Compassion play

Illustrations by Maria Grejc

The Very Reverend John Kartje has an engaging personality and a quick wit, a searching intellect, and a laser-focused dedication to preparing aspiring Catholic priests for the intellectual, spiritual, and – more recently – emotional disciplines of the vocation.

As rector/president of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary since 2015, he has in the past four years gathered a coalescence of innovative thinkers from eclectic disciplines to develop a program of simulation training, long a staple in aviation and medicine, that will help foster compassion and the emotional development of the aspiring priests he is shepherding.

Mundelein has submitted two successful proposals for Lilly Endowment, Inc.’s Pathways for Tomorrow initiative. In Phase I, the seminary analyzed the quality of human formation among priests ordained in the past decade in the Chicago area. The study found that respondents “did not feel prepared for the more interpersonal aspects of ministry,” including handling administrative duties, preparing couples for marriage, ministering in multicultural settings, managing stress and gaining practical knowledge to help them with the realities of parish life. About 5% of the 1,012 respondents said they were considering leaving the priesthood.

The Phase I findings coincided with Father Kartje’s growing interest in the success of simulations in medical schools, specifically those at the nearby Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (RFU), a private university in Chicago comprising six colleges.

The findings from the Phase I study and the reconnaissance at Rosalind Franklin supported a successful Phase III request: a pilot program to create a fully equipped simulation lab at Mundelein.


Pastores Dabo Vobis

Father Kartje’s early academic training is in science and mathematics: He earned a B.A. in Mathematics and a B.S. in Physics before completing his Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics, all from the University of Chicago. Upon completing his studies, he worked as a scientist for a few years while also volunteering through his local parish at the teaching hospital of the University of Chicago.

“That was when I began to see my faith as a young adult, and recognized the impact it had on people who were – through no choice of their own – in very vulnerable situations,” he says.

After a period of discernment, he entered Mundelein and earned an M.Div. and S.T.B., was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Chicago in 2002, served in a parish for a few years and eventually earned two advanced theological degrees at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

He joined the faculty at Mundelein in 2013; two years later he was appointed rector/president. His philosophy of formation is rooted in both science and Pope John Paul II’s 1982 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, the Latin translation of the first half of Jeremiah 3:15 addressing God’s promise to the wayward Israelites: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.” John Paul identified four critical dimensions of formation for the making of a good priest: human, pastoral, spiritual, and intellectual, with human formation as the foundation for the other three.

Pastores draws heavily on the philosophy of personalism, honoring the other,” Father Kartje says. “That is how Jesus interacts and forms his disciples: teaching them and sending them out.”

Pastores provided the bridge from Father Kartje’s academic scholarship to his growing sense that seminary education should be an integrated experience of formal education and the hands-on practice of compassion. Specifically, he began to see that the success of simulations in medical school education could have a similar impact on the formational needs of priests preparing for ministry.


Compassion play
Present and attentive

Throughout the Lilly application process, Father Kartje sought expertise and assistance to inform simulation training in the seminary, to create a working lab on campus, and to bring the faculty along with a new pedagogical approach. He did not have to look very far.

Marie Pitt-Payne, Ph.D., had been appointed academic dean of Mundelein in 2019, after holding the assistant deanship for a year and serving as associate director of the Institute for Lay Formation at Saint Mary of the Lake from 2017-18.

Pitt-Payne’s doctoral dissertation at Marquette University informed an integrated pedagogical model and personalist philosophy for the formation of clergy, one that would knit together the nature of being human, their development as priests, and their relationship with others and the world.

“I went back about 30 years in the medical research,” she says. “Simulation’s deliberate insertion of emotion into the learning process was viewed as a major pedagogical development – not only for improving patient care, but also for improving provider well-being.

“Helping professions are associated with high levels of provider burnout, so the appropriate management of emotion has become a necessary skill for longevity in the profession,” she adds.

Pitt-Payne concluded in her dissertation that “the simulation method cultivated new levels of emotional self-awareness, introduced a new kind of holistic learning grounded in reality, provided a space to work through fear and self-doubt, and enabled a surprising shift in focus from content delivery to a more fully human personal encounter.”


