During the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, Dr. Mark Therrien joined the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary faculty as an assistant professor in the department of dogmatic theology. He specializes in early history of Christianity and Church Fathers. In the following Q&A, Dr. Therrien shares more about his background, his style of teaching in the classroom, and areas of interest. Teaching at the seminary during a pandemic is a unique experience, and Dr. Therrien touches on how these circumstances will strengthen the students for the better, as they grow through challenges and struggles. Please continue to pray for Dr. Therrien and all of our faculty and students.
What will you be teaching at Mundelein Seminary?
In the fall, I am teaching “Spiritual Theology” (first-year theology students) and “Documents of Vatican II” (second-year pre-theology students). In the spring, I am teaching “New Testament” (second-year pre-theology) and “Church and Religion” (first-year pre-theology).
What are you looking forward to about teaching at Mundelein Seminary?
I am looking forward to the teaching itself as an opportunity to continue my own learning. Saint Francis de Sales says there are three ways of learning: reading, listening and teaching. He also points out that the first one is a good way to learn, second one—listening—the better way, and the third—teaching—the best. Some of the courses I am teaching are not my primary areas of study. On the one hand, teaching them is a bit more work than just regurgitating things that I know. But it also presents an opportunity for me to learn by teaching. This year I hope to try and pass down to the seminarians some ways to get deeper into the Biblical text and come to love it more and be more proficient themselves in sharing it with others in the parish and beyond.
Where did you grow up and how would you describe your faith journey?
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina called Rocky Mount. My faith journey is very much wrapped up in an academic journey and an intellectual journey of reading the sources of the tradition, of meditating upon the things that we study in theology—God, Christ, the Church, the Theotokos—Mary the Mother of God.
Father John Kartje, when he was giving an overview with the seminarians about formation, really emphasized to them how spiritual formation and intellectual formation is intertwined. And this has been my own experience as a Christian. It has also been a serious concern for me in how I taught undergrads previously. The things you meditate on in theology are not just abstract ideas, but are supposed to be lived in an active way. That is 1 John in a nutshell.
I was involved in parish work when I was young. There was a priest at my parish who is a holy man. He was a former episcopal priest, and he was a married priest. He was very well educated and a true renaissance man. He had received degrees from Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Princeton, and Yale—in all kinds of areas—and he would give me things to read. He recognized when I was young that I had some kind of intellectual acumen. Then when I went to a secular university, UNC Chapel Hill, I studied the Classics, Greek and Latin, and did not pursue theology directly, but I read theology and the Church Fathers on the side. After UNC, I went to seminary for two years at the Catholic University of America in D.C. and I eventually left to go to Notre Dame and pursue a masters in Early Christianity, studying the Fathers and the Medievals. Then I ended up staying for a doctorate.
How did you pick your specialty when studying for your doctorate?
My specialty was Church Fathers, as I always had an interest in patristics. I ended up working on Origen of Alexandria. I decided to write on Origen because he was a seminal figure in theology, but he is commonly misread and misinterpreted.
I came to read a lot of Origen’s works, which were very formational for my own way of thinking about scripture. Through that work, I came to realize in a new way the primacy of scripture in doing theology. He is probably one of the most scriptural theologians the Church has ever known, except perhaps for Augustine.
What I found in reading Origen was that he reads the Bible as theology. Interpreting the Biblical text was his way of doing theology and inquiring into who and what God is to us. And that was very attractive to me. This skill that has to be recovered, and that is part of what I hope to continue learning how to do this year and in future years.
Prior to teaching at Mundelein Seminary what were you doing?
I was splitting my time between teaching freshman at the University of Notre Dame and working at the University of Notre Dame’s Academic Press.
What was your experience like teaching at Notre Dame?
It was wonderful. The freshmen I was teaching were eager to learn and enthusiastic. They bring to the classroom some deep questions. You get to be a resource for them and doing it from the heart of the Church. It presents itself a very rare opportunity that I very much enjoyed. The task of theology is to seek understanding of faith, not just to have better ideas or to have a letter grade, but to grow in a relationship with God. That is very much the way that the fathers do theology—it is never just about ideas in the air; it is about the question: how do I live as a human being vis-à-vis the God who made me?
