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Date published: June 27, 2016
A few years ago, a Catholic friend showed John Ockels an advertisement for the Bible studies program that the University of Dallas had placed in the National Catholic Register. Despite many of the program’s attractive features, such as the online option, Ockels hesitated.
“I thought, ‘What could these Catholics really know about the Bible? That’s Protestant territory.’ That turned out to be my incorrect assumption!” Ockels said.
Ockels, unsatisfied by other theology schools, found himself deeply immersed in the Bible in the Neuhoff Institute for Ministry & Evangelization’s Catholic Biblical School.
“Lots of schools are good over a short run, but the Bible study program at UD has been able to maintain standards over the long haul,” Ockels said. “In any field, you can only accomplish this by having people who personally care. I’ve found the people involved here to be first-rate.”
Ockels found that the online program, taught by Gene Giuliano and Jim McGill, worked best for him.
“They are both first-rate, warm, and authentic, and have been immediately available for discussions,” Ockels said.
The first year of coursework involves a close study of the Torah--the first five books of the Bible--and the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. It was this section of the course in particular which Ockels recalls enjoying immensely.
“The notion was that this material was the core of the Jewish experience of God as they told their story,” Ockels said. “It had always made sense to me that it would be impossible to understand Jesus’ words without having a sound knowledge of the spiritual culture in which he was grounded. This is the same position the school takes too.”
The approach of the Catholic Biblical School is two-fold: reading primary and secondary materials, and then reflecting upon that material by often addressing the question: “What does this mean to you?”
“The questions that the instructors set for discussion forced serious reflection, and go well beyond a simple mastery of the data,” Ockels said. “That makes this sort of Bible study far more than an academic exercise.”
When asked about the assumption that Catholics may not know the Bible very well, Ockels acknowledged that there may be some truth to it. With Vatican II, however, new programs have emerged to counter this lack of Biblical knowledge among the faithful.
“My experience is that neither Catholics nor Protestants know the Bible particularly well,” Ockels said. “Maybe more Protestants know more specific texts – such as John 3:16 – but I don't think any group of faithful has masses who could pass a basic Bible knowledge test. Given Saint Jerome’s observation around 400 A.D. that ‘ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,’ our lack of study is impeding our own spiritual development. I really think it’s just that simple; and it’s that crucial of an issue too.”
After completing the first year of the program, Ockels was “absolutely amazed” at its quality.
“My experience as a student has literally been life changing, which is pretty strange considering that I’m well over seventy!” Ockels said. “The Holy Spirit is ever on the job, leading us to greater depths than we ever imagined were available.”
Just how life changing was it? The Catholic Biblical School played a part in Ockels’ path to Catholicism. Bible study, Ockels argues, does not only involve acquiring historical facts, but also teaches us a history of the relationship between God and men.
“This material touches us at our core,” Ockels said. “Scripture calls us to reflect as individuals on what the relationship between God and humans then-and-there means about our relationship with God here-and-now.”
This personal reflection led to more than just a greater knowledge of the Bible for Ockels. Ockels felt drawn to regular periods of retreat at a Trappist monastery as well as to regular spiritual direction. Ultimately, these elements led to Ockels’ decision to undergo the Rite of Christian Initiation, RCIA, at a local Catholic church.
“For the first time in my life – and I’m getting fairly old – I feel that I am ‘at home’ religiously,” Ockels said. “Central to this journey has been the call of Holy Scripture. The UD program has facilitated that call and my response.”
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