Gian Parham (BA in Theology, 2021) of Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize, teaches adults and youth in two Catholic high schools and also serves as coordinator of the national Theology of the Body (TOB) teachers' training program. Belizean by birth, Gian says that Belize is a very unique country. As the only English-speaking country in Central America, it is also considered a “melting pot of cultures.” Belize also has a high teen pregnancy rate. Gian has been married for 24 years and is blessed with two beautiful children. “We are also living the joys of being grandparents,” he says. His favorite pastime, when not with the family or teaching, is fishing in the Caribbean Sea, “the perfect place to unwind and contemplate the mysteries of life and God.” During the day, Gian teaches English Literature and TOB to seniors at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School. At night, he teaches adults Computer Science and TOB at Saint Ignatius High School Evening Division. “For me, teaching is not a job. It is a passion, a vocation, something I am called to do,” Gian says, adding that he is truly blessed to share his God-given gifts with both the teens and adult students he has come to love. “The joy that comes from interacting with the young as they search for what is true, good, and beautiful is deeply moving.” “Many of the teenagers I work with are living destitute lives, and having made my own journey through the fire, I am humbled that God would use me as a witness and beacon of hope that ‘with him all things are possible.’” The adult students are not that different from the teens, he says, except that they come with a greater sense of the human experience. “At the end of many class sessions, the reaction is always, ‘Why didn’t we hear of this before?’” he says. As national coordinator of the TOB teachers’ training program, Gian promotes the TOB program in all of Belize’s Catholic Schools. He has conducted workshops with all administrators and principals about the need for the TOB and conducts ongoing training sessions with school faculty and staff. TOB clubs are now being established at Belizean high schools that will be led by trained youth leaders as well. “I am grateful to be, as St. Theresa of Calcutta puts it, ‘but a pencil in the hand of God,’” Gian says. “I have always believed and am convinced that the TOB, being rooted deeply in Sacred Scripture, is the antidote for the broken world we live in. I really became passionate about the TOB because of my own daughter, who became a teen mom and was abandoned by the father of her child,” he says. This situation is not unusual for many families in Belize, he explains. He, too, was born to a teen mom in a similar situation. “I decided that there MUST be a better way, and that the cycle of broken relationships must come to an end. TOB has been the chain-breaker, the game-changer for many young girls and boys in my community,” he says. “Girls are learning that they are valuable and worth waiting for. They have learned they deserve respect and true, authentic, sacrificial love because of their God-given dignity. The young men, on the other hand, are realizing that the image of manhood society is illustrating is a false one. They are learning that true men must grow in virtue in order to die to self and protect the women around them, first and foremost from themselves. Young men are being challenged to grow in responsibility and to love in an authentic way.” He points out that TOB is not just helping to reduce teenage pregnancies in Belize, but it is also helping to lower the abortion rate. “For years, TOB was reserved for seniors only at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School, but realizing the transformative effects of the TOB, we decided to launch it at all levels, across the board,” Gian says. “The effects on students are astounding. Last year our administration proudly reported that there were zero cases of toxic relationships, young girls eloping, and teen pregnancy cases were almost nonexistent. There was also a notable decrease in major disciplinary issues. Although there are other factors that contributed to these results, I am convinced that TOB was surely one of them,” Gian says. “Many of the adults told me that the teachings of the TOB had challenged them to change their way of life. There are so many stories I could tell of how the TOB has tremendously changed the lives of both the teens and adults I am privileged to work with.” Gian decided to pursue a BA in Theology at CDU when he was required by the Ministry of Education to further his studies for professional development. He could have continued his education in Computer Science but decided that he only wanted to study a subject that would benefit his soul. “In my search, I came across CDU and was surprised at the cost of the program, which was significantly lower than most other universities,” he says. “But what really hooked me, apart from a really solid Catholic curriculum, was the faculty line up,” Gian says. “The old cliché, ‘you come for the price but stay for the service’ was exactly the case for me. The faculty was ‘unapologetically Catholic.’” The fact that many had studied at Franciscan University of Steubenville at some point in their educational journeys was a plus for Gian, who had wanted to attend Franciscan but could not afford the tuition. “I could not even afford CDU, but God is good, and with Him all things are possible,” Gian says. “There are many I wish to thank for believing in me and for finding it in their hearts to invest in my education at CDU, which has cracked open for me the rich deposit of faith that I can now share with confidence with the longing hearts of my students.” Gian enjoyed the edifying and deep discussions at CDU through which great friendships flourished. “Being able to share, not just on the weekly topic, but on my Belizean religious culture and traditions, was wonderful,” Gian says. At the start of new classes, he enjoyed reconnecting with those from previous classes. He is especially grateful to the professors for their empathy. “I am proud to be named among the alumni of CDU! Gaudium de Veritate!” he says.
Francis Cabildo (BA in Theology, ’21) works as an assistant director of campus ministry for Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, and is also a singer-songwriter. He and his wife Nicole are raising five young boys. “I was one of those students who took a long break in completing my degree,” Francis says. “First, I was not sure what I wanted to study. My career choice is not one that you hear about in mainstream college career choices. Looking back, I can see the hand of God guiding me each step of the way.” “My education from CDU gave me confidence as well as valuable knowledge that has helped me in my professional life. I have also gained critical thinking skills, organizational skills, and increased my ability to look at things through a worldview centered on Jesus and his Church,” Francis says. As assistant campus minister, Francis plans, prepares, and facilitates retreats for students and trains volunteers and student leaders in how to run small groups, present talks, and work as a team. He also plans and leads music at Masses and other liturgies. Francis enjoys working with students, especially those who are furthest away from the Lord. “I love to see them realize the love of God and for them to begin a relationship with Jesus and the Church,” he says. He also enjoys helping volunteers and student leaders discover a love for ministry and leading others to Christ and working with students' parents--especially when they encounter Jesus in real ways through their students returning from retreat. One of the biggest struggles Francis finds in working with students is the lack of evangelization. Though students may know how to answer a test question about God or the Church, they may not have not had a real encounter with God or know Jesus, he explains. Francis has been in music ministry for close to 28 years. He started as a volunteer singing at his local parish. “I quickly discovered that I have a calling to help others pray through music,” he says. “I am passionate about helping the people of God find their voice, and it gives me great joy knowing that the gifts God has given me are helping to build the kingdom and give glory to God.” His youth minister in high school played guitar and inspired him to learn. Francis bought his first guitar when he was 18 years old after saving up tips from busing tables and taught himself to play. He served on National Evangelization Team Ministries from 1994 to 1995, which challenges young Catholics to love Christ and embrace the life of the Church. Every August, 175 young Catholics aged 18-28 travel across the U.S. for nine months to share the Gospel with young people and their families. “That is when I really heard the calling to be a worship leader/musician,” he says. After NET, he served at his local parish, Sacred Heart in Rancho Cucamonga, California, as a youth leader and a liturgical musician and helped with Masses, Bible studies, prayer meetings, and retreats. Francis’ family is an integral part of all that he does, and they help him to connect with God in many ways. “Being a husband reminds me that I have to die to myself daily and that I am first to serve and to die for my bride just as Christ died for his bride,” he says. “My children are gifts and blessings. They help me to grow in love and patience, and they help me practice forgiveness and mercy.” “I chose CDU because it gave me flexibility and options,” he says. “I am raising a young family, and with my work in ministry, my schedule did not allow me to take courses with a normal schedule. CDU gave me the opportunity to complete my degree and still be present to my family and those that I serve in ministry at the high school.”
Cynthia M. Stalcup of Ashburn, Virginia, has been selected as the Outstanding Graduate of 2020. Cindy graduated summa cum laude after completing the MA in Theology and Educational Ministry degree program with a 4.1 GPA. Cindy has worked as a religious educator, either as a volunteer or professionally, since her early teen years. Her enthusiasm for this field eventually led her to pursue an advanced degree at CDU. The flexibility of asynchronous online education coupled with CDU’s academically accomplished faculty presented the opportunity to achieve this goal despite a busy family life, a part-time job, and multiple volunteer positions. As a participant in CDU’s pilot practicum program, a requirement for the degree, she developed a four-part program to enhance an established grade-level curriculum. She continues to use this learning experience to expand her own classroom instruction in terms of content, delivery, and technological methodology. “My experience at CDU has provided rich rewards in the catechetical classroom. Not only have the courses expanded my knowledge of the faith, but my online learning experience has encouraged me to re-formulate my instructional methods,” Cindy says. Cindy will be honored by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, CDU’s accreditor, which honors an outstanding graduate each year from its member institutions.
