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Catholic Life Education Features

New diocesan Formation Center opens for business


Last February, when the Diocese of Buffalo announced that Christ the King Seminary would be closing, some might have thought that the diaconate and lay ministry programs taught at the East Aurora institution would leave as well. That is not the case. Working with St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, the Diocese of Buffalo will continue educating the faithful through a satellite classroom located at the Catholic Center in downtown Buffalo.

Deacon Timothy Chriswell, director of the Permanent Diaconate program, is the point person for anyone wanting to earn a ministerial degree. The students will register through St. Bernard’s, but take all their classes in Buffalo via Zoom either at home or in the newly designed downtown Formation Center at 795 Main St. In person, teacher-led courses will be available soon.

“Lay people can come together and take classes,” Deacon Chriswell explained. “It’s not like when people say, oh, it’s online, where you just sit in your own house. Once we move beyond Covid, you’ll be able to come together in settings that guys and women can do classes together and be in the same room together. St. Bernard’s is going to hire local adjunct faculty to work here, so it’s in person. It’s not all just going to be via Zoom. There will be a lot of in-person teaching, which is exciting.”

All learning will take place locally. Only when students come to finalize their degree, will they need to visit the St. Bernard campus.

Already tables and widescreen monitors are set up in the Formation Center. A collection of 8,000 books from Christ the King will become part of a library that can be used by anyone doing studies for the diaconate or lay formation.

The enthusiasm in Deacon Chriswell’s voice becomes clear when he talks about the new classroom set up.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to continue studies as a diocese, because we still have to educate our people and form our people for the future,” he said. “A lot of people think that we’re not teaching. We’re not forming. We’re not doing formation anymore. But we are for the diaconate, for lay formation, for priestly studies. It’s just as alive as it was before. It’s just going to look different.”

The center has already been used during formation weekends in September and November. These weekends take place six times a year with two classes – homiletics and liturgical practicum – and presentations on a variety of subjects, such as cultural diversity and service as a deacon. They also present an opportunity to meet already ordained deacons and their wives to talk about ministry. The wives of those in formation have an opportunity to go out into ministry by experiencing charitable organization they might wish to volunteer, such as Ladies of Charity, St. Gianna Molla Pregnancy Outreach Center and the Mother Teresa Home.

“So, they get an idea of what ministry is like and an opportunity that maybe they want to serve themselves, to find their own ministry,” explained Deacon Chriswell.

The staff recently doubled with the hiring of Ryleigh Myers as administrative assistant. She follows up on new enquirers, helping them with the application process.

“Deacon Tim has a lot of hats to wear and a lot of balls to juggle at the same time. It’s like a tower of hats and 50 balls and chainsaws,” Myers said. “I’m here to fill in where he needs. If it’s following up with deacons via email or phone calls for paperwork they’re missing. If it’s organizing the file system. If it’s helping to set up the room. If it’s writing down information or making a brochure. Whatever it may be.”

The new Formation Center hopes to carry on some of the same traditions as Christ the King Seminary, such as a dinner lecture series and certificate programs. Already Deacon Don Weigel is scheduled to speak on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Fratelli Tutti (Our Brothers)” this spring.

For lay people, St. Bernard’s offers a master of arts in pastoral studies, a master of arts in theological studies, and certificate classes for enriching one’s religious education. The Buffalo Diocese hopes to add those classes to its programing in the future.

“Some people don’t need to get a master’s degree, but they do need to get some formal education to do Catholic education, catechesis and all that,” explained Deacon Chriswell. “That’s something else we’re going to be working on. So, we’re really excited about that, because we really do need spiritual directors for our lay faithful and our clergy.”

St. Bernard’s, founded in 1893 as a seminary, restructured into an institute for theological and ministerial studies opening its doors to laity by offering graduate degrees in theology pastoral studies, divinity, and Catholic philosophy in 1981. It has been utilizing a satellite location in Albany since 1989.

Christ the King Seminary is still hosting transitional deacons for their final year of study.

For more information about the Diaconate or graduate programs, call 716-847-5566 or email tchriswell@buffalodiocese.org.

Gregory Zini listens as deacon candidate James Cantella speaks about the deacon’s role in parish ministry. Thirty-five men and their wives gathered for the Nov. 6-8 Formation Weekend at the newly opened diocesan Formation Center. Photo by Patrick J. Buechi