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Multifaith Chaplaincy in transition

By Hannah Schuster

Section: News

October 2, 2015

The overall structure and some positions at the Multifaith Chaplaincy are currently in transition. The university has hired Maryam Sharrieff as interim Muslim Chaplain, and spiritual advisor Allison Cornelisse is serving in place of an official Catholic Chaplain. To examine and propose changes to the Chaplaincy, the university commissioned a Working Group, which released its final Chaplaincy Report two days ago. The report proposes several changes including the introduction of a Chaplaincy director.

Senior Vice President of Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel released the Working Group’s report in an email to the Brandeis community, after commissioning it in Spring of 2015. Prof. Wendy Cadge (SOC) chaired the group comprised of Jonathan Sarna (NEJS); Chaplains Rabbi Elyse Winick and Rev. Matthew Carriker; and three students, Elena Insley ’15, former president of the Catholic Students Organization, Ethan Stein ’15, a NEJS major and past Hebrew UDR, and Shruti Vaidyanathan ’16, president of Namaskar.

The report counsels the university to hire a “Director of Spiritual and Religious Life who can convene and coordinate the Chaplaincy via clearly articulated vision statement.” This person would be involved with outreach, campus committees and other aspects of the university.

The working group hopes that introducing a director will address the issue that “current part-time chaplains are not administratively positioned” to engage in all university issues.

Father Walter Cuenin, who departed the university for health reasons in January 2015, was the head chaplain, a position that has not yet been filled. The report addresses this matter with the proposition of a chaplaincy director. The Catholic Chaplaincy may proceed with the model of a lay-person spiritual advisor separate from a priest.

In a statement to The Brandeis Hoot, Flagel said he finds adopting this position “would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” as he believes Cuenin’s role as head chaplain, “in many ways already followed the kind of non-denominational approach that the work group’s memo proposes.”

Cuenin’s departure also left the Catholic Chaplaincy, specifically, in a state of transition. Following his departure, Father Daniel Moloney began leading mass on campus. However, unlike Cuenin who worked with students outside of mass, Moloney’s role did not extend far beyond this.

Cornelisse began her role at the Catholic Chaplaincy in April. She invites priests to lead mass at the Bethlehem Chapel on Sundays, provides access to off-campus services and works with the Catholic Students Organizations (CSO).

Cornelisse said she has found the community “welcoming, helpful, committed to diversity and passionate in its efforts to offer the best,” and enjoys working with the other chaplains, “a dynamic group of people as well as [engaged] in dialogue and activities with the many different faiths which are celebrated on campus.”

She is a “lay Catholic spiritual advisor,” a role somewhat distinct from that of a priest or chaplain. The report suggests that the university “[follow] the wishes of the campus Catholic community” by maintaining this position. Some members of the Catholic community favor splitting the roles of a day-to-day spiritual advisor and a priest.

In an email to The Hoot, Insley said having a lay-person serve the community ensured there was “a presence on campus that was available to meet with students outside of the regular Sunday mass.” She said it was important to have someone who welcomes diversity and understands both Catholicism and student needs.

Cornelisse “stepped in when the Catholic community desperately needed some leadership, and the combination of her skills to minister to the pastoral needs of the campus and a priest to lead weekly Sunday mass seemed like the perfect combination,” said Insley.

Stephanie Anciro ’16, current president of the CSO, is open to the idea of a separate priest and spiritual advisor or a priest who fills both roles. However, she said the community hopes to see a “permanent priest that can serve the unique campus, students and community.” Anciro believes sense of community is essential to the Catholic community, explaining that she finds a sense of “home” while at mass.

Anciro also feels that Cornelisse has provided structure to the Catholic community, writing, “she provides support for students, just as Father Cuenin did and is a confidential resource,” as are the official chaplains.

It is as yet undecided whether the future of the Catholic Chaplaincy will include a priest who also works as spiritual advisor, a position similar to Cuenin’s or two separate positions for these responsibilities. Currently, a rotation of priests leads mass on campus.

The Muslim Chaplaincy is also in transition. Imam Dr. Talal Edi left the university after nine years to serve as full-time Imam for the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Ohio, according to an email from Dean of Students Jamele Adams on July 20. The university has hired Sharrieff as interim chaplain, starting this fall. In an email to The Hoot, Sharrieff said she is “thrilled” to be at Brandeis and would be honored to take on a permanent role.

The Chaplaincy Report also suggests that the Multifaith Chaplaincy change their name to the Department of Spiritual and Religious Life. It explains that many students do not know what a chaplain is and identify more with the term spirituality over religion. The report also notes that not all staff who work with religious services are chaplains. The Working Group hopes this change will make the Chaplaincy more accessible, increasing its “scope.”

The report proposes the Chaplaincy report to the Provost’s office, rather than the Dean of Students Office, allowing the Chaplaincy to service the entire university, as opposed to just undergraduates and “facilitate diversity efforts at all levels.”

It examines how to address non-vetted religious leaders who work with students, proposing the designation “affiliate,” and requiring a CORI check, a meeting with the proposed director to discuss federal and state laws and expectations and yearly meetings “with other affiliates and campus chaplains to discuss relevant issues.”

This process, the report explains, “allows the university to guarantee to parents that religious and spiritual services are being provided by known individuals who are accountable to university constituents even if they are not paid by the university.”

In his statement to The Hoot, Flagel emphasized the need for feedback so that “we can have an informed discussion of next steps.” He said there have been a “number of emails” providing thoughts, and he hopes to “share feedback publically” in a way that protects those who requested privacy.

The three Brandeis chapels (Jewish, Catholic and Protestant) were dedicated in 1955, however the Chaplaincy has expanded since then to include Muslim and Hindu chaplains and accommodate students of many other world religions.

“The work of the Chaplaincy creates an essential base to academic exploration and provides grounding for the whirlwind of transition which constitutes campus life,” said Winnick in an email to The Hoot.

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