Lucas Jacobson of New Hope, Minnesota, earned his BA degree in Theology in 2018 and is now pursuing his MA degree in Theology and Educational Ministry. A full-time student, he decided to pursue the study of theology because he figured that if he is going to spend eternity with God, he better get to know something about Him now. “What I really enjoy about CDU is that one can obtain a degree in Catholic Theology online,” Mr. Jacobson says. “I have a physical disability, Cerebral Palsy, and use a wheelchair for mobility. I live in Minnesota, and the snow in the winter is hard for my chair to maneuver.” “For those who have a hard time going out in the community, [the online option] is very beneficial,” Mr. Jacobson says. “Additionally, one can receive instruction from very knowledgeable instructors [who] are authentic individuals, living out the Catholic faith they teach about. This is very inspiring.” He began his studies in the first year federal financial aid was made available to students at CDU, which has helped to put his educational goals within reach. Eventually Mr. Jacobson hopes to pursue a career as a Theology professor for an online higher education institution. He has also considered the possibility of motivational speaking or pursuing a doctorate if a fully online program can be found but says he will see where God leads him. “I sense that God has been calling me into a deeper relationship with him through his mother, Mary, so that I can lead others into their own relationship with God as someone who has personal experience of it,” he says. Mr. Jacobson is thankful to those who have helped him along the way. “I am very grateful for everyone who has supported me, including the CDU professors and staff.” He encourages everyone to think about who has helped them throughout their lives and to thank them in some manner.
Order of Malta member Deacon Adam Walk of Brisbane, Australia, recently completed his MA in Theology at CDU to meet the academic requirements for becoming a deacon in the Archdiocese of Brisbane. He is also a financial economist with a PhD from Griffith University with a busy career that involves lots of travel. Ordained in November 2019, his first year of service has been an unusual one. “Being in the midst of a pandemic, it has been a very strange first year of ministry as a deacon,” Deacon Walk says. At this time last year, he wasn’t expecting to be assisting at online Masses without an assembly. His ministry is quite broad. He is a part-time police chaplain, he and his wife do pre-marriage and newly married ministry together, he is involved in governance roles within the Archdiocese that use his professional skills, and he serves at the parish where he is appointed assisting with Mass, as RCIA instructor, and as a member of the Pastoral Council. When asked what he enjoyed most about CDU, Deacon Walk says, “There are several aspects. The first—and this might sound like a strange answer when talking about an online institution—is community. I have never met a single one of my professors or fellow students in person, but I can say that I felt like I was part of a community that is both faithfully Catholic and eager to learn.” “This was encouraged by the professors—the second great aspect of CDU—who were passionate about their subject matter and committed to the learning experience of their students,” he continues. “As someone who has studied most of his adult life in one form or another—face-to-face and online, undergraduate to doctoral level—I can say that I have never had a better collection of teachers than I had at CDU.” Deacon Walk appreciated the flexibility as well, which allowed him maintain his professional work and travel schedule. “It was great to have so many teaching periods, because it allowed me to progress quicker than I otherwise could have,” he says. “I completed PHIL 508 Philosophy for Theology in five cities: Brisbane, Melbourne, London, Oxford, and Rome, with a lot of time on planes for reading!”
Rosanne Terese Kouris of LaPorte, Indiana, is currently the coordinator of the Office of Family Life for the Diocese of Gary, Indiana. Obtaining her BA has enabled her to develop and expand programs and events offered by the diocese to enrich marriage and family life, including marriage preparation, natural family planning, marriage enrichment, women’s Bible studies, and an annual Women’s Conference. As the director of the diocese’s Rachel’s Vineyard ministry, knowledge and insights obtained through her studies have given her a richer platform from which to minister to those in need of post-abortion healing. Mrs. Kouris is also the head of the Savior of the World Children’s Center, a home for orphaned and indigent children in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She oversees the operation of the home, organizes fundraising, and edits a bimonthly newsletter. She and her husband, pictured above in Sierra Leone, Africa, with children at the Savior of the World Children’s Center, have legally adopted five orphaned children from the center who now live with them in the United States. Rosanne is active in the pro-life movement and frequently volunteers for events. Named CDU’s Outstanding Graduate for 2019, Mrs. Kouris graduated summa cum laude, having attained a 4.08 GPA. The Distance Education Accrediting Commission, CDU’s accreditor, honors an outstanding graduate each year from its member institutions. Of her time at CDU, Mrs. Kouris says, “Catholic Distance University is an excellent online university with rich and diverse courses, knowledgeable and caring staff, paired with solid Catholic theology. The interactive class structure made learning stimulating and gratifying, inspiring me through challenging courses, and motivating me to complete my degree.”
Daniel Kelly (MA, Theology, ‘20) lives in rural Mora County, New Mexico, on a small farm where he raises livestock and chickens, goats, and peacocks. Married to a second grade teacher, he has a beautiful and intelligent stepdaughter, and he and his wife are expecting a son in March. A professor at Luna Community College, Daniel is using his theological education to teach a course on The History of Christian Thought. He also teaches a continuing faith formation class at his parish and along with his wife has been placed in charge of the local Newman Center. “Pray for us!!,” he says. “It is so weird with the COVID restrictions.” Raised in a household that believed in a philosophically sophisticated form of Hinduism, Daniel was attracted to Catholicism in his late teens by Catholic acquaintances and religious. At first, it seemed to him then that Jesus fit in perfectly with the Hindu schema of thought that he had been taught but that Catholicism was intellectually unsophisticated. However, that changed through his love of reading. “Then, as now, I am completely unable to resist reading any book near me,” Daniel says. An avid reader, delving deeply into the Fantasy genre works of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien moved him toward the Catholic Faith. He particularly remembers receiving a copy of In Defense of Sanity, the collection of G.K. Chesterton's essays. “Chesterton completely demolished my preconceptions that Catholicism was unsophisticated and laid the groundwork for all my Catholic thinking,” he says. “Chesterton was obviously superior to any of the other writers I had read, and his explanations of Catholic thought were clear and thought provoking. He led me to purposely seek out and read other Catholic writers, and I soon came to see that the Catholic thought system really is in a league of its own.” G.K. Chesterton--and his grandmother, who had been raised a Seventh day Adventist—led him to read C.S. Lewis' works on Christianity. “It was refreshing to see that he had met Hindu philosophy on the way to Christianity, and it had almost detained him as well. So C.S. Lewis and Chesterton really built my understanding of Christianity,” Daniel says. “Tolkien soon came to my aid as well. I was prepared to completely cut off contact with my roots of fantasy reading, which had had an enormous impact on the formation of my world view, but I read Tolkien's Tree and Leaf at this time, and I saw that I didn't have to discard the good of the literature I had consumed. Indeed, novels can and should be a positive good for Catholic minds.” As a convert, Daniel pursued an MA degree in Theology because he wanted to deepen his knowledge of the faith and teach. With CDU, he was able to continue to work for his archdiocese while earning his degree. Daniel has served as director of religious education and parish secretary of St. Gertrude the Great, his home parish, and continues to serve in a variety of ministries there and in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. “I came to CDU because I loved--and love--academia and growing academically, but I was tired of the abrasive effects of pagans and heretics in the academic world I had been in,” he says, adding, “although I loved, and still love, many of them dearly.” “CDU certainly allowed me to grow in this regard. I especially liked my Philosophy (and English) classes with Fr. Bramwell and Dr. Urbanczyk. Never have I been pushed harder to clarify my thoughts, and never has my brain grown more--not even in stats class.” “CDU has benefited me in so many ways, it is impossible to count them all,” Daniel says. “I have grown in my faith, in my knowledge, and in my intelligence.” “I know for myself that much of the good of my upbringing came from voraciously reading fiction--and maybe all of the bad,” Daniel says. “If we want to capture the hearts and minds of the youth, it needs to be the way Chesterton and Tolkien did, through the popular culture.” Daniel’s MA thesis, “My Very Self You Know: A Personalist Examination of Vocation,” was published in the Easter 2020 issue of Digital Continent.
