MA (Theology) student Father Captain Joseph W. Reffner, a Chaplain 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 ordained on May 28th by His Eminence Theodore Cardinal McCarrick 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!”