan Psencik, youth coordinator from the Diocese of Bridgeport, will teach and lead the program.

Since the high school students should have role models who are close to them in age, six SHU Campus Ministry student mentors will be trained as an integral part of this program, Loris added. The student mentors will attend the entire program each day and stay with the youth in the residential halls during the week. Each mentor will lead four of the 24 students.

“It’s wonderful to know SHU students will be working side-by-side with youth and professors,” Petillo said. “Various parts of the University will come together to, no doubt, make this program an enjoyable and educational experience. We are leading youth in the right direction and helping them become the best young adults they can be.”