In 2017, I was living with my husband and four children in Hawaii where the Army had sent us. While my youngest son was only two years old at the time, I started thinking about what kind of job I wanted to have when he would start Kindergarten. In what I can only describe as a “Holy Spirit moment,” I realized with great clarity that I should shift gears away from my background in business administration towards working in Religious Education. This would build on my previous experience as a corporate trainer and my volunteer experience at several military chapels where I had been active as a Catechist and as a leader in women’s ministries. I felt, and still feel, that Religious Education is the perfect sweet spot where I can use my skills and talents for something that brings me joy, helps others, and serves God. That summer, the previous Catholic Religious Education Coordinator (CREC) at the military chapel in Hawaii moved, and her position became open. The way the military works, I had to make a bid for my contract and was fortunate enough to be selected. The Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA (AMS) requires that all DREs and CRECs obtain a basic certificate in Catechesis, but I chose to go for a graduate certificate. Ever since I started learning about my faith on an adult level during my pre-cana religious education, I have loved growing in knowledge and being challenged to grow in faith. I researched different Catholic universities but chose CDU because the whole program was designed to be exclusively online, a major benefit for military families who move often and have crazy schedules, because of its existing partnership with the AMS, and because of the course descriptions. The application process was easy, and very soon I started my first course, THEO 503: The Catholic Theological Tradition, with Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio. I realized that I had found a “home,” and because I enjoyed studying theology so much, I applied to switch from a graduate certificate to the MA in Theology and Educational Ministry degree program. During my different classes, I found several classmates who were connected to the military including some on active duty joining from downrange. It helped me to feel understood when I shared about my work. Military chapels are unique in that most of the time, different Christian denominations and even other religions share buildings and resources. My studies helped me tremendously by letting me understand what the other denominations’ viewpoints were and how to defend the Catholic position firmly but charitably. THEO 640: Presenting the Faith in the Modern World was one of my most impactful courses in this regard. Another challenge in the military community is that the soldiers and families come from all of the different corners of our immensely diverse Catholic faith. In addition, frequent moves and the stressful life of training and deployments make it harder to build community and to form a team of well-trained Catechists. What helped me be successful was the emphasis on kerygmatic Catechesis and the conversion of the baptized that I took away from my courses SPIR 501: Applied Catholic Spirituality and RELED 560: Principles of Catholic Education. Now that my husband has retired from the military and we moved back to his hometown, I work at the civilian parish of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Indianapolis, IN. When I interviewed for the position, the Director of Religious Education of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis told me how highly he thinks of CDU. The main difference from my previous job is that I am now also working with the associated Catholic elementary school. I love that my children for the first time are able to attend a Catholic school and that I can assist in integrating faith formation with elementary education for them, as well as develop a strategy for life-long faith formation for all members of the parish. CDU has certainly prepared me by providing me the necessary theological knowledge and practical skills to be a Director of Religious Education, but what I appreciated the most is that the school and faculty went beyond that and helped me to not only grow in knowledge but in my personal faith as well. While I am still far away from sainthood, I am a better disciple now than before I attended CDU.—Ute Eble, MA in Theology and Educational Ministry (2020)
Charles Aviles of the Bronx, New York, is working toward his AA degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Catholic Studies while working as the director of life safety, fire safety, and emergency management for Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, which has experienced significant loss of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lincoln Hospital serves one of the poorest communities in the USA and has the third busiest emergency room in the nation. Charles served as the incident commander during the pandemic, working in the command center, and was then infected with COVID-19 and out of work for 15 days. Upon returning to work, he headed the Mass Fatality Program, where he tried to handle all of the decedents in a dignified manner during very difficult circumstances. Charles has been married for 30 years and has four children. He has completed 11 courses in just over 2 years. Charles’ path to Theology began when he took catechist courses through the Archdiocese of New York after learning about CDU on the archdiocesan website. “I have ministered for the confirmation class, RCIA, and a Bible study in my parish,” he says. Currently 53 years old, he will be eligible for retirement in 5 years as a NYC worker. “My goal is to earn my Master’s degree by the time I retire and then work for the Archdiocese of New York in some capacity, hopefully teaching theology,” he says. Charles would also like to join the diaconate program at some point. “CDU has been an incredible blessing for me,” he says. “The flexible programs have allowed me to manage a very high level position in the hospital with an enormous amount of responsibility. I am on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with a tier 1 classification. My position is very challenging; being a city hospital we are terribly underfunded and understaffed. I work long hours and 6-7 days a week, sometimes 16 hour days because of staff shortages. It would be impossible for me to earn a degree in a classroom environment.”
Sarah Fellona, a practicing trial lawyer, wife of an active duty Air Force colonel, and mother of four, recently earned her MA (Theology) degree while living in Germany, Italy, and the United States due to her husband’s military service. “CDU’s flexible platform made it possible for me to continue my studies despite moves to three different countries,” Sarah says. “As long as I had my laptop and access to the internet, I could connect to my classrooms anywhere in the world. I also really enjoyed interacting with people from many different walks of life who lived all over the world. I met so many great people and felt comforted that I was not alone in my desire to learn more about the Faith.” Eager to share what she has learned at CDU with others, Sarah serves as the coordinator of rites at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Columbia, South Carolina, where she directs the RCIA program, teaches confirmation classes, and coordinates baptisms. “It is a joy to help ignite the fire of passion for God with those seeking the sacraments of initiation!” she says. The study of theology benefitted Sarah’s practice of law. “Despite our cultural slant on the legal profession, at its core the law serves to do justice. From that standpoint, as a trial lawyer I find myself much less combative and much more compassionate,” she says. “I am much more prepared to witness, evangelize, and humbly defend the faith through everyday encounters in my profession. That said, God has allowed me to use theology in interesting and creative ways in trial practice,” Sarah adds. “I tried a case in September in which it so happened that the daily readings I heard at Mass the last day of the trial fit perfectly into my closing argument. It is a blessing to fully live out the Faith in everyday life even at work.” Studying theology also led her to desire a deeper, more intimate relationship with Christ. “St. Anslem said that theology is ‘faith seeking understanding,’ but in studying theology I experienced the dynamic of understanding seeking greater faith,” Sarah says. “The more I learned, the more I desired to know, love, and serve God. I realized that without a vibrant spiritual life of prayer and sacraments, I did not fully grasp what was being taught in my theology classes.” When Sarah started at CDU, she attended Sunday Mass and an all-school Mass on Fridays with her children. “Now, daily mass is the bedrock of my day,” she says. Sarah completed her Master’s degree 4 years after enrolling in the program. She took a 1-year break while living in Rome to earn a Diploma in Spirituality from the Angelicum, and the foundation in theology she had gained at CDU was instrumental. “I had finished 2 years at CDU when we learned we were being stationed in Rome. I was very fortunate that my coursework gave me enough of a foundation in theology to be accepted into the Spirituality program at the Angelicum,” she says. While in Rome from 2017-2018, Sarah took 12 classes over 2 semesters at the Angelicum to earn the diploma. A few of Sarah’s favorite classes at CDU were Revelation & Faith: Fundamental Theology, Philosophy for Theology with Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, Pentateuch with Professor John Worgul, and Defending the Faith in the Modern World with Professor Chris Padgett. “Studying theology was pure joy,” Sarah says. “I could not learn enough fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know God more. But it wasn’t until I began to take my spiritual life more seriously that theology came alive for me,” she reflects. “It wasn’t head knowledge that helped me understand the Faith more, but heart knowledge born of sacraments and prayer. The heart knowledge I began to acquire, however, was the progression of study.” Sarah is grateful to her husband and four children, ages 16, 14, 13, and 10, for their support while she worked toward her MA degree. “Not only did they accommodate the time needed to work on classes, they were actively interested in what I was learning and always prayed for me,” she says.
Deacon Frederick Bartels of Glade Park, Colorado, is a homegrown professor. He received his Catechetical Diploma (2014), BA in Theology (2016), and MA in Theology and Educational Ministry (2017) from Catholic Distance University, earning the latter two degrees Summa Cum Laude. In addition to his work as a theology professor, he serves the Diocese of Pueblo as parochial deacon assigned to St. Joseph Church in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he served earlier as director of religious education and director of liturgy. “I’m especially blessed to teach at CDU as a professor of theology, something which is a work of joy,” he says. “The people I’ve interacted with over the years at CDU are people who, at some point in their lives, fell in love with the truth who is Christ himself. That makes all the difference.” He describes CDU as a learning community of faith in truth. When asked what he enjoyed most about his experience as a student, he says, “Confidence in the fact that I was surrounded and supported by faithful people and confidence in the fact that I was receiving an education reaching into eternity. “In a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to receive an authentic education in theology, CDU is an institution where people learn what is really true as they are formed by divine revelation and guided by instructors who are aware of the importance of the magisterium as its authentic interpreter,” Deacon Bartels says. “There’s no point in attempting to acquire an education in theology from a university that removes itself in some way from the perennial belief and teaching of the Church. That type of “education” isn’t a true education in theology.” Deacon Bartels, who is married and has six children, spent many years in discernment before pursuing the diaconate. “Our Lord Jesus Christ called me to the diaconate in a progressive way over time, kind of like how the people of Israel were prepared by God over the course of centuries for the coming of Christ in history, to use an analogy,” he says. “In Exodus we read about how the people Israel were thick headed, stubborn, and stuck in their old ways. I’m sure God began calling me to the diaconate long before I had even heard of deacons. It took years and years for that message to get through.” One of the first times he thought about what it might be like to be a deacon occurred at Holy Mass. “I found myself listening to the priest and thinking about how I might present a homily on the same topic, about what I might say and what would be important to stress. Although, at first, I didn’t interpret any of that as an actual call to the diaconate, I gradually began to realize with increasing certainty that Jesus was indeed calling me to serve the Church as a permanent deacon,” he says. He put off the idea for about three years, since entering formation would require lots of travel time and a significant financial investment. “As time went on, people began saying things like, ‘You should become a deacon.’ Eventually I got to the point where I felt I needed to say “yes,” and I’m glad I did,” he says. After interviews, psychological testing, and four years of driving to formation classes six hours away, he was ordained in August of 2013. “It’s been a wonderful blessing,” he says, “not all roses, of course, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve Christ and his Church.” Deacon Bartels is also a contributing writer for various online publications, and he was recently featured on a radio show on the importance of truth in our lives and the dangers of relativism, which he defines as denial of certain absolute truths and moral norms that transcend the human person. “Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is known for frequently warning against the dangers of a pervasive influence of relativism in the West, an influence that is in many ways linked to the rapid rise of what he termed a ‘Culture of Death,’” Deacon Bartels says. “In fact, he noted relativism is so widespread that it affects people on a subliminal level. In other words, people often adopt relativism in an almost subconscious way, to varying degrees, without actually being fully aware of how significant its influence is in their lives, attitudes, and behavior.” “Relativism is dangerous because it infects the way people think about important beliefs and moral issues, introducing a kind of virus, if you will, into their moral code and society itself that attacks how people perceive the truth about the way things really are. Relativism is waging a war on truth; the human person is its casualty,” he says. People often ask Deacon Bartels what they can do to counter relativism. “The answer is prayer, the formation of conscience, immersion in the content of the divine faith, participation in the Holy Mass, and frequent reception of the sacraments,” he says. “Learn the faith. Read scripture. Become faith literate. Study theology (which is what CDU is about!). Then, refuse to let lies persist. Speak and live by the truth.” Deacon Bartels feels that the study of theology has changed him. “To be frank, I’m not at all the person I used to be,” he says. “My wife thinks it has something to do with space aliens. All kidding aside, people talk about ‘game-changers.’ The study of theology is on another level altogether. Theology is a divine science because it is an ordered inquiry into divine revelation.” “Although there were many subjects I could choose to learn about—and each is important in its own way—I recognized that theology is the subject above all subjects,” he says. “Taken seriously, the study of theology is a life-shaping and life-transforming process. It’s not simply about learning skills for success in the world, it’s about learning and understanding what God has communicated to his people for the sake of salvation.” “Theology provides answers to the most important human questions, questions that everyone, sooner or later, must answer,” he adds. “Theology is information of heavenly value that helps to point people toward their predestined end in eternal communion with the Tripersonal God.” “Looking back, it’s clear to me that the study of theology at CDU set my life on an entirely new path,” Deacon Bartels says. “It hasn’t been easy. It’s not a path most people choose to take. In fact, there’s no shortage of people who misunderstand the whole point of it. Some even think it’s a ridiculous enterprise. However, the study of theology has, by the grace of God, opened up opportunities in my life to really make a difference in the lives of others by serving Christ.” “If I could do a retake, I wouldn’t change a thing—except maybe listen a little more attentively and start the whole process earlier,” he says.