What did you find challenging in teaching your students? How did you overcome it?
One of the challenges I saw in the classroom was that some of the Catholic students that came to theology think that they may already have a mastery over the Catholic tradition because they have gone to Sunday school, a Catholic high school, or learned catechism in some form. This sense can almost inoculate them against learning theology in the classroom in a more rigorous way.
I am not sure if I overcame this with a perfect solution, but my own method is to show my excitement about the material, as well as my commitment to the material. Students know very quickly if you believe in this stuff or if you don’t. If you’re not excited about what you are doing, it is hard to get them excited. And I tried to show them that there is a reason to be excited about theology and meditating about God, about all He has done for us, about all things as they relate to God, and about why all of this can have an impact on our lives. This seemed to work. And for the rest, God provides as he wills.
How will you bring these experiences into your teaching at Mundelein?
It will be very different. The spiritual life and intellectual life is a dynamic process. Origen, in one of his works, talks about three steps in the spiritual life:
- We are growing toward God.
- We are at a kind of apathy where we are not growing or declining.
- We are declining, which is falling into sin.
And Origen says it is worse to be at that middle step, which is really shocking to hear. That middle step is about apathy—of not growing and not declining. When you are growing, you are growing in knowledge of God. If you fall, there is the recognition of sin, which makes you cry out in mercy and humility by recognizing your brokenness as a creature, which therefore puts you back on the ascent. But if you are in that middle part of apathy and stasis, it is very dangerous because you actually do not see a need for God anymore. All of us are on this path where we are either reaching out to God, falling away from Him or we can get stuck on that middle plane of coasting.
One of the dangers of being in the seminary environment is that you are on a campus for four or more years doing the same things day in and day out. The danger of routine is very real. The danger of just getting into a pattern is very real. I know this from my own experience. On the one hand, people come in all excited, and on the other hand, it is easy to start taking things for granted as background noise instead considering it as new ways to encounter the Lord Jesus—always finding ways to reclaim the “now” for Jesus Christ.
How did you first connect with Mundelein Seminary?
I knew a little bit about Mundelein, and I looked at the job posting and thought that this seemed like a place that makes sense because I consider myself to be a man of the Church. As a theologian, I try to take seriously tradition and scripture as sources of Divine Revelation. I try to do theological thinking within those bounds, because I think ultimately theology is about seeking deepest truths—and deepest truths are defined by certain limits. The limits are precisely what free you to really seek the truth, because if you are just making stuff up, you are just running dead ends. If you are seeking within the bounds of the faith, then you can actually explore things in a true sense. And Mundelein functions on this path and vision that I find very attractive.
Do you have a favorite devotion?
I am an Eastern Catholic, and my wife is Orthodox. And one significance from that is that we share the same Rite, the same Liturgical tradition. It is basically the tradition of the great Church of Constantinople. I don’t think I have a favorite devotion per se. I think my spirituality is much more informed by the liturgy itself. One example is our meal blessing prayers, which is contained in our Book of the Hours (what Roman Catholics call the Liturgy of the Hours). There is a sense that even those meal blessing prayers are an extension of the liturgy. In addition, recently I have been trying to keep focused on psalms and reading scriptures much more intentionally and regularly. As Origen says, we should attend all else to the holy Scriptures (because in those words of God we really do encounter the Word himself).
During the pandemic, what have you found yourself most often praying about?
The biggest thing that my wife and I have been meditating on and praying about is that we have our first baby on the way this October 13. We are praying for a safe delivery.
In terms of the formation, this year is going to be different. Things are not going to be normal. The example of Saint Pope John Paul II sticks out in my mind, who of course spent most of his seminary days laboring in mines. He was doing his studies by night as his fellow manual laborers watched out for him. That was his seminary formation. The seminary formation these men will receive is not going to be normal in any sense, but that does not mean by any means that it is going to be lesser. We grow through challenges, struggles, and toil. If anything, the experience of going through this will strengthen them (if accepted with grace and embraced through the logic of the cross). If they can figure out ways of sharing the Gospel with people during a pandemic, when things are not normal, then they can share the Gospel in regular circumstances all the better. As in all things, even now in the current circumstances, God continues his work of bringing his creation back to himself.