Putting that degree to work!

In May, 2015, at the age of 81, Fr. Bernie Rosinski, SCJ, completed a master’s degree in Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. Many people congratulated him on the effort, but often added “What are you going to do with it?”

Fr. Bernie admits that for a while, the question bothered him. “I had been brought up under the SCJ liberal arts mantra: new knowledge is self-justifying,” he said. “Just knowing more about anything is reason enough to undertake the effort.”

Beginning with the simple desire of wanting to know more about sacred scripture, Fr. Bernie said that he soon found himself “drawn into a thoroughly American utilitarian educational premise: What use is it? What are you going to use it for?”

Fr. Bernie teaching the deacons class

So, he decided that he would see if he could find a specific use for the degree. Fr. Bernie’s first thought was to contact local pastors to inform them that he was an available resource for evening bible classes. “Local” for him is the area in and around Chamberlain, SD; he lives with the SCJ community at St. Joseph’s Indian School. But after being reminded that ranchers and farmers in rural South Dakota worked from sun up to sun down he came to the realization that their free time was at a premium and most likely they wouldn’t spend it in an evening bible class.

Still mulling over the idea of finding some use for the degree, Fr. Bernie had a conversation with a local permanent deacon while the two of them traveled to a diocesan function. Fr. Bernie asked the deacon about his training and was told that much of his coursework was introductory and that he sometimes felt that he lacked the appropriate background to prepare his homilies on the Sunday scriptures.

A light bulb went on and Fr. Bernie asked the deacon if he thought that he and other deacons might be interested in scripture study somewhere other than the diocesan center (which was a 150+ mile one-way drive for most of the deacons). He quickly said “yes,” as did several other deacons in the area.

Fr. Bernie sent his curriculum vitae to the local bishop and told him about his plan. The bishop sent a letter indicating his appreciation. The courses would fulfill the continuing education requirements for deacons in the diocese of Sioux Falls.

He held the first in a series of two-hour monthly courses for permanent deacons in the Chamberlain area in September, 2016. The focus was the Gospel of Mark, which was featured in that year’s liturgical cycle.

Participants included a deacon and a deacon-candidate from Chamberlain, a deacon from Ft. Thompson and one from Platte, more than 70 miles away. The course ran through May, 2017. The next series, from September 2017 – May 2019, covered ancient Israel: its history, its worship, its government, its culture, the various influences in the composition of its scriptures, the temple and temple worship, coinage and weight-measurement systems and the social life, taboos and expectations of Israelite people.

“I felt that a two-year general course might suffice as a timely substitute for detailed study of each of the books of the Old Testament,” said Fr. Bernie. “It would help when a deacon preached on the first readings of the various Sunday cycles.” Since September 2019, the focus has been on the Gospel of John.

Deacon attendance has varied over the years; currently there are four deacons, three from the local area and one from the Sisseton Reservation (295 miles away).

At the start it was understood that all of the deacons might have commitments that would affect class attendance. Funerals, COVID issues, and “day jobs” sometimes got in the way (the deacons currently include a pharmacist, an electrical contractor, the director of a diocesan office and a full-time member of the SCJ pastoral team that serves the Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations). Audio files of each class are placed in a Dropbox for the deacons if they miss a class, or simply to review. There are no exams; Fr. Bernie selectively recommends books as supplemental texts to the courses.

Fr. Bernie has found the deacons to be eager and interested students. Several shared comments about their experience:

Dns. Jim Bregel, Mo Barrett and Steve McLaughlin get ready for their next session.

“My name is Dn. Jim Bregel, and I was ordained to the permanent diaconate on May 28, 2015.  For the previous four-plus years I engaged in intensive classroom and on-line learning sessions to become a permanent deacon.  I knew that I lacked a lot in the scriptural side of things so when Fr. Bernie presented the opportunity for some in-person learning focused on sacred scripture, I jumped at the chance.  Fr. Bernie is very thorough in his teaching techniques, but in a relaxed atmosphere.  During our first class he presented us with a questionnaire to ascertain some of the courses we had in formation, especially related to sacred scripture. I consider myself truly blessed to have this quality educational opportunity presented to me only minutes from my home.  My sincere thanks to Fr. Bernie for all the time and effort he puts in to prepare for and deliver our classes.”

Dn. Mo Barrett wrote that “Fr. Bernie’s class provides the means to cultivate and include influences from ancient Israel and perspectives from 1st century Palestine within the homily that enhance the context of the original scriptural narrative.”

Dn. Chet Cordell added that “I am really honored to be a part of this class. I live the farthest away, so there are classes that I miss due to distance, weather, and additionally this year, the COVID-19 pandemic. The audio files for each class that Fr. Bernie records allow me the opportunity to stay connected with the rest of the class and the materials being presented.

“In addition to helping my fellow deacons and myself to bring the study of scripture alive for ourselves and for the parishioners, Fr. Bernie has such a sense of inclusion for the role of the deacon and our ministry in the life of the Church in today’s world. Fr. Bernie embraces us as partners in the role of ordained clergy. We thank him for his kindness, his attention to our needs as deacons, and for the knowledge of holy scripture he so diligently prepares for us each month.”

In an era of Zoom and Skype, Fr. Bernie continues to hold the classes in-person at St. Joseph’s Indian School. The small class size allows the deacons to socially distance in around a large conference table.

“I’m glad that I could translate my liberal arts eagerness for scriptural learning into a benefit for others,” said Fr. Bernie.