Todd Christopher Mesler, Jr., (at left) earned his BA in Theology in 2017 and is now working toward his MA (Theology) degree. A published composer of liturgical music, Todd serves as the director of music and youth ministry for Immaculate Conception Parish in Monroe, Missouri. “The study of theology has made all the difference in the world in my career,” Todd says. “As a music director, I am constantly planning and preparing music to go with the readings, interacting with the clergy and laity, and so much more. In my work as a youth minister, I am always on call to answer any and all questions I can about the faith. Both positions call for me to rooted deeply in my faith with the knowledge and understanding to ground me.” “CDU offers a learning experience unlike any other,” Todd says. “The university, while global, still offers a feel of closeness and connectedness to all of the students, faculty, and staff. I leave each class with a good relationship with the teachers and my fellow classmates. The material is amazing, and the learning platform is very user friendly! Every teacher has been extremely helpful, kind, and truly Christ-like. I feel very blessed to be a part of the CDU community and to study here.” “Immaculate Conception Parish is a faith-filled community fervent in prayer and devotion to Our Mother,” Todd says. His typical work day can include playing music and singing at Mass, preparing music for the liturgies, running rehearsals, planning events and meetings, and interacting with a multitude of people involved in the ministry. As youth minister, Todd leads teens in faith formation through Mass, Life Nights, Edge Nights, and service and social activities that are organized by a group of dedicated and faithful adults. “The theology that I’ve learned from CDU so far has made an immense difference,” he says. Todd, who has been composing liturgical music for 12 years, got his start after beginning to play music at Mass. “I began to feel the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write music for the Church and began writing music for psalm settings to be used at daily Mass, and it grew from there,” he says. Todd found that writing music became part of a special relationship and prayer. “It continually called me to reach beyond myself and deeply study and pray on the words,” he adds. When asked what led him to study theology, Todd says, “I’ve always had a desire to learn about our faith, however it wasn’t until after I read Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, that I decided to follow and pursue that calling. St. Therese’s little way truly taught me the importance of giving myself fully to God in all that I do, especially through my music, relationships, schooling, and work.”
Doug Spriggs, a dedicated English teacher and high school football coach who is also involved in local parish ministry, has been accepted into a PhD program at the United States Sports Academy for Sports Management. Through his sports career, Doug became a campus minister at the University of Arkansas and a leader in Fellowship of Christian Athletes. His education in the MA (Theology) program has benefited his professional life. In public schools, Doug strives to ensure that the English curriculum eliminates bias against Christian denominations, literature, and the Catholic Church, and his theological education allows him to refute many philosophical ideologies used to defend unethical behaviors and unfair treatment of student populations. “The fidelity of my studies within the Catholic Faith guides all of my decisions as I advance my career outside of the Church,” Doug says. “My rigorous study at CDU prepared me to succeed on a higher level. I am now seeking employment at the collegiate level as an athletic director.” Doug’s education in the PhD program at the United States Sports Academy for Sports Management will help prepare him for the career transition. Doug sees the impact his MA degree has in the secular world and is eager to effect a profound change within the growing world of collegiate sports. His graduate experience at CDU helps guide his life in a manner that is grounded in faith. He hopes that this combination of studies will inspire the next generation of Catholics to expand their notions of “vocation” and fulfill God’s calling in their lives.
Daniel Colón earned his BA degree summa cum laude this year. He is an information technology professional and also serves as a coordinator of religious education at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Palmyra, PA. Daniel attended two other institutions and switched his field of study several times before settling on theology at CDU. “In 1986 I began attending Sacred Heart University in Santurce, Puerto Rico. I was majoring in telecommunication (radio and TV), however after two years I realized it wasn't what I wanted to do. I changed my major to psychology because I always felt drawn to help to others in some way, so psychology seemed like a good bet,” he says. “Unfortunately, due to life's circumstances, I had to drop out with a year and a half left to complete the BA.” Some years later, Daniel attended a computer technical school. After obtaining a certificate and various IT certifications, he began his career in the IT field. “About 6 years ago, I ran across CDU's BA completion program and thought, ‘what a great way to learn more about my faith and complete my degree,’” he says. “I have always been driven to help, teach, and mentor others. A degree in theology sounded like a great way to be more helpful and effective when talking to others about my faith.” Daniel found the asynchronous online classes very convenient. “They also allow for more meaningful conversations as students have the chance to develop a thought through and then share with the class,” he adds. Though Daniel was raised Catholic, he left the Church for a time. “In my late teens I got involved with a Pentecostal church, and I had an encounter with Christ,” he says. People from the church were very welcoming, and they helped Daniel to get involved in youth ministry, music ministry, and increase his knowledge of Scripture. Looking back, Daniel says, he was drawn away from the [Catholic] Church by the lure of novelty and the rush of excitement from more charismatic religious practices. “I guess you can say I didn't leave the [Catholic] Church all at once but rather slowly trickled away,” he says. “I know now that the reason I walked away is because I did not understand nor appreciate the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I thought I had found Jesus, yet he was there in the tabernacle at my parish the whole time. This is why as a religious educator, I try to focus on the Eucharist to help students understand that they will not find the Eucharist anywhere else but in the Catholic Church.” He advises young people who may be thinking of leaving the Church to get involved in their parish and find ways to participate in youth ministry, altar serving, or volunteering. “This is especially true for Confirmation students,” he says. “I always remind them that confirmation is not graduation and that it is a beginning rather that an end. Teens considering leaving the Church should remember that God loves them, and He will never tire of reaching out in love to draw them back.” After many years the Holy Spirit moved Daniel to return to the Church, and that is when he discovered CDU. “I responded to this call with an intense feeling that God was preparing me for something,” he says. “I had an insatiable desire to study Church history, theology, and teaching, and the more I studied, the more I wanted. So I took the next natural step, which was to pursue a theology degree.” Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio was Daniel’s favorite professor. “I took 2 classes with him, and he is wonderful. THEO 503 The Catholic Theological Tradition was a fantastic course. His method of teaching and delivery is very conducive to great board discussions, and he is extremely knowledgeable,” he says. Daniel developed a good rapport with a few of his fellow classmates, sharing notes and having great discussions. “In general, I found students at CDU a very cordial and smart. It was great reading their stories and comments,” he says. As coordinator of religious education, Daniel helps prepare children to receive the sacraments, assists with the RCIA process, teaches classes, helps to coordinate adult Bible studies, and serves as a premarital marriage mentor along with his wife, to whom he has been married for 29 years. They have two daughters and two sons. Though being a coordinator of religious education is very rewarding, there are many challenges, one of which is avoiding discouragement, he explains. “It breaks my heart when a 14-year-old receives Confirmation and then we never see them again,” Daniel says. “This has been a source of frustration and pain. However, I remind myself that God is in control, and I must trust the Holy Spirit. It is not about me but about what God is doing in the life of that young person. If we have done a good job laying a solid foundation, I trust that they will come back." Another challenge is getting parents and families involved in the religious formation of their children. “Far too often, I notice parents dropping off their kids in the parking lot without setting a foot in the church or going to Mass. I think parents are missing the boat when they do that,” he says. “God has a plan for everyone,” Daniel says. “If you had told me 5 years ago that I would have a degree in theology and be coordinator of religious education for a church I would have laughed. You never know where God is going to take you, and He usually takes you in directions that are neither comfortable nor easy but are filled with blessings and rewards. We must listen to the voice of God and prayerfully allow the Holy Spirit to complete his work in us; only then can we be truly fulfilled and happy.” Recently, Daniel was asked to speak to a group about Lent. “Five years ago no one really cared what I had to say about anything, and now I get invited to speak. God is good!” Daniel says. “In only a couple of years, I have gone from a life of little to no involvement in church and community to a life of service to others and sharer of the good news of Christ. I am truly blessed. To God be all the glory!”
