Renewing Parish Life: The Story of EPS

These days more and more Catholic lay people, full of good will, are venturing gamely into ministries of all kinds without the preparation they need. Time and again it’s a case of the blind being asked to lead the blind.

Consider: After three decades of catechetical neglect—a massive systemic failure to teach the content of the faith—victims of this collapse teach CCD classes and mentor RCIA candidates. While polls show that as many as two-thirds of American Catholics do not believe in the real presence, women and men with little or no instruction in eucharistic theology bring the Blessed Sacrament to the house-bound. Couples whose views on sex and marriage have been shaped by a contraceptive, “no-fault” culture conduct classes for the engaged.

“Formation is not the privilege of a few, but a right and duty of all,” says the pope in Christifideles Laici (The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People). The 1989 document, a modern Magna Carta for lay apostolate and lay ministry, devotes a section to “The Formation of the Lay Faithful,” where the pope calls for a comprehensive network of institutions and programs for the “integrated formation” of Catholic laity in spirituality, doctrine, and human sciences.

John Paul’s vision is bracing. And the reality? Valiant efforts at lay formation are being made in some places—some schools, some dioceses and parishes, some lay groups. Elsewhere, little or nothing is happening. And still elsewhere, what’s going on is disturbing. Skim the ads for books, courses, and conferences in your average Catholic publication and it becomes abundantly clear that “progressives” work as hard as orthodox Catholics, and arguably harder, to sell their brand of formation. The need for high-quality lay formation programs faithful to the Magisterium and responsive to current needs has never been greater.

Back to Basics

It’s a warm, hazy late April Monday morning in Washington, D.C. The languor in the air hints at the miasmic mugginess that will blanket the nation’s capital in a few weeks. Standing behind the lectern in a Trinity College lecture hall—a cavernous room decorated with prints of classical Rome, Bible scenes, and travel posters—Sr. Joan Bland, S.N.D., is lecturing. Two months short of her 80th birthday and looking a good ten years younger, she speaks briskly and expertly about Americanism.

There are twenty-eight adults in the class this morning—six men, twenty-two women, more or less evenly divided between blacks and whites, with a sprinkling of Hispanics and Asians. They listen intently. Most take notes as Sr. Joan, who holds a doctorate from the Catholic University of America, parts tangled thickets of late 19th century ethnic conflict and ecclesiastical politics to illuminate a crucial episode in American Catholic history.

Americanism, she points out, was condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899. What was the argument about? The heart of it, Sr. Joan says, was “the adaptation of the Church to the secular culture”—what was acceptable, what was not, how far Catholics could go without betraying their tradition. “This Americanism thing is still being discussed,” she adds. Even now, some people say the Church has not adapted enough, while others hold “we’re more American than Catholic.”

The class ponders that. Finally, an African-American woman speaks up. Secular morals in the United States have declined sharply in recent years, she remarks, and “that’s why the Catholic Church has taken a stand on morality.” Heads nod, and a stocky African-American man, a retired D.C. police officer, can be heard deploring sotto voce the “Coca Cola-ization” of the world.

Welcome to EPS—Education Parish Service (or: Education for Parish Service, as the program used to be called and may still be better known). The aim, set out in the EPS mission statement, is this: “To prepare as many Catholics as possible to live out their baptismal commitment to evangelization.”

In the past twenty years, EPS has graduated 1900 students at ten sites—eight in the U.S. plus Rome and London—after training in theology, scripture, liturgy, and other church- related disciplines. Graduates work in such fields as religious education, liturgy, ministry to the aging and the terminally ill, social justice, family life, and prison ministry. If any Catholic program of continuing education for the laity has a record of proven success, this one does.

EPS is the brainchild of Sr. Joan Bland. In the late ’70s, as vice president of Trinity College, a women’s school in Northeast Washington administered by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, she became aware of the laity’s need, after Vatican II, for solid, sophisticated instruction in theology and scripture. She saw, too, that parishes needed well prepared volunteers.

