ISSJ provides new opportunities through Theology Department

By: Taylor Fulkerson ~Managing Editor~

Community engagement is one of the most common phrases thrown used at Xavier. Now, Xavier’s Theology Department is ready to interpret that phrase for itself.

The Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice (ISSJ) is a new initiative of the Theology Department that will offer graduate degrees and certificate programs as well as workshops for professionals in the Cincinnati area.

“We are at the intersection of spirituality and social justice, and neither one of these two things is really possible without the other,” Dr. Gillian Ahlgren, director of the ISSJ, said. “There is an intrinsic connection between our knowledge of ourselves as spirit, connected to the divine and to one another, and what we do about that knowledge.”

Members of Xavier and the community meet at a workshop to discuss Pope Francis’ “The Joy of the Gospel” as part of the new ISSJ program.

The institute held events this summer, attracting community members and students to a workshop on Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” and a Saturday Sampler featuring free workshops with institute faculty.

Paul Knitter, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Xavier and the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York will help the ISSJ with its kick-off at 7 p.m. on Sept. 28 in the Cintas Center.

Many communities

The institute plans to impact diverse communities after it officially kicks off in late September, targeting both Xavier students and professionals from the Cincinnati community.

The graduate programs offered by the ISSJ will be available to Xavier students in the form of a five-year B.A. and M.A. combined degree. “We’re really excited about that. We already have two students who not only indicated interest, but have started taking one of the classes,” Ahlgren said.

The five-year program will allow students to apply to the institute and begin taking classes as juniors, even without a theology major.

Besides serving Xavier students, the ISSJ plans to reach out to professionals in the region.

This summer the institute sponsored a networking day for “about 25 pastoral leaders from around the city” to “empower people who are in the trenches working on social justice.” The professionals in attendance “really learned about each other and what each other’s churches were doing, and we realized that this was actually a very powerful networking tool,” Ahlgren said. The day was such a success that the ISSJ plans to sponsor a quarterly networking day for pastoral leaders from here on out.

The ISSJ will also offer certificate programs that consist of five courses “to empower, enhance or even re-tool professionals who are in professions other than pastoral ministry, or even for people who don’t have as strong an ethical background as they might like to have had,” Ahlgren said.

Beyond attempting to attract various types of students and professionals to its offerings, the institute plans to broaden horizons through international study options as well.

“There aren’t that many graduate programs in theology that offer an international context for your study. To be able to offer that, at least as an opportunity, to everyone who comes through our doors, I think, is something unique,” Ahlgren said. “We’d like to be able to offer an engaged learning experience in another cultural context to all students who come to the institute.”

The institute is currently considering offering courses in the Holy Land, where a delegation of Xavier students visited this summer, in Lima, Peru, through the Jesuit university there and in Assisi, Italy.

One of Ahlgren’s key goals is for the ISSJ to be a focal point through which Xavier can serve the wider community.

“It’s always been my aspiration for the institute that people in the entire city would look to the institute as a resource and a center and a trustworthy space, to look for offerings and programs, even retreats, as well as events, speakers and educational opportunities that are trustworthy, that are enlightened, that are inspiring, that are intelligent so that they will be empowered in their own work,” Ahlgren said.

Home at Xavier

Though the institute is looking well beyond campus, it will remain rooted in Xavier’s Jesuit tradition. One aspect of that will be an emphasis on Ignatian spirituality and discernment.

“One (requisite) is a course in the Ignatian tradition, and when we teach that Ignatian tradition, we teach it in ways that are consistent with the institute, which we talk about being ecumenical, dialogical and oriented to the social and ecological issues of our times,” Ahlgren said.

All degrees and certificates offered through the institute will include this component, a focus of Ahlgren’s recent research, as well as a capstone course titled “Discernment and Integration” to empower students in understanding themselves and their professions.

The institute will also impact the Theology Department and what it will be able to offer. “A lot of our work was just restructuring and figuring out what’s going to be relevant for people today,” Theology Department Chair Sarah Melcher said.

The institute “doesn’t detract from what we’re doing at the undergraduate level too much because we haven’t increased our offerings too much, but I anticipate that we will have to later. The biggest impact is that we’re hiring an expert in pastoral theology, so we’re doing that this semester,” she said.

The new faculty member will help with the Applied Spirituality and Pastoral Care track in the master’s program.

Two other tracks available will be the Ethics, Spirituality and Professional Practice track and the Solidarity and Sustainability in a Global Context track.

Principal faculty in the department, including Melcher, will be offering courses for the institute. She has already offered one course that will be a staple in the institute’s offerings. “Liberating Bible” is “an introductory course to the study of the Bible” focusing on passages of “social justice and ecological justice.”

Though the institute has only conceptually been in the works since a January 2013 department meeting, many projects are already well underway.

Melcher said that the administration has been supportive, especially in locating funding for the ISSJ. “It’s very encouraging because we know that we’ve got the financial support to do it,” she said.

As the institute officially opens later this month, it will attempt “to help people think creatively about the problems we face as a community and as a nation and as a species,” Ahlgren said. “Everything that we’ve done so far has had such a galvanizing effect that it begins to help us to see the possibilities of what we can do even more.”