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Mercy Leadership Program:

crossProgram to address Catholic identity, Mercy tradition

The Conference for Mercy Higher Education (CMHE), like the Association for Jesuit Colleges and Universities, also saw the need to develop a leadership formation program to ensure the Catholic identity and Mercy heritage on their 17 college campuses. As a sponsored institution of the Jesuits and Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, University of Detroit Mercy is a member of both educational networks.

Given its role as part of Catholic higher education in this country, CMHE recognized the need to look at the formation of leadership on campuses since more presidents, boards of trustees and other senior leaders come from the laity.

“If we want to hold onto the history, the heritage, and really the essence of our colleges, we needed to create a model to form our leaders,” said CMHE Executive Director Moya Dittmeier.

As part of its Strategic Plan, CMHE initiated a task force in 2010 to develop a leadership formation program within and among CMHE institutions “that enhances the community and mission with a similar world view and similar sense of energy to frame our efforts in higher education,” explained Helen Marie Burns, RSM, vice president for Mission Integration, Mount Aloysius College (Pa.), and developer of the program curriculum units on the Mercy charism.   

The program curriculum, “Understanding, Naming and Living a Catholic Identity in the 21st Century,” consists of five units of readings, film clips, artwork, presentations and discussions: two units focus on Catholic Identify, one unit on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and two units on the Mercy Tradition. Participants would attend regional meetings and engage in online presentations and discussions of the materials.

The curriculum was developed to provide a balanced approach to Catholic Identity and the Mercy Tradition. “Many of the people responsible for the life of the university have not had the opportunities like former generations in training of the faith, the traditions of the Church, and the knowledge of the life and history of the founding community because previous leaders were members of the religious community. So some basic knowledge was necessary,” said Graziano Marcheschi, executive director for University Ministry, Saint Xavier University (Il.), and creator of the program curriculum design. “We tried to design a curriculum that would provide enough information so that it wouldn’t be overwhelming, but would fuel people’s religious imaginations.”

The foundation in Catholic Identity and Catholic Intellectual Tradition was important given the philosophy of the Mercy congregation. “We did not enter education with a pedagogy or sense that it was the primary activity of the congregation,” stated Sr. Helen Marie. “The congregation’s presence in the world is about the works of Mercy, one of which is instructing the ignorant. This creates a slightly different emphasis than other congregations such as the Jesuits or Religious of the Sacred Heart, who had a much more developed pedagogy from the beginning. We have understood our work embodied in the Church, which we serve by serving those who may not have access to education. For us, the Catholic Church is very important, as well as the Mercy tradition, and it is the larger reality that frames our own.”

A pilot program was held in June 2012, and the content was well received. A task force is currently structuring the implementation process for the program, while a group of educators is reviewing different delivery methodology. The program is expected to begin in 2014 with the goal to have college presidents, senior leaders and key board leaders from Mercy colleges and universities participate in the program over a three-year time period.

“We are trying to roll out the basic content and get that foundational beginning point secured. Then we will look for ways to deepen and expand the program,” said Sr. Helen Marie. The CMHE Presidents Council and Board were scheduled to review the task force implementation recommendations in late September.

Program planners hope that the program will stimulate questions among the participants and create a more intentional culture that purposefully reflects its Catholic and Mercy perspective at the decision-making levels. Added Dittmeier, “This culture has to be diffused throughout the campus. It has to become a more vibrant culture that will represent the Catholic and Mercy outreach of our campuses.”

“Our university leaders would understand that their Catholic and Mercy world view would flow through our academic enterprise, and is as important to our vitality and humanity as the knowledge that is being exchanged,” said Sr. Helen Marie.