With advice and support from pastors in the Washington archdiocese, grants from the De Rance and Raskob foundations, and lecturers recruited from local graduate faculties, Sr. Joan launched EPS in the fall of 1978. The first class had fifty-four students, all women. In the early years, EPS was treated as a special program of Trinity College. Now, according to EPS president Sr. Mary Ann Cook, S.N.D., the two see the relationship as “a voluntary affiliation between two independent entities.”

Having put down roots at Trinity, EPS began to grow. Programs began in the dioceses of Arlington, Virginia (1982) and Bridgeport, Connecticut (1983), followed by a night program serving both Washington and Arlington (1984). In 1985 EPS started reaching out to the international community in Rome at a site just off the Piazza Navona. Naples, Florida, was added to the list in 1994 and EPS recently got under way in Manhattan.

Besides these programs, funded and managed by the EPS Foundation from Washington, independent programs on the EPS model also have emerged with its blessing in Madison, Wisconsin; London; and this past fall in Fargo, North Dakota.

From 1981 on, Sr. Joan worked full time for EPS. In 1990, Sr. Mary Ann, who earlier had worked part- time with the program, returned to take over administrative responsibilities. She has degrees from Oxford University and Catholic University of America and taught English at Trinity, where she also served as academic dean/vice president from 1974 to 1978. Sr. Joan continued as president of the EPS Foundation until 1993, when Sr. Mary Ann assumed that post as well. Currently, both are active in EPS, with Sr. Mary Ann as CEO and Sr. Joan as foundress, institutional memory, instructor, and evangelist for the EPS gospel.

Although student data are sketchy (statistical information isn’t kept, for lack of staff), Sr. Mary Ann says that in general “our day programs attract more women than men. Evening programs draw a good balance of the two. Similarly, day pro¬grams attract people mainly in their fifties and sixties, while evening programs draw a good number of younger people still working outside the home.” The Washington day class in 1997 comprised thirty-one women and eight men, ranging in age from twenty-nine to seventy-one. The group had one M.D., two nurses, two Ph.Ds., twenty students with masters or bachelor’s degrees, and fourteen high school graduates. There were African Americans, native-born whites, Latinos, Filipinos, Africans, and a scattering of others.

“Our own graduates and students are our best recruiters,” says Sr. Mary Ann.

Quiet Service

A glitch in the alarm system results in an unscheduled fire drill. Chatting students congregate on a terrace outside. It’s a chance to ask some who they are and why they’re here.

Andre, in his late fifties or early sixties, says he puts in thirty-five hours a week doing volunteer work in his parish. He’s a eucharistic minister, a member of the parish council, and active in the Knights of Columbus. At Easter a few weeks back, the Knights provided 200 dinners to the poor. What will he do when he graduates? “Everything I’m doing now,” he says.

Walt, retired and around Andre’s age, enrolled in EPS because he saw the good it had done his wife and some of his fellow parishioners. He praises the scripture classes and a class in the documents of Vatican II. (“I was never much for bishops and the like, but I learned to appreciate how important they are in leading the Church.”) He won’t rush into anything after graduation but will look around to see where he’s needed. Youth work, perhaps: A grandfather, he doesn’t consider himself especially good with kids, but he knows it’s important.

The students saunter back inside. A visiting priest offers Mass in the lecture hall. (There is daily Mass for the day students and Mass a couple of times a semester for the evening classes. Students also have opportunities for retreats and days of recollection.) In his homily, the priest talks about another priest of his order who at sixty is starting his third thousand-village “parish” in India. A brown bag lunch in an adjoining lunchroom and kitchenette brings more conversations.

Barbara, retired as a welfare fraud investigator for the D.C. government, works in her inner city parish with a group called MOMS—Mothers on the Move Spiritually—that helps women and families in crisis situations. She also does prison ministry with young men. “We try to teach them about Christ,” she says, adding laconically of her clients, most of them jailed on drug charges: “They’re entrepreneurs. They were salesmen—so we try to teach them to sell legally.”

