Online with the Universal Church

Ann Carey, Senior Correspondent, Our Sunday Visitor

THE INTERNET IS BECOMING a valuable resource for people who want to learn more about the Catholic faith, and some Catholic colleges and universities have developed specific courses for Internet learning, complete with online interaction between students and teachers.

The University of Dayton's Institute for Pastoral Initiatives (IPI) chose Internet classes as a way to reach people in rural areas, said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, director of the IPI and a Sister of the Institute of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart. With the support of the university administration and the telecommunications center, the IPI came up with appropriate software and worked with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to design and offer an online Scripture course in 1998 and 1999.

The response was so positive that in 2000 the IPI opened the door to six dioceses in the tri-state area to be initial partners to explore how Internet classes would fit their needs.

Sister Zukowski said that the university did not want to offer certification, but rather wanted to use its staff and expertise to support and enhance what's already being done well in dioceses by helping design and offer courses online the dioceses could identify as their own. Facilitators trained by the IPI are instructors and interact online with students.

Now going into its third year, the IPI's Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation has 21 partner dioceses and offers 16 noncredit courses six times a year, with about 1,000 students enrolled each year. Courses include Catholic Beliefs, Church History, Evangelization and Sacraments. Fourteen new courses and four seminars are presently in development.

Sister Zukowski said about one-third of the people enrolled are Catholic-school religion teachers, one-third are catechists and the other third are people interested in growing in their faith. Thirteen percent of the students are international.

"Some people are very dedicated as catechists, but in fact don't even have a bachelor's degree," observed Sandra Yocum-Mize, chair-elect of the theology department at the University of Dayton. "So, for them to be able to do graduate work is not possible in any formal sense. This [program] provides [an opportunity] for the to either go on to pursue a bachelor's or at least it gives them some basic background."

Cheryl Fournier, director of Catechetical Ministries for the Diocese of Wheeling, W.V., is a facilitator for one of the courses, and says the Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation is "really one of the best things" they could have done for the people in their largely rural diocese. Through the Internet courses, people are not only able to take courses unavailable to them in their own towns, but they're also able to interact online with people in other parts of the country and the world.

This expands their understanding of the Church, Fournier said, and helps them to see the catholic (meaning "universal") aspect of the Church.

Fournier said the disabled and the elderly are also beginning to tap into courses. "They're hooking into participating because it's something they can do to enhance their own knowledge of the faith, keep their minds sharp, and engage themselves in a community that they might not have the experience of because they are homebound," she said.