This May, a group of about 10 parishioners from all walks of life, who for the last four years have come together every week to delve deeply into Scripture, will walk out of the sanctuary of St. Vincent Pallotti Church in Haddon Township together for the last time.
The group includes professionals, stay-at-home moms, teachers, secretaries, executives and retired people. For 12 semesters they gathered around the same table and studied every book of the Bible.
They shared aspects of their faith that were both inspiring and troubling. They learned about one another’s lives, prayed for and supported one another, and were inspired by their teacher, Ed Beckett.
“The classes have been a great vehicle for Catholics to live their faith more deeply and participate more fully in the life of the church,” Beckett said. He’s taught classes within the Institute for a collective 10 years.
The class is one of four left in the Camden Biblical Institute, an initiative of what used to be the Diocesan Office of Adult Faith Formation that has spanned 17 years and hundreds of students.
At one time, there were as many as 12 such classes operating simultaneously across the diocese. Three years ago the Camden Diocese stopped opening new classes because of a decline in registrations. When the last classes graduate this year, the Institute will be no more, replaced by parish, rather than diocesan-based, Scripture sharing groups and other initiatives through what is now the Office of Lifelong Faith Formation.
“It’s been great to be able to join people outside my parish community from the Diocese of Camden who I never would have had a chance to meet otherwise,” said student Carl Zweigle. “It fuses us together as a larger community.”
“It’s been a gift to people who experienced parish mergers and the changes because of them. It helped them deepen their faith at a time they felt their faith was challenged,” Beckett said.
Started in 1998, the Camden Biblical Institute was designed like a college-level Scripture study course and required hours of homework and reading per week. Paid, qualified teachers led the part lecture, part discussion-based classes.
Each year of the course was made up of three 10-week long semesters and students could choose between a two-year basic and a four-year advanced course. At the end, students received a certificate from the diocese.
“It required considerable dedication to do the course,” said Dr. Francis Blee, who coordinated the Institute from 2000 to 2010 as director of Evangelization and Adult Faith Formation for the diocese. “It was unique because it allowed Catholics from the parishes with or without any degrees or college education to really do an in-depth study of the Bible.”
“Someone who had completed the Biblical Institute would then be in a position to introduce Bible study to their parish. They were fully qualified to be leaders in their parishes of adult faith formation,” he said.
Martha A. Scutte, coordinator of the Institute since 2010 through the Diocesan Office of Lifelong Faith Formation and a graduate of the course, estimates that most of the 55 faith-sharing groups and Bible study groups currently operating throughout diocesan parishes were started by graduates of the Institute.
“We studied Scripture but we also studied the Catholic faith. It taught us so much about our faith and where it comes from. We can discuss Scripture intelligently with others; we can evangelize,” she said of her own class experience. “There was a real hunger for the Scripture and for this kind of in-depth study in the parishes. I am saddened to see it end.”
The Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the importance of Scripture for the laity opened the door to initiatives like the Camden Biblical Institute that help Catholics read, pray and understand the Bible.
Father Matthew Weber, pastor of the Church of St. Bridget in Glassboro, taught the course for approximately 10 years. He echoed multiple former teachers who said the course was as enriching for them as it was for their students.
“We would look at Scripture both from a spiritual sense and in terms of its theological content — the audience it was being addressed to and how it was applied over time to church teaching,” Father Weber said. “It made me think about how I apply Scripture to my preaching. It gave me a whole new outlook on the Scripture through the eyes of the students to the issues of today.”
Students and teachers alike spoke about the community aspect of the classes and the spiritual support network formed after years of class together.
“This class has been a glorious time for me to renew my faith and refresh my soul. Our instructor, Joe Sosnowsky, and my classmates contributed greatly to my experience,” said Barbara Stenger, a current student with a class held in Ocean City. “They inspired me, they challenged me, and I was transformed as we prayerfully engaged in the living Word of God.”