Catholic Theological Union at 50: educating church ministers since the Second Vatican Council

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Catholic Theological Union at 50: educating church ministers since the Second Vatican Council

When Catholic Theological Union opened its doors in Hyde Park in 1968, the world — and the church — looked quite a bit different than they do now. It’s no wonder that the graduate school of theology founded after the Second Vatican Council also has undergone a series of transformations.
Catholic Theological Union bought the former Aragon Hotel, 5401 S. Cornell Ave., in 1967 to be its urban campus. Classes were held in the neighboring Sinai Temple school building. (Photo provided)
Lay students and seminarians have studied in the same classes since the 1970s.(Photo provided)
Students from the Oscar Romero program for Hispanic ministry meet during a class on Sept. 20, 2012. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students and staff from the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry program greet people at an event Feb. 20, 2010. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Passionist Father Donald Senior, seen in this file photo, served as president of CTU for 23 years. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When Catholic Theological Union opened its doors in Hyde Park in 1968, the world — and the church — looked quite a bit different than they do now. It’s no wonder that the graduate school of theology founded after the Second Vatican Council also has undergone a series of transformations.

In the beginning, CTU was an effort to combine the seminaries of three religious communities of men: Franciscans, Servites and Passionists, said Passionist Father Donald Senior, who was studying in Louvain, Belgium, when CTU started but has spent almost his whole career there, including 23 years as president. He now is a professor and chancellor.

“The germ of it came in 1964 when Cardinal (Leo Josef) Suenens gave a talk at Rockefeller Chapel” on the campus of the University of Chicago,  Senior said. “His topic was seminary education in the wake of the council.”

Cardinal Suenens, who had been active in the council, said that seminary education should take place in cities, where the seminarians would be in contact with the people instead of being isolated in the countryside, that seminaries should be located near great universities and that they should have an ecumenical spirit.

In 1967, the communities came together and bought the former Aragon Hotel on Cornell Avenue. They combined their libraries, their faculties and their curricula, and opened their doors the following year. The school also started a Catholic-Jewish studies program that same year, under the direction of Servite Father John Pawlikowski and Rabbi Hayim Perelmuter, both charter members of CTU’s faculty.

Senior, who arrived as a faculty member in 1972, said it’s important to remember that the communities didn’t have to combine efforts because of a lack of numbers at the time.

“It was not a consolidation process,” Senior said. “At that time, those three congregations were just caught up in the spirit of the council. That having been said, I’ve been told the first three years were the most challenging, and if they hadn’t merged the libraries they might have pulled apart. It was too much trouble to separate the books out.”

By 1972, CTU had accepted its first female lay student, Alacia Lakey, a graduate of Yale University. Two years later, it invited the heads of women’s religious communities to share what they wanted in terms of academic formation for their members.

Senior said he sometimes thinks CTU should have a statue of Lakey, as the school’s enrollment is now about half lay men and women studying for careers in ministry. There also are women religious and diocesan priests studying for advanced degrees.

The original pool of students — seminarians who are members of religious communities — now make up less than 40 percent of the school’s 270 students, according to Viatorian Father Mark Francis, president of CTU since 2013.

However, they do still take a majority of the credit hours at the school, Senior said, as they are almost always full-time students while many lay students attend part-time while they are working.

Both the seminarians and the lay students often cite the opportunity to study side by side as one of the greatest strengths of CTU’s program, Senior said, because it develops a healthy respect between the future priests and the lay ministers with whom they will work.

“The increase in lay students paralleled the church’s own awakening consciousness about the role of lay men and women,” Senior said. “There’s an environment of mutual respect for the various vocations, and there are collaborative efforts. That’s a powerful antidote to creating an overly clerical mentality, or an anti-clerical mentality.

Another strength is the international make-up of the school, something that grew in the years after the Society of the Divine Word and communities such as Maryknoll and the Comboni Fathers joined as members of the corporation, Francis said.

“A number of international orders came in, and that really affected our curriculum,” Senior said.

About 34 percent of CTU students now come from outside the United States. Many, but not all of them, are in formation for religious life.

“The person sitting next to you in your classroom could be from Sudan or Korea or somewhere in Latin America,” Francis said. That helps students and faculty see the universality of the church, but it also helps them challenge their assumptions about how things are done. “That really makes it a rich experience, for the teachers as well as the students.”

“Just because that’s the way you’ve always seen something done doesn’t mean it’s that way everywhere,” Francis said.

In 2014, CTU started the Center for the Study of Consecrated Life, which has held well-regarded events, Francis said. It has well-regarded programs in Scripture, liturgy and mission, as well.

 “The whole question of mission is very important to us,” Francis said. “But it’s a broader sense of what mission is for the whole church.”

Over the years, CTU has collaborated with the Archdiocese of Chicago on both the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program, for laypeople in African-American ministry, and the Oscar Romero Scholars Program, for laypeople for Hispanic ministry.

It also is home to the Bernardin Center, which houses the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, the Catholic-Jewish studies program, the Catholic-Muslim studies program and Catholics on Call, an effort to reach out to young-adult Catholics who are discerning their own vocations.

As it moves forward, the school is grappling with changes in the church as a whole. When CTU opened its academic and conference center across the street from its original building in 2006, it had almost 500 students. The drop to 270 is mostly because the religious communities that send people to CTU have experienced a drop in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, Francis said.

That creates a funding problem, since CTU relies on tuition and its own fundraising to support itself.

“It’s not like there’s a second collection for us,” said Senior, whose current role includes fundraising.

It’s a far cry from when Francis was a student at CTU in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the entire business office was run by one person and nearly all the funding came from the orders sending students.

At the same time, CTU’s leadership is watching the archdiocese’s Renew My Church effort play out across area parishes, which is where many CTU students get pastoral experience while they are in school.

If signs pointing to a need for greater collaboration between lay leaders and priests are correct, CTU graduates will be ready.

“The church is in an important phase of change itself,” Senior said. “We can’t go off on our own, and we can’t get too far ahead. We’re not just following trends, but being in communion with the church.”


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