Healthcare model

With the academic and philosophical rationale as a foundation, Mundelein turned to creating a flexible and technologically sophisticated laboratory that would complement priestly formation through simulations. The lab would create real-life scenarios in a controlled environment, with feedback from a standardized parishioner (SP, a professional actor skilled in depicting emotion and improvisation), the formation advisor (a member of the Mundelein formation faculty observing the interaction), and the seminarian himself.

Pitt-Payne’s collaborative relationship with the Medical College of Wisconsin through her doctoral work provided a bridge to Rosalind Franklin, key to the development of a simulation lab at Mundelein seminary.

Her colleague at RFU, Jim Carlson, Ph.D., a professor on the faculty of the Physician Assistant program and Vice President for Interprofessional Education and Simulation, had arrived at Rosalind Franklin as a practicing physician’s assistant. RFU recruited him to expand its simulation efforts, which had been a part of medical education for several decades. Today RFU has one of the more robust simulation programs in the region, he says, with about 40,000 learner contact hours per year.

In late 2019, Carlson agreed to provide a faculty development session in simulations at Mundelein; further discussions continued to explore simulations’ applicability to formation.

“There was a period when (seminary) students came to the hospital to see real health-care scenarios,” Carlson recalls. “Very complex issues where someone might not need just medical care, but spiritual care, as well.”

A first set of case studies had been created for Mundelein when the Covid pandemic struck. The two organizations developed online access through a simulated hospital and continued to test simulations for seminary students.

A few months later, Carlson recalls, Father Kartje and Pitt-Payne called to say “they wanted to amplify this and build their own center. They had decided that simulation was not just healthcare related, but also clergy-related: counseling and people-connected skills brought to bear in a faith-based way.”


Compassion play
The challenge of change

Andy Holmes’ path to his position with the simulation center at Mundelein wended through a Ph.D. program in Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a job as a computer technician at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, technical support for simulations in the School of Nursing, and developing a simulation lab for the Physician’s Assistant Studies program at Marquette University, where he met Pitt-Payne.

He was hired at Mundelein in 2019 to be the Director of the Cor luxta Meum (the second half of Jeremiah 3:15, translated as “after my own heart”) Center at Mundelein. Holmes has designed the simulation rooms – occupying an entire floor of the administration building – that can be arranged as a parish office, a confessional booth or a medical examination room with two-way mirrors for faculty observers, discreet cameras, and microphones to record the sessions.

The range of pastoral encounters includes marital issues, spiritual direction, struggles with Church teaching, or parish management challenges. At the conclusion, the seminarian, the faculty member, and the SP convene to debrief.

“It’s a pretty big hurdle to ask faculty to go to a place where there’s almost nothing objective,” Holmes says. “We’re helping them to understand that this is a tool that will develop self-awareness and compassion to help (students) in a parish or wherever they may be ministering.”


The power of the encounter

The simulation project at Mundelein will continue to gather data through the remaining years of the grant. RFU’s Carlson remains engaged, as does Notre Dame University’s Dominic Vachon, Ph.D., of the Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine, whose novel research frames the field of compassion science. Pitt-Payne has devised quantitative surveys to measure the seminarians’ experiences. Faculty are now writing some of the cases. And seminarians engaged in parish life have “are surprised by the realism of the simulation experience,” Father Kartje says.

“I think Jesus is a great seminary formator,” he adds. “He recognized that seminary is not just one isolated space.

“Seminary is wherever the people of God are encountering one another.”


Partner Seminaries

Mundelein Seminary has established partnerships with five Catholic seminaries in the United States as part of its Lilly Endowment Pathways for Tomorrow project.

  • Mount Angel Seminary (Oregon)
  • Mount St. Mary’s Seminary (Maryland)
  • St. Mary Seminary (Ohio)
  • St. Paul Seminary (Minnesota)
  • St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary (Florida)


For more about the Mundelein program click here


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