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A Roman Catholic graduate school of theology in Midtown St. Louis learned Friday it has been awarded a $1.7 million grant to embark upon a project intended to fundamentally change the way Catholics think.

Lilly Endowment Inc., a private foundation based in Indianapolis, awarded the grant to Aquinas Institute of Theology to launch a five-year initiative to raise awareness about the state of the Church today and call upon lay Catholics to recognize their role in sustaining the Church.

The initiative, known as the Apollos Project, will connect Aquinas Institute of Theology to 35 parishes in the metropolitan area. The parishes will serve as incubators for a model of ministry that has been loosely forming itself for decades but is not yet organized or widely identified – a model in which pastors and professionally trained laypeople form a team to meet the needs of Catholic parishes.

The needs are pressing. In the Diocese of Belleville, for example, 47 of 77 parishes have no resident pastor. Priests travel among parishes to celebrate Mass and often are not able to fulfill other priestly duties, such as visiting the sick or counseling families. Through the Apollos Project, Aquinas Institute plans to lessen pastors’ burdens by preparing laypeople to effectively meet needs in parishes in the Belleville diocese as well as parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, the diocese of Springfield, Ill., and the Missouri dioceses of Jefferson City and Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

The heart of the Apollos Project is 35 fellowships for laypeople chosen by their parishes as candidates for ministry. Twenty-five fellows will already have worked or volunteered in their parishes but will not have pursued formal studies in theology. Ten fellows will emerge through a more extensive process in which parishes assess their needs and identify among parishioners a candidate for graduate-level theological study and professional ministry.

The grant will allow Aquinas Institute to provide the fellows the academic and spiritual preparation they need to become effective parish leaders. During their studies, they will work part-time at their parish. When they graduate, they’ll become full-time employees.

Fr. Charles Bouchard, O.P., president of Aquinas Institute of Theology, said the grant is another example of how the school responds to changing circumstances in the Catholic Church.

“We are probably more entrepreneurial than most seminaries,” he said. “We were among the first schools to accept women religious. We were part of the first ecumenical consortium in the United States. We are the first and only Catholic school to offer a doctor of ministry degree in preaching and the first to offer a degree to prepare health care executives to sustain the Church’s health care ministry. Now, we’re leading an initiative to establish a new model of parish ministry.”

Even if the downward trend in priesthood candidates reversed, Bouchard said an essential role would still exist for well-educated lay professional Catholics.

“Catholics in the pews have become passive,” he said. “They are accustomed to having priests provided for them. This project should remind each of us that the Church belongs to every Catholic and needs leaders to emerge from among its ranks.”

Aquinas Institute is a graduate school of theology sponsored by the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans. It honors the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church while it encourages dialogue to keep the Church relevant in the 21st century. The school is a community in which priesthood candidates study with vowed religious brothers and sisters as well as lay people – parents, professionals, recent graduates and retirees – who seek leadership roles in the Catholic Church or a greater understanding of their Church and faith.

Lilly Endowment awarded Aquinas Institute the grant through its “Making Connections Initiative,” which sought proposals that offered ways to build relationships among church-affiliated organizations that would lead to better ministry. The Endowment provides more grant funds for religion initiatives than any other foundation in the United States.

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