USML receives grant to create program that simulates pastoral situations

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Seminarian Robert Lamorena from the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary takes part in a simulated pastoral situation in this undated photo. The University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary received a $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment that will fund the “Cor Iuxta Meum” (“After My Own Heart”) Project, which aims to incorporate new teaching methods such as simulated encounters into the formation of seminarians, priests, deacon candidates and lay leaders. (Photo provided)

Students at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary will be able to practice pastoral encounters in a safe, supportive environment with the help of a $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment.

The grant will fund the “Cor Iuxta Meum” (“After My Own Heart”) Project, which aims to incorporate new teaching methods such as simulated encounters into the formation of seminarians, priests, deacon candidates and lay leaders.

“It speaks to the heart of the idea of, how are you helping to form future priests? Can we use the time that they’re with us in a better way?” said Father John Kartje, rector/president of USML. “Can we provide formation for the people in the parishes? We want to help give formation to parish leaders so they truly become collaborators and partners with us.”

The roots of the project go back years, to when he visited Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts to learn about how simulation was being used to help in the education of doctors.

“They had realized, we’re producing students who can ace their exams but they’re not the best doctors,” Kartje said. “It was more than bedside manner. It was, can they integrate what they’ve learned? Instead of waiting until their third or fourth year when they’re doing clinical rotations, let’s get them out there as early as possible so that they’re drawing on things that they are learning. Then they go back to the classroom and they have much more realistic questions to ask.”

USML academic dean Marie Pitt-Payne said the seminary started working on a simulation program shortly after she came on board in 2019. They worked with Rosalind Franklin University, a North Chicago-based graduate school of medicine and health sciences, and set up their first simulations in a Rosalind Franklin facility at Northwestern Medicine Hospital in Huntley, translating existing medical simulation scenarios into pastoral scenarios.

The four situations they started with included encounters with someone experiencing suicidal ideation, parents who had lost a baby to sudden infant death syndrome, someone deciding whether to sign a do not resuscitate order and someone addicted to opioids.

Future scenarios will be developed with the help of people in parishes, Kartje and Pitt-Payne said.

James Carlson, Rosalind Franklin University’s vice president for interprofessional education and simulation, helped set the simulations up, including adapting medical school scenarios and hiring and training actors for the simulations.

“The key to simulation is that it’s so realistic that the student is able to suspend their disbelief,” Pitt-Payne said. “You have to make sure that the student is checked into the way they will actually act in that situation, and they are entering into it as if they are in a real encounter.”

The following year, Mundelein faculty set up their own simulations at nearby St. Joseph Parish in Libertyville, Pitt-Payne said.

With the grant, the university can build its own simulation center on campus, she said, and expand simulations to its other institutes. It will also be able to build simulation exercises directly into classes.

Students in simulations have found themselves having emotional reactions they didn’t expect, she said, including, if, for example, they have similar situations in their families.

“We want our students to be able to identify and appreciate their own emotions and the emotions of the person they are encountering,” she said. “Because it’s so realistic, they have a lot of emotions that come up within themselves.”

Faculty members watch the simulated encounters in real time and use recordings to share what they saw with their students.

For example, if a student makes a face when the person they’re working with said something, they might not be aware of it until they watch later, but it could make the person they are speaking to feel like they are being judged, she said.

“To get the students to a place where they are able to actually help someone, that person has to feel safe,” Pitt-Payne said. “It’s very much like a medical model: A doctor can only make a diagnosis based on the information that the patient shares with them. The same is true of the priest. That parishioner is not going to reveal what the priest needs to hear unless they feel safe with them. People are more likely to listen to what you say if they feel loved by you. Setting up that relationship of compassion is really essential for good pastoral ministry.”

Kartje said he has been impressed by the way students have become invested in the simulations.

“They knew it was an exercise, but very quickly they got drawn into it,” he said. “It’s creating a safe environment so if everything you thought you knew suddenly flies out the window when you’re in this emotional discussion, it’s OK. … Some of them literally had to take timeouts because reactions in them were triggered by the simulations.”

As the project is developed, faculty members hope to develop simulations that will include not just seminarians but diaconal candidates and people in formation for lay leadership as well. They could simulate a contentious parish council meeting or finance council meeting, for example, Kartje said.

“What do you do if you’re a 26-year-old newly ordained priest in a finance council meeting with members of the parish who are CEOs?” Kartje said. “That’s where the wheels can fall off the wagon. So let’s let them do it in a simulation first.”

As the project develops and USML gathers more data, it will share what it has learned with other seminaries, both Catholic and non-Catholic, Pitt-Payne said.

“Simulation is part and parcel of medical education,” she said. “We’d like to see it part and parcel of pastoral education as well.”



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