Raymond Clement of Jalan Novena Utara, Singapore, works as an in-house counsel for a bank. In late 2018 he earned his MA degree in Theology. “I decided to study theology after experiencing a nagging feeling for a number of years that I was not plumbing the inexhaustible richness of the Catholic Faith,” Raymond says. “I also felt a keen awareness that in order to engage intelligently in the culture wars that are shaping the times we live in, I needed to be equipped with the right tools.” He chose CDU primarily due to its completely online teaching format. “Other universities I came across uniformly had a residency requirement that I would have found difficult to fulfill,” he says. “CDU’s faithfulness to the Magisterium and the quality of its faculty were also important considerations.” Despite working in banking—a field seemingly unrelated to theology--Raymond finds his degree useful in his work. “My knowledge of theology has helped me to see my work in a different light and shown me more opportunities to practice my faith in the workplace,” he says. Raymond took a break from volunteering at church while studying at CDU but intends to begin again now that he has completed his degree program. In the past he has led a church choir and advised churches on legal matters. “Church attendance in Singapore is high, and there is a deep hunger for God’s Word,” he says. “I hope to help in a small way to fulfil this need after having completed my studies at CDU.” What Raymond enjoyed most about his experience at CDU was the sense of belonging to a Catholic community and the passion he developed for sharing the Faith with others.
Mary Kate Budd, pictured with her fiancé, Jason, recently completed her AA degree in Liberal Arts while working full-time for the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan. “CDU gave me a chance that I didn’t think I would have at first--a chance to study theology online in a way that would be easy for me as a working young adult,” she says. With a passion for youth ministry, Mary Kate looks forward to using her education to share with young people the beauty of having a relationship with Jesus. “I can’t wait to use the tools that I have gained from CDU to accomplish what Christ is calling me to,” she says. Mary Kate attended Franciscan University at Steubenville at first, where she planned to major in English for a career in education. While she loved the university, it was expensive. To avoid being saddled with student loan debt, she decided not to return following freshman year and switched to a community college near home. One day her brother suggested that she should look into studying theology. “It was then that a light bulb went on in my head,” she says. “Why in the world had I never considered that before?” Mary Kate found the major to be a perfect fit. Knowing she would have to pursue her education online because she was working full time, she began researching programs. “Eventually, I stumbled upon Catholic Distance University, read the entire website, and applied that very same night. It was with joy that I found out a few weeks later that I had been accepted and that a lot of my credits had also transferred,” she says. “I liked how helpful the professors were and how concerned they were for their students,” Mary Kate says. “I also enjoyed the interactions I had with my fellow classmates. Every class started with an introduction, and it was so interesting to read about all the different classmates I had, where they came from, and all the different walks of life they came from as well.” Kathy Vestermark, her first professor at CDU, was her favorite. She teaches THEO 101 and THEO 102, which cover the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Professor Vestermark was always ready to help, and studying under her was such a pleasure,” Mary Kate says. “We were truly able to dive into the beauties of theology in those classes, and she did such a wonderful job presenting the Catechism to us.” Mary Kate grew up in a strong, close-knit, faith-filled Catholic family as the youngest of six children. “Growing up, my mom would take us all to Mass every day and to Perpetual Adoration at least once a week. I grew up learning through the Baltimore Catechism and reading books about the Saints. The Faith was just a part of our daily lives,” she says. As she grew older, the Faith fascinated her, and she wanted to learn more. “My Confirmation in 2007 at the age of 14 was such a joyful moment, and it spurred me on to continue learning,” she says. “When I came back home from Franciscan, I knew I was going to need to find a community of young Catholics to back me up after losing the community I had while away at college,” Mary Kate says. She joined a Catholic youth group at a local state university as well as a young adult group in her diocese that her sister had founded. The groups were great for helping her grow in her faith and providing community, but they were small, and it was hard to gain traction and the attention of Catholic young people. Going to Mass on any given Sunday she noticed high attendance among older people but few young people. “This broke my heart, and I knew something needed to change,” she says. “I wanted to show other young Catholics not only how fun our groups were, but how beautiful the Catholic Faith was, and the love that can only come from a relationship that has to constantly be growing with Christ.” “Through the two young adult groups I met my future husband, Jason,” Mary Kate says. He was in seminary at the time, but in early 2017, he announced that he would no longer be studying for the priesthood. “This sounds funny, but I was a bit disappointed! I thought he would make a great priest,” she says. After a while, they began dating. He proposed to her in the Adoration chapel she had routinely visited as a child. “I, of course, said yes,” she says. Their wedding is scheduled for June, and they look forward to having a family someday. “After our marriage, I hope to be able to find a job in youth ministry in our area if I can and to keep learning and studying on my own the Catholic Faith. I hope to also enter the BA program at CDU at some point to earn my Bachelor’s degree in theology,” she says. “But my biggest plan is, and will remain, God willing, that I will be able to help young people come to know, love, and serve God in this life, so to be happy with Him in the next.”
Graduate student Andrew Toscano of Brooklyn, NY, works for Quality Services for the Autism Community (QSAC), which serves New York City and Long Island. As a Family Support Services Coordinator, he helps families obtain eligibility and the necessary funding to access services from New York State’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. “As everything I do in some way helps the individual and his/her family, the most rewarding part for me is helping all of the people I work with to become as independent as possible,” Andrew says. Though he already held a J.D. degree from New York Law School, Andrew earned an M.S. in Special Education and Teaching from Mercy College in 2011. He attributes the change in career path to an eventful life and divine providence. “God allowed me to freely make decisions and brought me people who led me to my current position both professionally and personally,” he explains. “I decided that I wanted to help those in most need and chose a career working with the mentally and developmentally disabled,” Andrew says. “My JD was useful for several years (and still is), but the MS in Special Education was the degree I felt would be most useful in a variety of positions.” Andrew student taught middle school for a semester and planned to teach special education, but a chance meeting on the subway led him to work with disabled adults in a different capacity. “I had a conversation with a woman who mentioned that there was a position open at an agency. I decided to follow up, was offered the position, and thus began my work with disabled adults,” he says. Andrew and his wife, Margrett, both lector and teach RCIA at All Saints Roman Catholic Parish in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Both are pursuing graduate theology study at CDU, which the Diocese of Brooklyn generously funds for those working in ministries with in the diocese. Andrew says they are both grateful to the Diocese for making Catholic higher education possible through CDU for those who serve the diocese’s parishes. The Diocese of Brooklyn is the nation’s fifth most populous, serving 1.5 million Catholics and spanning a 179-square mile area. “My wife and I both wish to become DREs and work full time with the Diocese, and this program so far is exceeding our expectations. The online aspect is the biggest asset for us as we both work full time and it allows us to obtain a quality education without affecting our employment and exhausting us with physical classes,” he says. “We are very happy to be with CDU,” Andrew says. “In addition to the online aspect, the professionalism and enthusiasm of the CDU team is refreshing. We also feel comfortable because CDU seems to believe in authentic Catholic teaching without some of the abuses we have seen in other ‘Catholic colleges.’” he adds.
Katlyn Lawler, who recently earned her BA in Theology, was promoted to Director of Religious Education at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Lake Ridge, Virginia, where she has worked for several years and been a parishioner for most of her life. Katlyn recently married and lives with her husband Benjamin, pictured here, and puppy in Woodbridge, Virginia. She was raised in a large family of nine who have always encouraged her to obtain her dreams. “Catholic Distance University did not just prepare me for my job but gave me an opportunity to grow in my Faith with a wonderful community of classmates and professors,” Katlyn says. “I am so grateful for my time at CDU and cannot wait to share what I have learned with my family, Parish community, and all those I encounter in my lifetime.” Katlyn began serving as a catechist aide for the church’s religious education program in middle school and continued to volunteer as an aide, catechist, and retreat leader through high school. While in college, she was offered a job as the Administrative Assistant for the Director of Religious Education for Middle School and Confirmation Prep. “Three years later,” she says, “I have graduated from CDU with a Bachelor's in Theology and have been promoted to work as the Director of Religious Education. It has been a great journey, and I love working with the youth of the parish.” As DRE, Katlyn is responsible for kindergarten through eighth grade religious education classes and sacramental preparation programs for Penance, Eucharist, and Confirmation. “My degree in Theology will not only help me as the Director of Religious Education but also as a Catholic Christian living in the world,” she says. “I am able to better dialogue with my family, help others, grow in my own spiritual journey, and share my Faith more beautifully. No matter where God takes me and my husband, I will be able to use my degree in my career, in my home, and in the world.” Katlyn attended Catholic schools her entire life, and the Faith has always been important to her. “Since middle school, I have felt called to work for Christ's Church, and my heart was always pulled toward teaching,” she says. Before leaving high school, Katlyn thought she was being called to nursing. She entered college and began to pursue a degree in that field but found that her heart was not in nursing. “After praying and discerning, I knew I was being called to teach, to pursue a degree in Theology,” she says. “I began looking for colleges and saw CDU advertised in my parish bulletin, and I checked it out. I was so excited to find a school that would allow me to continue working since I was paying for school myself. I was absolutely thrilled to be accepted and enroll in CDU.” “I love CDU and would recommend it to everyone,” Katlyn says. “It has been a blessing to be a part of the school community, and the ability to work on my courses at home or during my lunch break at work was the best. I loved being able to open up about my Faith and the Catholic Church with my peers and professors,” she adds. “My biggest takeaway from my education at CDU is the ability to dive deeper into the Catholic Church and the life of God,” Katlyn says. “We cannot just scratch the surface our entire lives; we would miss the true beauty of God. CDU challenged me to go deeper and seek God in a more intimate way. I cannot express how grateful I am to CDU and the staff who journeyed with me during this part of my spiritual and educational journey.”
