"Together in God's Service"
By Michael Wojcik
PATERSON, NJ -- The study of theology isn't only for priests, brothers and nuns. Just talk to Andrew Brereton and Ivannia Vega, two New Jersey Catholics who hope to teach college-level theology.
For 38-year-old Brereton, from Sayreville, and 29-year-old Ms. Vega, who lives in Paterson, theology has enabled them to get closer to God and to live out their faith more actively.
Both hope that they can give their future students similar faith development opportunities.
Brereton, a married father of three of Our Lady of the Victories Parish, Sayreville, is pursuing a doctorate in theology at Fordham University. He wants to make the ancient stories of Scripture acessible to students and hopes his teaching makes Catholicism "more attractive" to both faithful and non faithful.
A full-time student who has completed his course work, Brereton will take comprehensive exams later this year and will apply for teaching fellowships next year. He aims to teach how to "incorporate Christ into contemporary society."
Ms. Vega, a Hispanic single Catholic who belongs to St. Mary's Parish, Paterson, is studying for a master of theology degree from Seton Hall University. She plans to pursue a doctorate and then teach.
Her graduate studies have focused on her first love in theological studies: the history of the Catholic Church.
"In Church history, we see God's hands at work," observed Ms. Vega, a part-time student who also serves as director of youth and young adult ministries among Hispanics for the Paterson Diocese. "God never abandoned the Church, despite its human frailties. God is leading the Church and works through its brokenness and weakness."
Brereton received a Master's of Theology from Seton Hall in 1998. His master's thesis explored the "Sense of the Faithful," the Second Vatican Council statement that all baptized Christians possess a "supernatural understanding of faith," he said.
The Brooklyn-born Brereton traveled a long and winding road. After earning a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Cook College at Rutgers University, he became a carpenter and woodworker for about 10 years. Already married by this time to his wife of 14-years now, Janet, a project analyst at Merrill Lynch, he later returned to the Garden State to work in retail management.
Despite the winding path, Brereton kept in sight his Christian mission, which focused on underprivileged children. In college he worked at Glenmary Home Missions, a summer camp in Mississippi. After college he was a counselor at Project Youth, an Outward Bound-type outdoor experience in New Jersey, and taught 8th grade in a New Orleans school for a year.
Today, Brereton lives out his faith locally as a member of his parish's choir and adult confirmation preparation program.
"Nothing in my life has ever been a detour," Brereton commented. "It all fits into God's plan."
The sixth of seven children, Brereton came face to face with examples of faith every day. A few uncles and cousins were priests and brothers, and a few aunts were nuns. Today his 51-year-old sister Rita, is a nun who founded a Catholic school in Boston's inner city.
Ms. Vega discovered a love of theology as an undergraduate. After freshman year at Boston College, she switched the concentration of her major to religious studies, after finding some of her theology courses "challenging and enriching." In 1993, she earned a bachelor's degree in theology and secondary education from B.C. After college, Ms. Vega returned to New Jersey as director of religious education for Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Newark. Economically poor and 90 percent Hispanic, OLGC is a "faith-filled parish," she observed.
"Parishioners identify with what the Church teaches," said Ms. Vega. "They are looking for meaning in their lives, and Christ gives them that meaning."
In her three years at OLGC, she boosted student enrollment in the parish from 100 to 300, with a strong curriculum and parental involvement. Then Ms. Vega came to the Paterson Diocese in her current post as director of youth and young adult ministries among Hispanics.
"I love to see how faith grows in young people," Ms. Vega said. "I get to see how faith touches people. God is powerful and is still present among us."
Ms. Vega came to the United States with her family at age three. She is second of four children. She credits her family's devotion to Christ and her Catholic studies at Mary's School, Paterson, and Mary Help of Christians Academy, North Haledon, both in New Jersey. She said she was especially inspired by the faithfulness of the Salesian Sisters who taught her.
As a father, Brereton said his studies aid him in imparting the faith to his sons: Peter, 12; Liam, 10; and Daniel, 8.
"My kids are quick to pick up a lot of what I'm learning," noted Brereton, "I can give them the experience of faith of someone who was raised in the Church, went away for awhile (during college) and came back. In the process I learned to live my faith more deeply."
Michael Wojcik is news editor of The Beacon, the newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, NJ.