Seminary programs hone laity’s faith, ministry skills

By Beth Donze

Yvette Fouchi remembers sitting in the chapel at Notre Dame Seminary and feeling “terrified” she had bitten off more than she could chew.

At the encouragement of her daughter and a priest friend, she had enrolled in the seminary’s graduate-level program designed to help the laity explore and deepen their faith while developing their practical skills as leaders in ministry.

It had been three decades since Fouchi had graduated from college, and she was having a serious case of cold feet.

Faculty calmed her fears

“Looking over the material I was expected to read, the research needed to complete my writing assignments and the high caliber of both faculty and the other students, I felt that I was never going to measure up,” said Fouchi, a medical technologist and active parishioner of St. Edward the Confessor Church in Metairie.

“I hadn’t yet realized how very available the faculty was and how much they sincerely wanted to help their students learn,” said Fouchi, who would go on to graduate summa cum laude in 2017 with a Master of Arts in Pastoral Leadership (MAPL) from the seminary.

Since then, Fouchi says her studies have enriched the many ministries she assists at St. Edward, including respect life, social justice, prayer and elder advocacy efforts, as well as archdiocesan-level endeavors such as being a prison ministry mentor, sidewalk counseling trainer and mission supporter.

“I wanted to inform my ministry work with a stronger foundation in my faith, as well as receive formation in pastoral leadership,” Fouchi said “Not only were those hopes realized, but I have fallen deeper in love with my church!”

All coursework is examined through the lens of four pillars of formation: intellectual, spiritual, human and pastoral – the same template used to form seminarians for the priesthood. The program’s comprehensive examination of the church’s pro-life teachings, for example, animated a “Sanctity of Life” series Fouchi mounted at her parish on six different respect-life issues.

“Because of the formation I received at Notre Dame Seminary, I took special care to provide more than just information. I also attempted to enrich each night’s presentation with spiritual, pastoral and human elements,” she said.

Fouchi, a member of the archdiocese’s Anti-Human Trafficking Committee, said her in-depth study of St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” writings helped her retool a retreat for 12- to 17-year-old women who had been sex-trafficked and were now living in a local safe house.

“When I submitted my retreat ideas and experience as my capstone project (a theological reflection and presentation based on one’s ministry context) to my professor, Dr. Tom Neal, he evaluated every theological, pastoral, human and spiritual detail and continued to support and encourage me in my ministry as well as challenge me to utilize all that I had learned through the program at the seminary,” Fouchi said. 

“The result has become a more robust and solid version of the retreat that has been fruitful in helping to remind the young ladies of their God-given dignity and help them reclaim it and celebrate it.”

A path for every need

Notre Dame Seminary offers three main graduate-level tracks for the laity, with much of the coursework conveniently offered on Saturdays and weeknights:

  • The Institute for Lay Ecclesial Ministry (ILEM) is a 23-credit-hour program that combines theological studies with human, spiritual and pastoral formation. It culminates in a commissioning by the archbishop as a lay ecclesial minister. ILEM courses can be taken at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • The Master of Arts in Pastoral Leadership (MAPL) is a 42-credit hour master’s degree program designed specifically for those interested in or already working in a ministry setting. It offers theology coursework along with pastoral formation and builds on the ILEM program.
  • The free-standing, 45-credit-hour Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) track focuses exclusively on academic theology and is designed for those who are interested in pursuing an advanced degree or teaching theology at the high school, college, university or seminary.

Work as ministry, not a ‘job’

Judy Zeringue, a 2018 MAPL graduate, said her studies have enriched her daily interactions as a pre-op nurse and palliative care team member at Children’s Hospital as she provides the gifts of presence and understanding to anxious patients and their families.

“My deep faith is an integral part of my life. It enhances my passion for nursing. I can now perform that role with greater purpose and understanding,” Zeringue said. “It is very humbling indeed to reach out to others. It is a joy to see my nursing and ministry work so well together, all in God’s plan.”

Zeringue, who serves her home parish of St. Benilde in Metairie as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, lector, altar society member, eucharistic adorer and monthly block rosary participant, recently joined St. Benilde’s pastoral care team, which will have her working in close collaboration with the pastor, parish staff and ministry coordinators.

“A focus will include pastoral care to the sick and homebound and developing a holistic approach to the ministry of hospitality within the parish family and those who may visit,” Zeringue said. “As a woman of great faith, I trust that God will show me the way to best serve in all aspects of my life. I have clearly learned that you cannot give what you do not have within. Thus, staying true to prayer will help maintain the balance which is needed.”

Theology, prayer and service came together as Zeringue focused an MAPL project on faith formation. She facilitated a study of “Mary: A Biblical Walk with the Blessed Mother” at St. Benilde.

“This experience nurtured my love for the Blessed Mother and her intercession for us to the Sacred Heart of Jesus,” Zeringue said, noting that sharing her graduate school experiences with her fellow parishioners has nourished her own faith and friendships. As a student at Notre Dame Seminary, Zeringue began a habit of praying before a statue of the Blessed Mother before class.

“This always helped to keep me focused, especially before a test,” Zeringue said. “Studying at Notre Dame Seminary was like being on holy ground. … The atmosphere is so warm and welcoming. The chapel is absolutely beautiful. To participate in Mass with the seminary community is a special blessing to cherish.”

Growing in faith together

Permanent deacons also can benefit from the lay ministry formation program, which features courses on pastoral studies, Scripture, the liturgy and the theology of the sacraments, morality and church history – the latter reinforcing the humbling idea that each person has his or her special role to play within the larger picture of salvation history.

Deacon Ronald Drez Jr., a permanent deacon at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in New Orleans and a 2018 graduate of the seminary’s MAPL program, said the education he received has helped him answer questions, especially ones posed by those who are facing “times of uncertainty, be it struggles in a relationship or end-of-life decisions.”

“In my diaconal ministry it’s one thing to hold someone’s hand and pray with them while they are nearing death, but quite often they want to be comforted with answers to their spiritual or theological questions,” Deacon Drez said. “While we may not always have the answers they seek, being prepared for such an occasion is all part of serving our brothers and sisters in the Lord.”

Deacon Drez said the osmosis effect of clergymen studying alongside lay persons in a classroom setting was invaluable – he was able to bring pastoral insight to his fellow students’ experiences in their various lay ministries, while lay students felt comfortable sharing real-life, daily issues that may not be readily apparent to the clergy.

“It is an opportunity for each of us to grow,” Deacon Drez said. “The entire classroom experience in the MAPL program is a relationship that witnesses to Christ – the relationship between instructor and student, between scholastic material and real-life issues, between lay person  and clergy – all of which is designed to better serve God’s people through Jesus Christ.”

Deacon Drez, who had already completed the compulsory five years of weekly formation in the lead-up to his 2015 ordination, said he is a firm believer in continuing education and any opportunity to become more theologically grounded in his Catholic faith.

“The studying, the research and the writing were all prayerful experiences that drew me closer to Christ,” Deacon Drez said. “As we journey through life and seek to do his will, we are continually being formed by the church and the Lord. For my brother clergy, this is an excellent opportunity to continue one’s education, to be further molded in the “potter’s hand,” to experience in the classroom setting the teachings of the Church coupled with the experiences of ministry and to become greater heralds of the Gospel of Christ, which we were all ordained to be.”

Registration for spring 2019 is in early November. An annual open house is held the last week of January. For more information, call 866-7426, ext. 742; email; or visit

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