Team eager to share love for Scripture; promo sessions planned
(SNR) - It was July 20, 2010, and the words still echo in his memory: “Dad, I don’t think I can remain a Protestant much longer.”
Dr. Vern Steiner and his son Chad had found a quiet corner in a local café for a late-evening conversation that would change their lives and interrupt their careers. At the time, they were teaching colleagues in a Biblical Studies institute which Vern had founded 15 years earlier.
Chad’s announcement that night did not come entirely as a surprise. The two had spent countless hours over many years discussing and debating matters of ecclesial unity and interpretive authority: What kind of a thing is the Church Christ founded, how many of these are there, and who is authorized to decide? Granting that Christ’s promise has not failed, that the Church he established in the world would never be overcome, then where can that Church be found intact throughout its existence, from the first century to the present, and what are the implications of not being fully united with it?
During his studies at home and abroad, Chad had contemplated the various biblical, theological, and historical aspects of these and related questions. Nearly a decade of wrestling had led him to the conclusion that solutions could be found in only one place, and that obedience required him to act on those convictions. The following spring, at the Easter Vigil 2011, Chad and his family were received into the Catholic Church at St. Peter Parish in Lincoln.
“I was not scandalized by these developments,” Vern recalled, “but I could see ominous clouds beginning to form on the horizon. I was fearful that Chad’s conversion could lead to the closure of the institute where we were teaching. Our largely Protestant constituency would not understand, funding might dry up, and the entire staff would soon be looking for new jobs.”
Two years later, in December 2013, the institute closed its doors. As Providence would have it, that closure afforded Vern the additional time for study and prayer and writing that ultimately led to an unexpected destination in his own life. At the Easter Vigil 2015, Vern and his wife Carol followed their son and his family into the Church at St. Peter Parish. That same night, their daughter Cari and her family, on their own faith journey, were confirmed at Twelve Apostles Parish in Platte City, Mo.
“At age 65, my love for the Catholic Church came much later in life than my love for Sacred Scripture,” Vern said.
Vern had enjoyed a long professional career of more than 40 years in the Evangelical Protestant world, all of it focused on biblical study and teaching–first as a pastor, then (after earning a Ph.D. in Exegetical/Biblical Theology) as a seminary professor, and finally as the founder and president of the institute mentioned earlier.
“What I discovered,” he related, “is that these two loves–love of Sacred Scripture and love of Catholic faith–go hand in hand. Today I do not love the Bible less or in spite of the fact that I am Catholic; I love it even more because I am Catholic! And I am Catholic because of my love for the Bible.”
In his journey toward the Catholic Church, Vern had resigned himself to the likelihood that his long teaching career was over, that he and Carol would find ways of serving the Lord quietly, joyfully, behind the scenes–perhaps in writing books and articles, but not in teaching classes.
“You can imagine my surprise,” Vern explains, “when, two months after our Confirmation, I received a telephone call from Bishop Conley, inquiring whether I might be willing to begin a conversation that could one day lead to the founding of an institute in Biblical Studies–this one especially for Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln.”
Four years later, after much prayer and behind-the-scenes planning, the fruits of that conversation are soon to materialize. Taking its name from the famous story of Jesus’ exchange with two unsuspecting disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49), The Emmaus Institute for Biblical Studies is set to launch this fall. Like Jesus on the Emmaus Road, its mission will focus on coming alongside God’s people, explaining to them how the whole scriptural plot line, from Creation to New Creation, from Genesis to Revelation, tells the story of Jesus. And like the two disciples with whom Jesus conversed that first Easter, “we pray that all of our hearts, ignited by the Word, ‘will burn within us’, and that our eyes will be more opened to see him ‘in the breaking of the bread’ (vv. 31, 32, 35). In that great story, Scripture and Sacrament are bound together, and so must they always be.”
Under the oversight of a board of directors, the Institute will begin with a staff of four. Father and son Vern and Chad will be teaching colleagues once again. They will be joined by Lincoln native and lifelong Catholic Joshua Burks, currently the FOCUS team director at South Dakota State University. Seth Odgaard will complete the staff as administrative associate.
“The need for such an institute,” Vern explained, “derives from the chasm that sometimes exists between the Church’s unwavering testimony to the supremacy and centrality of Sacred Scripture and the fact that many Catholics do not experience the transforming reality of that conviction in their daily lives. This is an admission I have heard expressed and lamented countless times since entering the Church, by clergy and laity alike.
“My sense as a young Catholic,” he noted, “is that many of my Catholic brothers and sisters, for whatever reason, have not experienced the same joy of discovery in the Scriptures that many of our Protestant brothers and sisters have experienced.
“Many of these same Catholics, I am learning, would love for this to change if given an opportunity,” he added. “In the RCIA program at my parish, for example, typically half the class consists of cradle Catholics who simply want to grow in their knowledge of the Bible and of their Catholic faith, many of them parents whose children reportedly know more than they do. Even many of our clergy have expressed disappointment in the Scripture component of their seminary formation, and the challenge it presents in preparing homilies that are biblically rich and nourishing.
“Aware of these needs,” he continued, “our mission will be ambitious and innovative, yet humble and grace-filled. We are not laboring under any pretense of being God’s answer to every deficiency, nor do we intend to compete with or to replace any of the fine offerings already available in our parishes and other ministries. We perceive our role as serving and supporting and complementing these offerings in the specialized area of biblical study. We envision a biblically literate and passionately Catholic community, filled with the knowledge and love of Christ, through a deepening understanding of Scripture and its centrality in the life and liturgy of the Church.”
The Institute will offer courses, seminars, retreats, and conferences of various kinds and at varying levels, together with an informative and engaging website, personal mentoring in how to study and teach the Bible as Catholics, and a variety of other resources.
“Our passion,” Vern emphasized, “is to bring faithful biblical scholarship to its rightful end in the blessing and building up of the Church’s liturgy and life and mission in the world. Our ultimate aim is to help inspire Christians toward a more intimate encounter with Christ through meaningful, life-giving engagement with his Word. We believe that Sacred Scripture is God’s love-gift to inform, form, and transform his people to be fuller with the presence of Christ, and thereby more empowered as effective missionary disciples in our homes, in the Church, and in the world.”
The Emmaus staff recognize that their vision is large, with intentions of serving God’s people all across the Diocese of Lincoln, and not just in the big cities. And, of course, for such a large vision, there are large costs.
“We are trusting that many of God’s people will open their hearts to support this apostolate with their prayers and God-given resources,” Vern said. “As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity, the Institute will be self-funded, carrying out its mission in a way that does not stress the diocesan budget.”
The Institute will offer introductory promo sessions so that people can meet the staff, hear short biblical presentations, ask questions, and become familiar with the resources available. They will be held March 5 at St. Peter Parish, April 2 at St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln, and May 7 at Gianna’s Java and Gelato.
“We hope to offer similar sessions outside of Lincoln, as well,” Vern said. “Our desire is that priests, seminarians, consecrated religious, parents, teachers and catechists (school, CCD, RCIA), Bible study leaders, campus missionaries, and students–in short, any and all servants of the Lord–will avail themselves of the opportunities and resources the Institute looks forward to providing.”
Additional information will be available at www.emmausinstitute.net, currently in development.