News and Updates: October 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fordham GRE and Catholic Extension Reach Out to Marginalized Church Members

Contact: Joanna Mercuri
(212) 636-7175

(Above) Father Shay Auerbach, who works with indigenous people in the Diocese of Richmond, talks about helping parishes in need. To his left are John Kevin Boland, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Savannah, and Veronica Rayas, director of the Office of Religious Formation for the Diocese of El Paso.
Photo by Dana Maxson
(Below) A map showing the dioceses supported by Catholic Extension.
Photo courtesy of Catholic Extension
Shortly after John Kevin Boland was appointed bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, he established a new parish deep in the rural south of Georgia. The new parish, which became known as Sandhill, comprised roughly 100 families living in a cluster of trailers, at the center of which three trailers stood side by side to serve as a church.

A month later, the Diocese of Savannah held a statewide day of fellowship in the town of Perry. Each parish brought a colorful banner to display its name. The one that stood out to Bishop Boland, however, was the white sheet tied to a tree branch with the name “Sandhill” handwritten on it.

The display was humble, but the message was clear, Bishop Boland said. Regardless of its size or the structure of its church, Sandhill parish was a proud part of the Catholic family.

Bishop Emeritus Boland was one of three alumni from the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE) who gathered at Rose Hill on Oct. 22 to share their experiences of working with the poorest of America’s Catholics. Bishop Boland, GRE ’91, was joined by Shay Auerbach, S.J., GRE ’92, of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, and Veronica Rayas, Ph.D., GRE ’07, of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.

The event, “Fordham Serving the Church on the Margins in America,” was a joint effort between Fordham and Catholic Extension, a papal society that supports dioceses in need, including those in which the three Fordham alumni serve.

Founded in 1905, Catholic Extension serves 13 million Catholics in 94 dioceses around the United States and has provided more than $1.2 billion in grants. The organization also awards scholarships for diocesan workers to attend schools such as Fordham for training in religious education and leadership. Fordham alone has received $5.5 million in scholarships from the organization to educate lay ministers and clergy working in Catholic Extension dioceses.

This educational component is critical to the Catholic Extension mission because most poor, rural dioceses lack access to religious leadership, said Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension.

“Sometimes it’s hard for those of us from New York, Chicago, and Boston, where the church is so well established, to conceive of the experience of Catholicism in places where there’s not an abundance of parishes, schools, clergy, and diocesan instructors,” Father Wall said.

“These are places where there’s a great distance between neighboring parishes, where Catholic worship on Sundays often takes place in double-wide trailers, and where there’s one priest for every 7,000 Catholics.”

Bishop Boland said that this has been his experience serving in the Diocese of Savannah, which covers 90 counties in southern Georgia. The diocese extends more than 37,000 square miles, all the way to the borders of Alabama to the west and Florida to the south.

“The diocese is bigger than the entire country from which I came,” said Bishop Boland, a native of Ireland.

Distance and limited resources are not the only challenges at hand, the panelists said. Forty percent of the families in Catholic Extension dioceses live below the poverty level. Many are migrants who have fled violence in Mexico and Central America. Because the majority of these migrants are Catholic, they find refuge in the parish communities.

“In El Paso, the parishes pulled together to receive the migrant families who were released from [U.S.] detention centers,” Rayas said. “People came forward to give these families a place to sleep and to take a shower, to help connect them with family members, help get them plane or bus tickets, and to just listen to their stories.”

C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., dean of GRE — who himself grew up in Savannah and attended a parish supported by Catholic Extension — emphasized the impact of the organization’s work and the importance of its relationship with Fordham.

“The educational resources I had access to were because of Catholic Extension,” Anderson said. “The resources it provides strengthen the whole church and open up opportunities to people everywhere.”

“Our graduates are out there with Catholic Extension and they’re turning faith into action. It’s a powerful story, and it’s a story that we need to tell and to spread.”

The event was co-sponsored by GRE and Catholic Extension with support from the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.

Click here: The three panelists discuss their experiences with Catholic Extension and how Fordham has prepared them for their work. Video courtesy of Catholic Extension.

Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to more than 15,100 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in West Harrison, N.Y., the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y., and the London Centre in the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Rewiring the Brain: A new book from Dr. Kirk Bingaman, GSRRE

Pastoral Counseling and Neuroplasticity:

Rewiring the Brain to Lower Stress and Anxiety

Kirk Bingaman’s new book explores how recent findings in neuroscience can help in pastoral and spiritual care.Photo by Janet Sassi

By Joanna K. Mercuri

If Jesus were a neuroscientist, talk of “plasticity” might have made the final cut of his Sermon on the Mount.
It turns out that when he counseled his disciples, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself,” Jesus was tapping into a concept that neuroscientists say could reduce stress for our hyperanxious society.