MA (Theology) alumnus Deacon Gerard-Marie Anthony is an, author, apologist, and religion/bioethics teacher. He was ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Arlington in January 2017 and also serves as a member of the diocese’s Black Catholic Ministries and Evangelization Board. “I'm proud to be a CDU alumni!” says Deacon Anthony, who earned his CDU degree in 2009. “My degree in theology has helped me tremendously both as a professional and as a deacon.” Since then Deacon Anthony has earned his Virginia Catholic Education Teaching Certification through George Mason University, taught religion and bioethics at John Paul the Great High School, and has served as a professor for Christ the Teacher College. He is now taking a break from teaching to pursue a counseling degree at Divine Mercy University. The flexibility of CDU and the quality of classes are what Deacon Anthony enjoyed most about CDU. “I wanted a good quality program that would allow me to grow, challenge me to know more about God, and allow me the flexibility to study and work,” he says. “I use what I learned from my Master's programs to teach theology at my parish assignments,” he says. “I have taught on topics ranging from Books of the Bible, the Mission of Jesus, to Humanae Vitae and the diaconate. The [CDU] class on the vocation of the laity helped me to see how to motivate the laity to take up their role of apostolate in the Church,” he says. “And of course, my theology degree helps me tremendously with homilies.” Deacon Anthony has written many articles and books, including Who Am I: The Theology of the Body in Prayer and has contributed to Lay Witness, Immaculate Heart Messenger, and Spirituality Today magazines, and is a frequent contributor to Catechist and The Josephite Harvest magazines and blogs at CatholicMatch.com. He has also been a guest on EWTN radio shows on numerous occasions with appearances on Catholic Connection and the SonRise Morning Show and has appeared as a special guest on the EWTN television show The Church Universal. He has worked with teens for over 15 years and frequently gives talks for people of all ages including teens at Confirmation retreats, adults seeking faith education, and young adults. “The thing that I enjoy the most about teaching is seeing how the knowledge that you impart can bring people closer to truth, thus improving their lives and helping the student to better him or herself,” he says. Because he thinks theologically, Deacon Anthony says, “I see in this the power of the Word, and it reminds me of the importance of being disciples of Christ and letting His Word guide our lives as a teacher helps guide a student.” Deacon Anthony is a longtime member of the world’s largest lay apostolic organization, the Legion of Mary. He says, “The things that led me to pursue the diaconate were a love for helping people, that is, service, people telling me I should be a deacon, prayer, and the Legion of Mary, which promoted an active participation in the service of others under the guidance of the Church.” Deacon Anthony runs an apologetics website at gmarieforG-O-D.com in his spare time.
MA (Theology) student Father Captain Joseph W. Reffner, a Chaplain in the US Army, was ordained a Catholic priest for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in Houston, Texas, on May 31, 2018. Father Reffner, who was an Anglican priest prior to his ordination in the Catholic Church, is married and has five children with his wife. He converted to Catholicism in 2011 after many years of discernment. Bishop Steven J. Lopes, Bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, conducted the ceremony, and Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, J.C.D., Archbishop for the Military Services, USA, and Chancellor of CDU, concelebrated the ordination Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham. Father Reffner was raised as an Evangelical Protestant in Pennsylvania and felt a call to ministry in 2004. “I started to realize I had a heart for ministry when I was an Infantry officer about 15 years ago,” he says. “Soldiers would express personal things to me and look for guidance and counsel. I think they knew I was religious, was approachable, and they were looking for answers. I realized that I really wanted to help these men, but I could only help so much before having them seek the Chaplain,” he says. “I didn’t have the experience or wisdom, plus I needed to focus on mission and training. It really opened up the discernment process to pursue full-time ministry.” Father Reffner entered a Protestant seminary, and after taking a Systematic Theology course, became Anglican. He later became a deacon and then a priest in the Anglican Church. Over the years the richness of Catholicism appealed to him, and during his discernment he developed a great love and devotion for the Eucharist. Father Reffner’s wife converted to Catholicism in 2012. Father Reffner wanted to pursue the Catholic priesthood but was concerned about how he would be received as a married Catholic priest. After lots of prayer, discernment, and conversations with deacons, priests, and lay people, he decided to move forward. He says both parishioners and priests have been supportive, open, and loving, and there has been no negativity from anyone. As an Active Duty Army Chaplain, Father Reffner’s focus is on the men and women who currently serve or have served in uniform along with their families. He serves the military community at the chapels on post and the unit where he is assigned. His garrison is Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state. “There is also always the possibility of getting deployed to another country or a field training exercise that lasts several days to months,” Father Reffner says. “The important thing is to be where the Soldiers are by providing ministry, counseling, advising the Commander and staff on various issues such as religious area analysis that may affect the mission, morale, moral implications of a decision, resiliency, etc.” When asked how he balances his roles as a military chaplain, priest, husband, and father, Father Reffner says, “First, I think it comes from the call to holiness from Jesus. As Pope Francis recently said in Guadete Et Exsultate, ‘A Christian cannot think of his or her mission on earth without seeing it as a path of holiness.’” “My mission is as a priest and husband, and since I have received the sacraments of Holy Orders and Matrimony in which Christ is present, I need to ensure I don’t get in the way of Christ or use him as an excuse to put myself against one over the other. I’m no good as a priest if I abandon my family, and I’m not a good man of integrity if I put off my duties and dignities as a priest,” he says. “Yes, there is tension, but I find my inspiration and reflection in my devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” “Second, is manage expectations,” Father Reffner says. “There is a balance, and it has to be communicated to the chapel staff, the unit, and the family. There are many late nights and weekends away from the family in the military. The best is knowing that there are other priests who are there to help cover when I may be gone on retreat or vice a versa. The beauty of having other devoted Catholic priests and lay faithful is knowing it’s not about me and doesn’t depend entirely on me,” he says. Of CDU, Father Reffner says, “The faculty and staff express a true, lived-out Catholic faith. Several professors head their own apostolates or are active in others, and some teach at other Catholic institutions.” He loves the emphasis on St. Thomas Aquinas in CDU’s courses. “I dabbled with The Summa Theologiae to some extent while in a Protestant seminary, but CDU has really emphasized him and I have come to really enjoy him. It has actually helped me learn to listen to arguments better and form my thoughts with an understanding of how another might hear them,” he says. Last summer Father Reffner was in Syria taking Christology. “Some Soldiers and Airmen asked if I could start a weeknight study of some sort, and I agreed,” he says. “I was able to formulate a simple approach to Christology for them because I was taking the class at the time, and the notes and Scripture references where right there. The men and women loved it.” Given Father Reffner’s multiple roles, the flexibility of CDU has been important. “I have moved twice during my time at CDU and been deployed. I have been able to choose the classes that fit my situation the best. Plus, CDU is military friendly and very supportive. The professors have been very supportive in understanding my role in the Army.”
Denise Spivey, assistant principal at St. Anne and St. Jude Catholic School in Sumter, SC, recently earned her MA (Theology) with a concentration in Ecclesial Service. Born in Louisville, KY, she attended Catholic schools, joined the U.S. Air Force, and earned a B.S. at North Carolina Wesleyan College. After 26 years of honorable service, Denise retired from the military and began to pursue her passion: the study of theology. When asked what led her to theology, she says, “Well, the short answer is God.” Born Catholic, the only public schools she attended were kindergarten and college. “During my freshman year in college I learned about the Apocryphal books in the Bible. I had never heard of them. I guess the seed, the desire to know more, was planted then. Decades later, my husband and I talked for several years about pursuing our Masters Degrees. The seed came alive and I naturally chose theology,” she says. About a year into her studies, Denise--then a middle school religion teacher--accepted the full-time position of assistant principal. Understanding theology has given her a fuller ability to pass on the knowledge, understanding, and mercy that the Church teaches. “Many non-Catholics come to our school seeking something better for their children,” she explains. “Through the grace of God and the teachings I have learned, I feel better equipped to help these and all of our families, especially the children, come to know the love of God in their lives.” This, in turn, gives them confidence, which helps improve the children’s grades and empowers them to show the love of God to others, she says. Denise continues to teach middle school religion. “My students are really benefiting from the expertise of CDU’s professors!” she says. “We get into some great discussions, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, the knowledge I have acquired plays a very important part of our conversations. Sometimes I get to ‘blow their minds.’” “I am also more inclined to take these teachings out into the public,” she says. “The Holy Spirit prompts each of us to get out of our comfort zones and show the love of Christ to the world. I have known this for a long time, but the lessons I have learned with CDU help me to proclaim it much more effectively.” Of her time at CDU, Denise says that what surprised her most was how much she enjoyed the lessons. “I loved learning new concepts or understanding ideas in a different light. I really appreciated the video chats that Dr. Peter Brown offered. It gave me an opportunity to flesh out ideas more fully,” she says. Denise and her husband Dan have three children. In her free time, Denise enjoys spending time with her family, especially her granddaughter. She also enjoys cooking. “God led me to CDU, and I am very happy that I followed His prompting,” Denise says. “My life has changed in ways I never imagined.” Her thesis, “Pope Francis’ Key to a Life of Witness to Obedience is Mercy,” was published in the Easter edition of Digital Continent.
