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Free summer audit program, life-changing classes are “gift to the Church”

Adjunct professors, Fr. Peter Van Lieshout

Courtesy of St. Bernard's

Adjunct professor Fr. Peter Van Lieshout

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 03/30/23

The COVID shutdown led St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, to find a way to offer formation, education, and hope to students around the world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, wanted to give back to the community. The school, led by President Dr. Stephen Loughlin and Vice President Dr. Matthew Kuhner, thought there was no better way to do that than to give the gift of learning —  to offer formation, education, and hope in an accessible way during a trying time. That’s how the school’s One Free Summer Audit initiative was born. 

The initiative ended up being so successful, it’s become an important feature of every summer semester. Now in its fourth year, the program continues to attract people from across the country and around the world, last year drawing over 350 auditing students — a 92% increase in participants compared to the year before. Auditors were from Ireland, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada, South Africa, Nigeria, Germany, Italy, Indonesia, and several other countries, as well as Americans from 35 different states including Alaska and Hawaii. 

Founded in 1893, St. Bernard’s educates men and women in academic, ministerial, interpersonal, and spiritual formation for the purpose of serving the Church through diverse forms of lay and ordained ministries, theological scholarship, and Christian service.

The school is accredited to award Master’s degrees to students anywhere in the world through ATS (Association of Theological Schools), and is registered with NYSED (New York State Department of Education) and NC-SARA (National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements). 

Statue of St. Bernard of Clairvaux at Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry

Drawing upon the very best that the Catholic philosophical and theological traditions have to offer, St. Bernard’s communicates this to its students through traditional in-class instruction, as well as its robust online distance learning program.

During last year’s summer semester, the school was particularly honored to welcome an auditor from Ukraine. The experience revealed to them once again the importance and the reach of the one free audit initiative, made possible by their use of synchronous distance education.

Blessed by its auditors — and the feeling is mutual

St. Bernard’s deeply values its auditors. The students who participate through distance learning are an important part of their community and their mission. 

“It is impossible to adequately express how much our summer auditors from 2020, 2021, and 2022 have contributed to our School through their engagement and their personal witness to a life of faith and the pursuit of the truth,” says Dr. Matthew Kuhner, Vice President and Academic Dean. 

The St. Bernard’s community feels continually blessed by those who audit a course through its free summer audit initiative — and the feeling is mutual. 

Carole Polzer from Houston, TX, registered for a 2022 class about the life and thought of Luigi Giussani, led by professors Marco Stango and Apolonio Latar. “They led the class with such great enthusiasm, I felt I was in Italy listening to Giussani himself teaching from his book The Religious Sense!” she says.  

Polzer also took a 2022 class about the literary giant J.R.R. Tolkien, taught by Dr. Siobhan Latar, who she says “made the understanding of fantasy for adults extraordinary.”  

“The faculty, staff, and my classmates at St. Bernard’s enriched my Catholic faith and sparked the desire in me to continue learning and seeking,” says Polzer.

Another student who raves about St. Bernard’s summer courses and the professors who teach them is Evan Collins from Gretna, Nebraska, who calls the free summer audit program “a gift to the Church.” 

Collins credits the school’s summer 2022 course called “Beauty, Liturgy, Glory: Towards a Philosophical and Theological Aesthetics” with helping him begin to grasp “beauty’s importance in the life of a Catholic and how profoundly Jesus is the center of everything, especially the liturgy.” Collins credits Dr. Kuhner, Dr. Loughlin, and Rev. Van Lieshout for this, saying that the three professors “have personalities and manners of presentation that let conversations flow towards refreshing and cleansing concepts, enriching my mind and soul.” 

This summer, St. Bernard’s annual One Free Summer Audit initiative is being sponsored by a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus. 

“Recognizing the significance of this opportunity and its ability to hand on the truths of our faith across continents, the local Knights of Columbus Finger Lakes Chapter has generously sponsored this initiative, allowing anyone anywhere to audit one summer course entirely free.” says the President, Dr. Stephen Loughlin.

Student praying in the chapel at St Bernard’s

Reuniting theology, sanctity, and prayer

St. Bernard’s school motto — “a Catholic graduate school seeking to reunite theology, sanctity, and prayer” — is showcased in the courses it will be offering in its summer 2023 lineup, which include:

Introduction to Biblical Studies, taught by Charles Hughes Huff, PhD.

Here’s part of the description of the class:

This course lays a foundation for all other Scripture courses. It intends to head off simplistic and hackneyed interpretations of Dei Verbum and instead to pursue the development of a rigorous ecclesial hermeneutic. Students will learn the practical building blocks and essential theoretical principles for a Catholic theological approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Topics treated include biblical geography, biblical history, biblical languages, biblical narrative, the framework of theology, textual criticism, historical criticism, biblical canon, patristic interpretation, the four senses of Scripture, philosophical hermeneutics, and Dei Verbum.

American Saints and Blessed, taught by Lisa Lickona, STL

As the course description points out, great saints have come from all over the world, but holiness has also blossomed on US soil, too. 

This course seeks to uncover the face of American sanctity by diving into the lives and spirituality of 13 Americans who have been canonized or are on the path to canonization: Kateri Tekakwitha, Isaac Jogues, Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann, Francis Xavier Cabrini, Francis Xavier Seelos, Katharine Drexel, Michael McGivney, Dorothy Day, Stanley Rother, Fulton Sheen, Thea Bowman, and Walter Ciszek. How did these men and women encounter Christ in America? And what can they teach us about seeking Christ in our own time and place?

My Beloved Is Mine, and I Am My Beloved’s: Mystical Commentary on the Song of Songs, taught by Charles Hughes Huff, PhD

From the course description:

The Song of Songs has for millennia been the source of mystical reflection. As an allegory, it has illumined Israel’s relationship to God, the Church’s relationship to Christ, and the individual believer’s growth in faith, hope, and love in divine encounter. In this course, we will examine the poetics and mystical commentary of the Song with a special focus on the commentaries of Origen, Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon.

Students in class at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry

A unique summer course

A unique class being offered this summer at St. Bernard’s is one that will be taught by all of the school’s full-time faculty, called “Co-Worker in the Truth: The Legacy and Thought of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.” 

The course description promises a fascinating examination and appreciation of the impact that Benedict XVI has had on the Church and on the world, as well as in each professor’s formation. 

Here’s how the course is described: 

In the homily for his inauguration to the See of Peter on April 24, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI stated the following: “My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history.” To listen to and be guided by the Lord was the sustaining foundation not only of his pontificate, but of the entire thought and legacy of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Guided by his papal motto, Cooperatores in Veritatis (Coworkers in the Truth), this course aims to provide a thematic and historical overview of several essential themes in Ratzinger/Benedict’s thought, including but not limited to: prayer and love, philosophy and revelation, creation, eschatology and hope, history, the nature of theology, scriptural exegesis, Christology, liturgy, and ecclesiology.

When considering what you will do this summer to grow personally, professionally, and spiritually, let these words from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which guide St. Bernard’s mission and courses, be your inspiration:

“Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

To audit a course for free this summer, click here.   

For all the course being offered this summer at Bernard’s, check out their offerings.

Find out more about St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry here.

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