by Dr. Sean Innerst
Co-founder of the Augustine Institute
At the Augustine Institute we employ what we call “narrative catechesis,” which means we stress telling the story of salvation in its various aspects. So I thought I would tell you just a little about the narratio of the Institute.
The story begins with friendship: Curtis Martin, Tim Gray and I were classmates in the graduate program at Franciscan University from 1991 to 1993. We would frequently meet together for meals and discussion. And we belonged to an apologetics group that met at Scott Hahn’s house every few weeks to stage debates on various topics.
After graduating in 1993, Curtis returned to Catholics United for the Faith, where he had served as President during school. Tim and I both went to work for a little-known Bishop in Rapid City, South Dakota, named Charles Chaput. You may have heard of him.
I was the Director of Religious Education for the diocese and Tim became the DRE for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Thomas More, the two schools in the diocese. We arrived in the summer and our very first assignment was to accompany a large group of young people to World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. Curtis was also with us, having had the opportunity come to Rapid City to meet Bishop Chaput before heading south to Denver.
The young Bishop Chaput had been selected to do one of the catechesis for WYD and Tim and I gave talks to the group we accompanied at the Denver Coliseum. Memorably, we were in the Mile High Stadium when John Paul II arrived by helicopter, the thousands of young people shaking the stadium with their pounding feet. We were there when Pope John Paul celebrated Mass at Cherry Creek State Park later that week and stated, “Jesus has called each one of you to Denver for a purpose.” We had no idea at the time how true that statement would prove to be.
After World Youth Day, we each returned to our various apostolates, but with a renewed excitement. Tim worked in the Diocese of Rapid City for two years, then he left to do doctoral studies at CUA while teaching at Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. It was there that he first met Jonathan Reyes, a history professor and administrator at the college.
Bishop Chaput left Rapid City to become the Archbishop of Denver in 1997. Within a year, he and his then-Secretary of Education, Fr. Sam Aquila, asked me to help get a new seminary up and running in Denver. I responded to the call and moved my wife Cathy and our two children in July. Father Sam, as we called the man who would become Archbishop Aquila, and I worked to establish the foundation of the seminary, including a rationale for its existence. Based on discussions with the Archbishop and Father Sam, we proposed a seminary for priests and a Lay Institute. I suggested calling the seminary Sponsus Ecclesiae (Spouse of the Church) and the Lay Institute Sponsa Christi (the Bride of Christ) in honor of the spousal dimension of the priesthood that Pope John Paul II had used in Pastores Dabo Vobis, his 1992 document on priestly formation. It guided our work for developing a new kind of seminary. Archbishop Chaput, continued this theme in a published pastoral letter to celebrate the opening of the seminary. He used the matrimonial phrase from Ephesians 5, which was also his episcopal motto, As Christ Loved the Church. Though I thought my name was a good one, better minds than mine went with the more accessible St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. It opened in 1999. I was named the first Provost of the Seminary, working under Fr. Sam as its first Rector. Once the seminary was up and running, I left Denver to do doctoral studies at Duquesne. The idea of a Lay Institute was set aside.
Then, in 2002, Tim was brought to Denver by Archbishop Chaput to run the Denver Biblical School and teach Scripture in the seminary. When Tim arrived – being the mover and shaker that he is – he reignited the idea of an Institute for the Laity. In 2003 I returned to Denver to teach in the seminary and to start a new program for the Denver Catechetical School on the Catechism of the Church.
Tim and I began preparatory work on the Lay Institute. We had meetings with academics and community supporters. Tim made compelling presentations about the need and opportunities that a graduate program would present. The meetings were remarkably well attended, but progress for the Institute was slow.
Concurrent with all this, Professor Curtis Martin had founded FOCUS and wanted a place to train FOCUS missionaries and his staff. A Lay Institute seemed like the answer to that need, so he a significant encourager and supporter. Archbishop Chaput caught onto that need, giving him further leverage to help the Institute along.
So there we were – Archbishop Chaput, Tim, Curtis and I – working together in Denver, trying to advance the work of the New Evangelization in the very place John Paul had quickened our hearts a little over a decade before.
Dr. Jonathan Reyes then entered our narratio. J knew Tim and Curtis previously, and had been hired by Curtis to serve as Vice President of Formation at FOCUS. Curtis graciously offered J’s services to the new graduate program on a “part time” basis.
If you ask me, I’ll argue that the real birthday for AI is August 2 of 2004. That’s the day Dr. Jonathan Reyes, Dr. Tim Gray and I met in Room 117 at the JP II Center and fully envisioned the new Institute. We even discussed names. Once again I suggested Sponsa Christi, the name I first proposed to Archbishop Chaput back in 1998. Tim wanted to call it the Denver Leadership Institute. I wanted something that suggested age – oak and ivy. Tim wanted brushed aluminum and reflective glass – industrial chic. It was J who said the Institute should be named after its patron, St. Augustine.
I remember the hair standing up on my neck when he said it. Tim and I looked at each other. We knew immediately that that was it. Of course! Augustine, the figure in the early Church who taught the West its theology, the man who had stood astride two eras, one nearly dead and the other still just coming to birth, the one so wounded by the lure of classical paganism and oriental mysteries, the one who expounded on the use of the narratio to make pagans into children of God and sons of Holy Mother Church. Absolutely! The Institute would belong to Augustine.
By the time we locked in on the date for our first class, Tim was over-committed at the Biblical School and couldn’t be as involved as he wanted. So Jonathan and I, along with the help of Dr. Joe Burns and John La Barbara (our first COO), set to work organizing the curriculum, writing a catalogue, applying for approval with the Colorado State Board of Higher Ed, assembling a Board, arranging funding and finding a home for the Institute – all while working out of rented space at the Chancery Offices of the Archdiocese of Denver.
On August 15th, 2005, only a year after that formative meeting, we consecrated the Institute to Our Lady on her feast day, The Feast of the Assumption of Mary. It was a beautiful beginning, a beautiful birth surrounded by the mantle of Mary and under the patronage of St. Augustine. I remember at the convocation our rather short procession of the faculty – because there weren’t very many of us at the time. In front of Archbishop Chaput we recited the Oath of Fidelity and Profession of Faith because we wanted to make very clear to the church and the world at large that we were, as a faculty, going to be faithful to the church.
That first year was filled with the presence of God, the patronage of Augustine, and the energy of those first 15 students who were so excited to be at the inception of this wonderful work. Many of those students have gone on to do great things for the church. They were pioneers.
It’s remarkable to think of the growth and flowering of the Institute over the past ten years. More than just a degree-granting institution, it’s a worldwide effort that includes giving Catholics the tools they need to serve God and His church. There’s no way we could have dreamt this in the beginning. But there’s no doubt that God did.