At Fordham, Kirk Bingaman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, is taking his lead from these neuroscientists and arguing that those who find solace in the sermon would also benefit from what science has to say. In his latest book, The Power of Neuroplasticity for Pastoral and Spiritual Care (Lexington Books, 2014), Bingaman suggests ways pastoral and spiritual caregivers can draw on contemporary neuroscience to help their clients and congregants relieve undue anxiety.

“We hear it in the Sermon on the Mount and we hear it in our churches today—don’t worry about tomorrow, stay centered in today. We grasp it intellectually, but how, practically, do we not worry?” said Bingaman, who is also a pastoral counselor.

In the book, Bingaman explores the impact that an adaptive mechanism known as the negativity bias has on our well-being. An evolutionary cousin of the “fight or flight” phenomenon, this bias describes the brain’s propensity to experience negative events more intensely in order to alert us to potential danger.

A built-in negativity bias was vital when humans lived as hunter-gatherers ever at the ready to flee from a hungry lion. In the modern world, however, this bias tends to cause excessive negativity and anxiety.

“[This] anxiety spills over into our relationships with others and with ourselves,” Bingaman said. “It causes us to assume the worst, to overreact to situations in ways such as, ‘Why did you look at me this way? Why did you use that tone?’”

Fortunately, he says, we are not condemned to primal negativity, thanks to the human brain’s capacity to change across the lifespan. With every new experience—creating a memory, learning new information, or adapting to a new situation—the brain undergoes structural changes, generating new neural pathways and reshaping existing ones. This ability, known as neuroplasticity, forms the crux of Bingaman’s book.

He argues that the most effective way to harness the power of neuroplasticity is through mindfulness meditation and contemplative spiritual practice. Through these therapeutic and spiritual techniques, clients learn to become aware of their thoughts and feelings. Rather than reacting to or trying to eliminate them, clients learn to simply observe them as they come and go, without getting “hooked.”

“Thoughts and feelings have a 90-second shelf-life biochemically. So when we experience an anxious thought or feeling, [the reaction] will dissipate from the blood in 90 seconds—unless we feed the thought or judge ourselves for feeling that way,” he said. “The key to mindfulness-based therapy is to let thoughts and feelings come and go without fighting them. This then reduces the limbic activity in our brains and calms the amygdala.”

These practices—which are so well-regarded that they are central to the “third wave” of classical cognitive behavioral therapy—can take a variety of forms and be applied in both religious and nonreligious settings. For example, one might spend 15 minutes each day sitting quietly and focusing on the ebb and flow of his or her breath. Alternatively, one might practice something like the Christian centering prayer, in which the practitioner meditates on a “sacred word” (such as “Jesus,” “God,” or “love”) while learning to modulate the many other chaotic thoughts that crowd the mind.

Bingaman says that these practices, informed by the science of neuroplasticity, will “necessitate a paradigm shift” in the way pastoral and spiritual caregivers approach their work with clients, especially clients whose anxiety may have been exacerbated by their own religious beliefs.

“When a theology views the spiritual quest as a matter of warfare—as a battle within the person, or as a matter of good versus evil and flesh versus spirit—that activates neural circuitry that causes stress,” he said. “If we overdo that construct, the person in our care might see himself as flawed and defective, and that could end up reinforcing the negativity bias.

“Whether it’s therapy or theology, we need to look at the frames of reference we are using to help the person in our care to calm their anxious brain. Some of our approaches are going to fire up the limbic region, and others will do the reverse,” he said. “So we have to make more use of contemplative practices in religious and spiritual circles… They’re not just for the mystics off in the desert. They’re for you and me and everyone else.”

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dr. Kirk Bingaman has published his third book

The Power of Neuroplasticity for Pastoral and Spiritual Care (Lexington, 2014). The book focuses on neuroscientific findings, which reveal that through regular contemplative-meditational practice we can learn how to calm the fear and stress regions of the brain. It provides practitioners and clinicians with an understanding of how the findings can be applied to the work of pastoral and spiritual care, as we go about helping clients and congregants to cultivate less anxious and more positive perspectives on life.   

Serving the Church on the Margins in America - a joint event with the Catholic Extension Society

The Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education
Catholic Extension present

Fordham-Serving the Church on the Margins in America
Location: Duane Library's Tognino Hall - Fordham University Rose Hill Campus 
Date: Wednesday, October 22nd 2014
Time: 6:00pm 


Our Panelists: 
Fr. Shay Auerbach is a Jesuit priest who works with indigenous people in the Diocese of Richmond, Virgina. Fr. Shay studied at Fordham University as a Jesuit Scholastic
The Most Reverend John Kevin Boland, Bishop Emeritus, Diocese of Savannah has served his entire priesthood in the missions in southern Georgia. Bishop Boland received his degree at Fordham through the sponsorship of Catholic Extension. 
Veronica Rayas, Ph.D., is a Latina native of El Paso, Texas,  who currently serves as the Diocesan Director of Religious Education. Through Catholic Extension Dr. Rayas achieved her Master's degree at Fordham University; she then completed her Ph.D. while working for the Archdiocese of New York.