The first obvious difference is in the content of the classes: at this level, theology is almost necessarily speculative. One can hardly avoid questioning whether decisions made in recent decades are truly in light of the tradition, or wondering where the prevailing contemporary scholarship went wrong. For example: In undergrad, I was reminded that the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and orders place an indelible mark ("character") on the soul and are thus unrepeatable. During the paper I handed in tonight, I grappled with questions that had simply never occurred to me before: What does this "character" actually mean? Are different characters imprinted with the different sacraments, or is it the same character, simply deepened? What's the purpose of confirmation and why is it a separate sacrament from baptism? Is the character imprinted at each stage of the sacrament of orders, or just once? (And those are only the questions I can throw out there without having to explain the background!) There's not a right or wrong answer to any of these, because Holy Mother Church has really not defined very much; she's left a lot to her theologians. "I feel like I'm always in danger of being a heretic!" I commiserated to Phillip yesterday. Laughing, he agreed: "You pretty much are." (Not me personally; that "you" refers to theologians in general... oh, shush. You know what I mean.)
I've mentioned to some of you how glad I am that I took that year off between degrees and spent it at home working. Now that school is not the only thing I've ever done, now that I'm back here by choice, now that I'm studying rather than working a 9-5 job, I am able to truly appreciate the leisure aspect of higher education. How many people do I know who long for the ability to earn a degree like mine! And yet it can;t be in the plans; their calling in life is elsewhere, and this sort of education is not a reasonable option for them. It is a great luxury to be living a student's lifestyle on this beautiful campus, and a great privilege to be studying the sacred liturgy among such brilliant minds from such diverse backgrounds, and I know it. I live in awe of this gift Our Lord has given me every day (I pray that awe never fades, for this is truly a marvelous place).
Time to connect the dots! When I was simply an undergraduate with opinions, or a layperson living in the world, thinking about the family I will someday raise, I could think whatever I wanted (to a certain extent, at least). My responsibilities were to God, my family, myself, my friends... But now I am here, in Mundelein, studying something so essential to the life of the Church yet which too few have the opportunity to study in much detail, and I see that my perspective is not being spoken throughout the Church. What I have to say would be a unique contribution to the discussion of theologians the world over, and they might actually listen to me!
While this is exhilarating, it's also sobering (please don't make me actually quote that line from Spiderman 3. I know you're all thinking it): My responsibility is now to the whole Church. Whereas before I was perfectly content to spend the rest of my days at an Institute parish (unless God threw me a real curveball on the husband thing), drawing people to Christ slowly, one by one: it's not so simple anymore. Now I find myself grappling with the principles of the Liturgical Movement and the Postconciliar Reform, and the actualization of both. I must face what is deficient in each of the two forms of the Roman Rite, not what is missing in the Ordinary Form alone. It is no longer good enough that I pray much more effectively (and easily) when invited to join silently in corporate interior prayer than when I am asked to say and do exactly the same as what others are saying and doing in a group ritual in my own language: Now I must evaluate the goods of each method in light of what is best for the whole Church.
Navel-gazing though academia can be, I really think that the Church at large can benefit from my perspective (and they'll have ample opportunity to do so in coming years, God willing). My thoughts, my engagement with the issues, are essential to God's work today in His Church throughout the world.
How humbling, exhilarating, and terrifying all at the same time. Deo gratias!