Massive open online course allows lay Catholics access to experience and teaching of Sacred Heart’s renowned professors

DETROIT — Sacred Heart Major Seminary is looking to engage, energize and inspire with a series of free, online courses for lay Catholics starting March 11.

The new “massive open online course,” called “Beauty of Belief,” is “a shallow entry into the basics of Catholic theology,” said Dr. Matthew Gerlach, Dean of the Institute for Lay Ministry at Sacred Heart.

The goal, he said, is to reach the average layperson who might not otherwise have access to the world-class instruction the seminary offers.

“We want to make sure there are no bystanders in unleashing the Gospel,” Dr. Gerlach said. “We want to give them an experience of learning that will help equip them for the new evangelization in their own lives.”

The course runs up to Easter Sunday, April 21, and each video lecture will be 20 to 30 minutes long. Each week of the class will feature a different member of Sacred Heart’s world renowned faculty, from Dr. Mary Healy to Dr. Ralph Martin to Dr. Janet Smith.

The classes will include recommended readings, and there will be a self-test quiz to see what participants remember from the videos.

Each week will have a different focus. The first week, featuring Dr. Healy, will focus on “The Beauty of Scripture,” which explores the power of God’s word through the sacred text.

Sacred Heart lay students talk in the Ward Library at the seminary's campus in Detroit. Through "The Beauty of Belief," participants can grow in faith and knowledge from anywhere they have an Internet connection.

Week two, with Dr. Robert Fastiggi, will focus on “The Beauty of the Church,” reflecting on the mystery of the Church as the body and bride of Christ.

Dr. Martin will guide participants through “The Beauty of Truth” in week three, emphasizing one's need for salvation in Christ, and “The Beauty of Virtue” in week four, featuring Dr. Smith, is centered on living a virtuous life through the transforming power of Christ.

Week five is focused on spirituality, with Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway, and the final lesson, “The Beauty of Hope,” reflects on how Christ gives meaning, direction and hope to people’s lives, even in times of difficulty. That module will be led by Fr. Pieter VanRooyen, assistant professor of theology.

“It’s an opportunity for people to have a deeper encounter with Christ,” said Dr. John Gresham, coordinator of the course and director of online learning at Sacred Heart.

Dr. Gresham came to Sacred Heart last summer, with 15 years of experience in online teaching. He taught for several years at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis and served as academic dean there, and at Sacred Heart he supports other faculty with developing and teaching online courses.

The course is designed to support Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s charge for greater lay participation in the work evangelization, as shared in his pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, Dr. Gresham said.

“We want to inspire the people of the archdiocese to become missionary disciples,” Dr. Gresham said.

A student smiles during a class at Sacred Heart's Detroit campus. "The Beauty of Belief" is a 100 percent online course, allowing participants to access materials from wherever they are. 

“It’s for the everyday Catholic,” added Ryan Cahill, director of admissions at Sacred Heart who’s also working to market the course, and edit the videos. “It’s for those in the pews looking to grow and nourish their faith.”

The course also includes a discussion board, allowing participants to share with each other insights on what they’ve learned. From there, participants can witness to others, inspiring them to give their faith a closer look.

“The Beauty of Belief” is a non-credit course that allows people to work at their own pace, Dr. Gerlach said.

“Lay people have complex lives,” Dr. Gerlach said. “We need to accommodate that complexity. Some people feel daunted by college classes. This is non-intimidating.”

While the course is the first “massive open online course” offered by Sacred Heart, organizers have been encouraged by the interest so far — 900 people are pre-registered, Cahill said.

“We’re really excited. We have enrollees from all over the state, the country, and even from Italy, Croatia, South America, China and the Philippines,” Cahill said. “It’s really gone viral. It’s taken off on social media.”

The free course allows the public to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge and experience of Sacred Heart’s professors, but it also allows the seminary to expand its educational reach.

"The Beauty of Belief" is the "first of many" similar online courses offered by Sacred Heart to the Catholic community in southeast Michigan and beyond, Dr. Gresham said.

“The Beauty of Belief” isn’t going to be a one-time opportunity, either.

“It’s our first of many,” Dr. Gresham said. “We’re going to offer other online courses.”

“It’s a kind of entrée,” added Dr. Gerlach. “It’s a doorway into further opportunities we’re developing.”

Dr. Gerlach added the seminary thinks there are many Catholics who will find the course appealing, and might even find enough to change their own faith lives.

“It’s for the layperson who may be intrigued to learn more. Someone who might not know where to go next,” says Gerlach. “Maybe it’ll give people in health care something to think about. Maybe, people in business. We want to inspire.”

Participants can register by going to the seminary’s website, http://explore.shms.edu/beautyofbelief


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