DETROIT (CNS) — Father Joseph Kim serves in a diocese divided. On one side of the valley, there are the billionaires: the Facebooks, the Googles, the Apples.

On the other side, there are the poor.

In the middle, there are priests such as him, striving to bring one Gospel to all of them.

“Our diocese is very unique in that we have the highest concentration of billionaires in the world, and we also have the largest homeless encampment in the United States,” said Father Kim, vocations director for the Diocese of San Jose, California. “They’re polar opposites, but that’s the world we live in — a very secular, individualistic mindset right next to a population that is not individualistic at all and who needs our help.”

Confronting such drastically different realities is one of the reasons Father Kim decided to pursue an advanced degree in the new evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Father Kim soon will complete a licentiate in sacred theology, or STL, in the new evangelization from the Motor City seminary, a four-year, one-of-a-kind distance-learning program that offers priests a chance to learn from some of the top Catholic minds in the country — such as professors Ralph Martin and Janet Smith — while still serving “in the trenches” of their day-to-day ministries.

Martin, a theology professor, is director of the seminary’s graduate programs in the new evangelization. Smith holds the school’s Father Michael J. McGivney chair of life ethics.

The licentiate is a pontifical, or Vatican-endorsed, degree, offered through the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. It is the only pontifical degree offered in the United States in a distance-learning “blended” format. Priests take about one-third of their courses online, meeting at Sacred Heart for four required summer terms of five weeks for classroom sessions.

“One thing that’s really unique about the program is that it has allowed me to both be present and active in my ministry — so I’m able to implement things that I learn while I’m learning them instead of having to wait a couple of years,” said Father Casey Jones, chaplain to Bishop Verot High School and Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida. Along with Father Kim, Father Casey was one of 45 priests studying for the licentiate degree at Sacred Heart this summer.

Father Jones is something of a rarity these days: a priest who is devoted full time to high school and college ministry in a nonadministrative role.

“Our bishop has taken a big step by placing a priest in full-time high school and college ministry,” Father Jones told The Michigan Catholic, Detroit’s archdiocesan newspaper. “Priests are a commodity.”

Protecting that commitment was one reason Bishop Frank J. Dewane, who heads the Diocese of Venice, Florida, decided to send Father Jones to Sacred Heart, as opposed to a residential theology program.

“In order to have an effective teaching relationship, it requires personal investment,” Father Jones said. “You can’t have the model of a priest who flies in, administers the sacraments and takes off. That reduces the priesthood to a functionary. We are in the business of making disciples.”

Of particular emphasis, he said, is learning how to build and train disciples, rather than simply talking about it.

“It’s easy for me to proclaim the Gospel during Mass,” Father Jones said. “But how am I training my students at Florida Gulf Coast University to proclaim that Gospel in their classrooms, on campus, in the bars? How are we forming them to do that?”

For Father Kim, learning to share the good news in a region as economically diverse as Silicon Valley — and to recruit future priests while doing it — has been made easier by the presence of knowledgeable professors and priests whose own experiences contribute greatly to the national conversation about evangelization.

Father Kim said he appreciates the format of Sacred Heart’s program, which allows him not only to take classes remotely, but to exchange ideas, network, and pray together over the summer with other priests seeking to meet the challenges of evangelizing in an increasingly secular world.

“The main thing is that we’re not alone,” Father Kim said. “A very unique part of this program is that priests come from so many different ministries and areas of church life, all continuing to reflect in the same way on this new evangelization.

“I’ve got brothers from Peoria, Illinois, from Florida, New York and all these places that largely have similar situations — low church attendance, weakened faith — and all of us being able to come together has been a huge encouragement to me as a priest.”

Learning to adapt to the modern challenges of evangelization is especially important for a priest like Msgr. Mark Merdian, who in addition to being pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island, Illinois, is working as a liaison to 10 Catholic hospitals in the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.

Msgr. Merdian, who has been enrolled in the licentiate program for four years, is completing his thesis on the role of evangelization in Catholic health care with the hopes of encouraging health care leaders to take a greater role in sharing their faith.

“Just like in a parish or a company, as goes the formation of its CEO, so goes the hospital,” Msgr. Merdian said. “It’s been a real interest of mine to help lay leaders to be properly engaged in the new evangelization in the work of Jesus Christ, and most importantly, to realize that Catholic health care is an apostolate of the church.”

Msgr. Merdian is focusing his research especially on the formation of hospital CEOs and leaders — which he believes can have a “trickle down” effect on the way managers, nurses and doctors minister to the sick whom Christ calls the church to serve.

“The impact that a CEO can have on a Catholic health care system is profound,” Msgr. Merdian said. “We know from the Second Vatican Council that there was a renewed call of the laity to respond to the invitation to sanctify the temporal order. Sanctifying the temporal order means sanctifying themselves.

“Even the way doctors carry themselves with patients can have a profound effect if they are Christ-centered,” Msgr. Merdian added.

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Stechschulte is managing editor of The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Detroit.