Eleanor, a former president of the archdiocesan Catholic women’s council, says she now works at a soup kitchen run by the Missionaries of Charity: “I slice the vegetables for the vegetable soup.” As an afterthought, she mentions that she also is trying to help an elderly woman, most of whose records are lost, document her eligibility for Social Security by proving that she used to work at a local hospital.

None of these stories is spectacular in the least, but that’s the point. On the basis of scattered returns, it looks as if people who come to EPS either already are spending their time doing good or else want to spend it that way. Apparently, they come here in the expectation that EPS will make them more productive. They could be right.

“The quality of the faculty is excellent, the best available,” Sr. Mary Ann says. Instructors have degrees from major American and European universities, including several ecclesiastical universities in Rome, and are experienced teachers. The curriculum consists of eight core courses in scripture and theology, together with forty-eight hours on pastoral applications and methods of evangelization and another forty-eight of “theological reflection,” which includes evenings of reflection, Mass, discussion, and retreats. Topics include parish and diocesan structures, liturgical principles, family issues, communication skills, catechetics, “evangelization in the work-place,” and social outreach programs and referral services. Optional internships are available. The “praxis component” of the curriculum is structured in two tracks: After consulting with their pastor, students concentrate at an advanced level on either catechetics or evangelization.

EPS does not charge tuition. That is considered important to producing a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body, especially in Washington, where many graduates work in inner city parishes. Each graduate costs the program about $3,300. The $675,000 annual budget comes mainly from voluntary contributions, mostly students’ and graduates’ and from grants. The American Association of Malta, as one example, recently gave $81,000 to introduce bioethics into the curriculum at all U.S. locations over the next several years. Volunteers have been replaced by salaried lay people.

EPS does not give examinations or grades. “We believe that testing and grading would be off-putting to many of the people who come to us, not because they lack intelligence, but because they have been out of touch with formal education for some years,” says Sr. Mary Ann. But she insists that EPS is “serious” continuing education, with a systematic curriculum, attendance requirements, and a carefully chosen faculty. Students receive CEUs—continuing education units—and certificates on completing the program, which normally takes a day student two years.

EPS graduates fill a variety of roles in their parishes and communities. They are directors of religious education, teachers in Catholic elementary and secondary schools, liturgy coordinators, and ministers to the elderly, among other apostolates. One graduate launched a bereavement ministry in her parish that has spread to other parishes and become interdenominational. Another is a volunteer interpreter at the National Institutes of Health, where she helps Spanish-speaking patients communicate with their doctors. A third has been associate Catholic chaplain at a secular university in Washington for sixteen years.

Work in parishes and Church ministries does not exhaust the role of the laity in the mission of the Church, according to the teaching of Vatican Council II and Pope John Paul II. That role extends, as Sr. Mary Ann points out, to “homes, civic communities, professional circles, social activities, and places of work.” Changes are being introduced into the EPS program in recognition of that, and there even is some discussion about whether EPS needs a name change, lest “parish” in the title suggest a too-exclusive emphasis on work in the institutional Church.

Of and for the World

After lunch, the students return to the lecture hall and arrange themselves around long tables for group discussion. This is an integral part of the program, used to monitor and reinforce their grasp of what is taught in formal lectures. Several questions have been designated for discussion today, among them: “Why must the Church take her agenda from the world?”

That touches off a lively discussion about things like inculturation and adaptation. A woman remarks, “If we were still ‘et cum spirituing’ with veils on our heads and communion rails … none of the changes of the last twenty-five years would have come about.” A man replies that he was in Korea the month before, and there women still wear veils in church. A cultural thing, the woman responds.

The students spend several minutes trying to sort out what is culturally conditioned and changeable in the practice of the Church from what is essential and not subject to change. A consensus starts to emerge: The question itself is not well stated. There is a lot of evil in the world, and the Church can’t uncritically draw her agenda from that source; but the world also is God’s creation, redeemed by Christ through an act of redemptive fidelity that his followers are called to share and replicate in their own lives. So, instead of asking why the Church must take her agenda from the world, the laity of EPS agree, it would make better sense to ask how the Church should choose her priorities in the world.

One woman sums it up this way: “Where are the problems, and how can we as the Church show our love?”


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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