Clarissa (“Lissa”) Hutcheson recently earned her MA (Theology) with a concentration in Ecclesial Service. She currently works as the director of catechetical ministry at Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church in La Jolla, California. She serves as a Master Catechist and also teaches for the San Diego Diocesan Institute.“I am forever grateful to CDU for offering the gift of continuing my education in a format that allowed me to fully participate in my ordinary life of work, home and play,” Lissa says. “I only hope that I am able to share what I have received with whomever God send’s into my life.”After earning a BA degree in political science and history from the University of La Verne, California, Lissa participated in classes at the University San Diego while discerning a Master’s degree in history. But she developed an interest in theology after taking classes at the Diocesan Institute in San Diego. “Having received a certificate in catechetical ministry, I sought to know more,” she says. After considering Boston College and the University of Dayton, where she had taken some online courses, she chose Catholic Distance University. “The Holy Spirit led me to CDU,” Lissa says, and she remembers the day very clearly. “When I thought to apply, I just really had a sense that CDU was the place for me. The professors are at the top of their field of study, and working with students from around the world appealed to my nature.” Through studying theology at CDU, Lissa says she has come to know the Trinity more profoundly and understands her call to evangelize in and through her daily living experience. “I have gained a greater sense of belonging to a Catholic community, deeper knowledge and a renewal of mind, and a joyful encounter with Christ,” she says. Her education has fostered a passion to share the Catholic faith with others as well. Lissa, who is a lay Dominican, finds peace and comfort in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. She has been married to her husband, Todd, for 33 years. Together, they have raised two beautiful daughters and are deeply in love with their three grandchildren and their sons in law.
Aiko Foster-Sutherland, a wife and mother living in Okinawa, Japan, recently earned her BA degree in Theology. A convert to Catholicism in 2011, she began her studies at CDU because she wanted to learn the truth from a Catholic perspective. Aiko worked as a portrait photographer and ran a guesthouse until last year, when she took time off to raise her 2-year-old daughter. Aiko enjoyed the opportunity to interact with people she might not have met otherwise. “One can be in a classroom with a member of the military, a stay-at-home mom, a homeschooled teenager, and a brother who is on his way to priesthood! CDU is truly international and friendly to anyone who wants to deepen one’s faith,” Aiko says. Far from being impractical, the study of theology helped Aiko integrate her faith with her work as a portrait photographer. “My main goal is to empower young women through photography to help them to know they are beautiful just as God made them, and they don’t need to be anyone else or try to fit into the standards of society.” I want them to understand, “you are precious in my eyes.”(Isa 43.4) “Learning theology changed how I approached my clients,” Aiko adds. Learning about the significance of man’s body and soul in her Fundamental Moral Theology class struck a chord with Aiko. “The idea was not foreign to me when I read it, but it spoke to me,” she says. “Although physical beauty fades away, there is spiritual side that can’t be neglected if one is to be the kind of person that God wants one to be.” Aiko says it was a bit difficult at first because her business was to sell beauty, but she knew in her heart that her work and faith could not exist separately. Aiko has also handed on the faith to others. She was at a party mingling with prospective clients and began a conversation with a woman in her mid 20s. Their conversation led to friendship; Aiko shared her faith with her new friend and was able to answer questions she asked about Christianity. “A year later, she got baptized in the Catholic Church,” Aiko says. “Because I was studying theology, I was able to share not only my experiences of God but also theological answers to questions she had.” In Japan, Catholics comprise just 0.5% of the population. “In my church, you can count young families on one hand,” Aiko says. Many priests are from overseas, and there are few Japanese priests in her diocese. “There is an interesting history behind how the Catholic Church came to Japan, and it is profound to know how the missionaries did their work in such an unfamiliar culture,” she says. “It’s culturally challenging for Christianity to grow here. There is a lot of work to do in the Catholic Church in Japan.” Aiko was Protestant before she converted to Catholicism in 2011. “I wanted to deepen my relationship with God but could not find what I was looking for and did not know where to look,” she says. Aiko started reading more books and realized that many were written by Catholic priests “by chance.” “I grew to love Catholicism,” she says. Aiko’s husband was raised Protestant as well, but a priest he met while working in Malaysia inspired him to consider the Catholic priesthood. He chose to marry Aiko instead. “We attended a Protestant church for a while, but both of us felt that we were led to the Catholic Church. After a year of examination and prayer, they decided to become Catholic. “I searched high and low to pursue a degree in theology as a lay person, but I couldn’t find a school I was interested in. Then I found CDU, or more accurately, CDU found me!” Aiko says. When asked what she enjoyed most about her education at CDU, Aiko mentions the weekly discussions. “Students have the same faith, yet they have different ways of thinking,” she says. “It was truly interesting to read other students’ posts.” She also appreciated the diverse makeup of students. “Most of the students are from the States, but some were from different parts of the world, and it made the conversations interesting,” she says. While earning her degree, Aiko was working, studying, and raising a child, which was not easy. “But by the grace of God, I was able to graduate,” she says. Aiko says that learning theology helped her to fall in love with the word of God and learn to serve Him better. “It transforms your approach to God. Studying theology will not leave you unchanged!” she says. “As St. Jerome said, ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,’” she adds.
Rev. Christopher Bragg Etheridge, IVE, a priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, was recently ordained at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Father Etheridge serves as the Dean of Studies at the Ven. Fulton Sheen Seminary and the Parochial Vicar at St. John Baptist de la Salle in Chillum, MD. After earning his BA in Theology degree at CDU in 2016, he enrolled in CDU’s MA degree in Theology program. “My experience in the BA program was such a positive one that it was almost natural to consider CDU as my choice for a Master’s program,” Father Etheridge says. “One of the great advantages of studying through CDU is that I know for sure that what my professors have taught me is the same truth that has been handed on and guarded by the Church for centuries.” Father Etheridge first enrolled at CDU after entering the seminary. “Our seminary here in Washington is still very young,” he explains. “Getting accreditation takes a while and is very costly, so for those of us who have not completed our bachelor's degrees, CDU has provided an affordable and trustworthy option for getting a Catholic education.” “The integrity with which CDU aims to teach the faith was also a major draw for me, considering that in our modern era the devil works with greater subtlety,” Father Etheridge says. “Seeking the truth means seeking the fullness of truth, without compromise.” As a junior in high school living in Alabama, Father Etheridge began to discern his vocation after going on a mission trip to Akil, Yucatan, Mexico, through the Archdiocese of Mobile. “The experience in Mexico as missionary changed me in ways I didn't expect,” he says. “It opened my eyes to the reality that life was meant to be ‘spent’ living for others. The volunteer experience also showed me the joy that comes through poverty and the gift of self.” Father Etheridge did not immediately enter the seminary after high school. “Knowing that God was calling me to a missionary vocation, I was hesitant to enter the diocesan seminary right away,” he explains. “Instead, I went to the University of Alabama to study Spanish, trusting that the Lord would show me where to go next, and He did! Midway through my freshman year I went to Washington, DC, to take part in the March for Life,” he adds. During the March, Father Etheridge stayed with a small religious community, the Institute of the Incarnate Word, which has as its charism the inculturation of the Gospel. “A month after the March for Life, I returned to DC to take the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and it was through this retreat that I clearly saw God's will and was given the grace to follow it,” Father Etheridge says. “After finishing the spring semester at Alabama, I packed my bags and entered the IVE novitiate. Now, a little over eight years later, after ordination I look back and can only marvel at the Lord's plan and the abundance of His mercy.” When asked how his CDU education has prepared him for the priesthood, Father Etheridge says, “A priest's whole life involves studying. Ongoing formation is a must for any priest who wants to be an effective instrument in the hands of God; but that ‘ongoing’ formation needs a foundation, which comes through his initial years of education.” “CDU helped to form that foundation in my life. It provided me with an opportunity to study the truths of the Faith in all their beauty and richness, without compromise.” Father Etheridge offers the following advice to other students who are considering studying at CDU. “The online format is certainly a great convenience for people with busy schedules, but don't let that be the only motivating factor; see the eternal advantage to studying at CDU.” “Yes, ‘eternal,’” he adds. “At CDU you do not simply learn the truth, but you get to know Truth Himself. St. Philip Neri once said, ‘those who seek for anything but Christ do not know what they are looking for,’” Father Etheridge explains. “By getting a degree through a Catholic university such as CDU, you are giving yourself the opportunity to know the fullness of truth found in Jesus Christ, who is the light for all humanity.”
