Br. Donatus Vervoort
ST. ALBERT — People with a clear understanding of the Church's past have a clearer view of God's presence today and greater hope for the future.
Brother Donatus Vervoort emphasizes that there is a lot more to history than names, dates and facts. Looking beyond the learned facts that can be found in any history textbook, he wants students at an upcoming summer institute to have a far deeper insight pertaining to historical events.
"Every time I teach a new group of students I tell them that I am not interested in archeology or in being an archivist," said Vervoort, a Brother of Our Lady of Lourdes and longtime professor at Newman Theological College.
"We are studying Church history to find out how God's message was reacted to in the past, to see how God's presence is apparent in today's world and to know what to expect for the future."
God in Human History, from the prophets to the fulfillment of the Good News, is the theme for the summer institute, sponsored by the Oblates' pastoral biblical theology project. The session, held at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, is July 4-8.
Vervoort will speak on Church history. The other lecturer is Oblate Father Leo Laberge, from St. Paul University in Ottawa. Laberge will teach one specific aspect of the Old Testament, the prophets.
Vervoort praises Oblate Father Ubald Duchesneau, who died Aug. 28, 2010, for his legacy. Known as Father Duck because of his duck-tailed hairstyle, he made his mark teaching Scripture in rural Alberta locales.
Another Oblate priest, Father Gilles Gauthier, has since taken over the pastoral biblical theology project.
The summer institute is appropriate for people working in catechetics, pastoral work, and on First Nations reservations.
Last time Vervoort taught such a course, the students were mesmerized with the subject matter.
"They must see some practical application, so it must fill a need in the kind of work they are doing, whether as catechists or schoolteachers," he said.
They will study such history as the Church's triumph over paganism (300-600), the making and unmaking of Christendom (600-1650), the Church in a state of siege (1650-1891) and the siege lifted (1891-2011).
"I have to cover at least 2,000 years in 15 hours. What I try to do is even set three hours aside for Canadian Church history because that is, as a rule, neglected," he said.
Some argue that both Church and biblical history are riddled with inconsistencies and discrepancies.
Where other people find contradictions, Vervoort finds misunderstandings. Having a grasp of the culture, circumstances and the social dynamics of the era, he can determine what really happened.
Two people can have different stories of the same event, and it does not undermine either story or mean one of them is wrong. Especially with Church history, nothing is definitive.
As an example, Vervoort recalled that the 1970s were a time of growing atheism among students at the University of Alberta. Students declared God was dead and Christianity was a relic of the past.
"Atheism was the popular thing. Some Christians responded by saying, 'God is not dead. God is lost in Brazil.'
"I don't know who dreamt this up, but it was a really good way of countering the God-is-dead theory," said Vervoort.
With people having different viewpoints, how would one define the Church and God's presence in the 1970s? Depending on whom one asks, the answer will be different, depending on their own personal experiences. In that regard, history always needs time for reevaluation.
"There are different views of history, different interpretations. Hopefully through this (summer institute), it will make people think a little bit more about how God is present, both then and now," said Vervoort.
He expects students will leave the five-day summer institute with a changed outlook on what a faith community is.