Following a year of study in the BA completion program, Michael Ryan Grasinski has earned his degree. “CDU exposed me to the treasure contained within the Tradition of the Church, and I can honestly say I learned more about my faith in the past year than at any point prior,” he says. “It really seemed to be the answer to my prayer. I never thought I'd be able to finish my BA, but by the grace of God I was able to do that.” Michael worked in sales and account management when he began to sense that God was calling him to a different path. After a long period of discernment, he matriculated at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “My year in the seminary was pivotal in my continued education and my overall formation; it laid the foundation for my life,” he says. “After I spent a year in the seminary, I knew I wanted to finish my BA, but it seemed impossible due to practical reasons, mainly time, money, and location. Stumbling upon CDU was a true grace, and it provided the perfect opportunity to not only finish my undergraduate education, but to do so in the area of greatest interest to me,” he says. As Michael transitioned from Mount St. Mary’s to CDU, there was a continuity of intellectual formation that he says was invaluable in his spiritual growth. “The value of an education is realized by the effort you put in to it, and for me personally, it was CDU that provided the framework and instruction necessary to make that effort fruitful,” he says. Class discussions helped Michael learn to articulate what he knew, which was sometimes more challenging than he expected. “A true test of what one knows is how simply one can explain it,” he says. “This became a great exercise in learning how to synthesize extremely complex thoughts.” “To study theology through the lens of the Church is to put on the mind of Christ,” Michael says. Like many other students, he finds that theology informs his thinking on a range of subjects, especially Christian vocation. “Christian vocation is both a gift and a mission,” he explains. “We receive a vocational call from God to bring the light of Christ to others, and at the same time, this mission is a gift. As we read in the Gospel, we are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth; this means being transformed in the spirit of our mind and following Christ every day.” He also clearly articulates the interplay of faith and reason. “Both faith and reason are necessary, and they in no way negate one another,” he explains. “By the grace of God, I have faith, and I now seek understanding. Faith is not merely blind acceptance; rather, through our God-given intellect, we plunge into the mysteries of God through the life of the intellect, thus further informing our faith.” In an increasingly secular world, theology is also useful in responding to contemporary challenges. “We live in a world where man's fundamental identity has become lost, and it is the practice of theology that can respond to this identity crisis,” Michael says. “Theology explains the deepest yearnings of man's heart and thus is able to respond to the many challenges facing modern man. Gaudium et Spes explains this perfectly in that theology, as viewed through the lens of the Magisterium, can answer the many questions that trouble man today.” In his free time, Michael enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife contemplating the beauty of God’s creation, immersing himself in the intellectual tradition of the Church, doing DIY projects, and learning how to be a better cook. “I'm very grateful for my opportunity at CDU,” Michael says. “Coming from a business background, I can see the immense value a school like CDU will continue to have in a world that is quickly changing and lacking orthodox Catholic schools.”
“Graduating with a BA in Theology this Advent Season is the greatest gift,” says Lan Nguyen, who is now continuing her studies in the MA (Theology) program. “I could not have accomplished this milestone without the grace of God and the support of my wonderful family, especially my husband.” “Every time someone asks me, ‘why are you studying theology, and what are you going to do with that degree?’ I always reply with a gentle smile and say, ‘I really don’t know, but one thing I do know is that studying theology is like heaven opening the door for me. I feel an angel walking with me through each class,’” she says. Lan is an active volunteer at Our Lady of La Vang Mission, which currently operates out of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, Virginia. Though OLL Mission first began with just 30 families, now more than 422 families are registered. On September 3rd , 2017, the Our Lady of La Vang Catholic Community was established as a mission of Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church in Arlington by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. “As our membership has grown, the CCC program has grown along with it,” says Lan. Catechists are always desperately needed, so she volunteered to be a substitute catechist in 2012 and eventually became a regular catechist. Lan currently volunteers at OLL Mission as multicultural representative and diocesan liaison. Her work includes managing the child protection program, working with the Asian and Pacific Island Catholic Community, assisting the DRE as a coordinator of the diocesan CCD program, and serving as a catechist for the Confirmation class. “On occasion, I have had the opportunity to direct the entertainment program, including the Christmas play and Mariam dance for the community,” she adds. Lan enrolled at CDU in 2015 after completing the Diocese of Arlington’s Master Catechist Training Program, which was led by Rev. Paul F. deLadurantaye, the diocesan secretary for religious education and the sacred liturgy. “After that, I was still yearning to learn more and deepen my faith and my involvement in the catechetical ministry of the Church. Through the Arlington DRE network, I discovered CDU,” she says. “Going back to school as an adult is quite difficult. It’s even harder when English is your second language,” says Lan, whose first language was Vietnamese. “With these concerns, I was excited to find that CDU has developed a very convenient online program with a great support system.” “Each course has introduced to me a different piece of the Church’s doctrine and God’s Word, where I then find truth and authentic love,” she explains. “The thing I love most is having access to my coursework anytime and anywhere; and the staff is amazing. They are always there to help and support,” she adds. One of her favorite “places” is the CDU chapel. “I often click in there to just say a prayer or discuss something with God.” “I am always fascinated with the Bible every time I read it, and therefore find that I have so many questions,” Lan says. “God says, You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13).” “I would like to invite those who want to learn more about the Church’s teaching to take one course at CDU,” Lan says. “I guarantee you will have a rewarding experience. CDU has a vibrant learning community that truly reflects the universality of the Church.” She adds, “Theology can be a very difficult subject, but just remember what Jesus said: With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).” “I am so thankful for the professors and programs at CDU that continue to guide me on this spiritual journey,” Lan says. “These professors are teaching the authentic, life-giving Gospel.”
Theresa (Terri) Thomas recently earned her BA in Theology and plans to continue her studies in the MA program next year. Since 2008 Terri has served as the Adult Faith Formation Coordinator for Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, Georgia. “My relationship with God has deepened and my heart has been set on fire through my education at CDU,” Terri says. Her work in the Church led her to want to learn more. Finding a university that was faithful to the teachings of the Church was important to Terri. “I had taken classes in the past from another Catholic university but was deeply disappointed because most of the professors were not faithful to the Magisterium. Negativity and criticism of the Church permeated many of the classes, and it was a very deflating, stressful and exhausting experience,” she explains. “CDU was a breath of fresh air for me.” Because she works full time, Terri also needed a university that was fully online without a summer residency requirement. CDU’s asynchronous classes easily fit into her schedule. “The degree completion program was a wonderful and doable option for me because it allowed me to utilize all of the classes that I had already completed,” she says The program has better prepared her to share her knowledge of the faith with others, she explains. “ I personally feel much more competent to teach classes on a variety of topics. I hope to foster a love and appreciation for the great gift of our Catholic Faith and to open people’s eyes as to how very practical it is for our everyday lives,” Terri says. “[CDU] is definitely a means to mature in Christ. I am not the same person I was when I began this journey.” “I have always felt a great responsibility to pass on the true teachings of the Church in the most charitable way possible because I firmly believed that the closer I come to the Truth the more fruitful it will be for the people I serve,” she explains. CDU’s courses and theology curriculum led to a better view of the whole picture. “Before CDU, I would randomly select different topics to read and learn about based on my interest at the time. I was deeply touched and benefitted from that method of learning, but there were many ‘holes’ in my education/formation. I did not understand how everything I was learning fit together,” she says. “CDU has given me a very balanced and complete education and a solid foundation to build on. It was a wonderful experience to learn how deeply connected every aspect of the Catholic Faith is from the seemingly smallest teaching—such as why we genuflect--to the grandest teaching, such as the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls.” Terri says that CDU has fostered in her a deeper appreciation for “all things Catholic.” “This education has given me a more comprehensive understanding of the teachings of the Church, which is very important when planning and selecting the classes, programs and events that will be offered in order to provide a well-rounded formation here at Holy Trinity.” “My desire was to take my time earning my degree so that I could contemplate and pray about what I was learning in order to apply it in my job and in my life in the most fruitful way possible,” Terri says. “As a result, I have grown as a person and this has had a profound effect on all of my relationships, especially in my family and in my role as the Adult Faith Coordinator,” she adds. Terri particularly appreciated the faculty members who taught her. “The professors and course authors are well known in their areas of expertise, and I knew that I could trust them,” she says. “They consistently exhibited patience with our continual questions and wrong assumptions. They clearly articulated true Catholic teaching and gently corrected any false notions and distorted understandings of Church teaching.” All in all, she says of the BA program, “It was a very uplifting experience and a wonderful example of how to evangelize and catechize!” “Catholic Distance University far exceeded my hopes, dreams, and expectations,” Terri says. “ I was a little apprehensive when I began this journey. I was not sure if I had what it would take to complete my degree at this time in my life. The staff and professors were so helpful and encouraging while at the same time they challenged and stretched me in many wonderful ways. I am so thankful for that!”