A Kiwi priest has become the first New Zealander to be granted a degree from Divine Mercy University in Washington, DC — and he didn’t have to leave these shores to do his studies.
Fr Vaughan Leslie of Dunedin diocese (currently working in Palmerston North) recently graduated from the university with a Master’s degree in the Science of Psychology.
He was one of a class which completed the requirements for the degree totally online, learning and working together in a virtual classroom for two years.
In May, Fr Leslie attended the university’s graduation ceremony in the crypt of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, was the main celebrant at a Mass which preceded the “commencement” ceremony.
Fr Leslie also received a student leadership award, nominated by staff, faculty and student peers.
Fr Leslie told NZ Catholic he embarked upon studies for his master’s degree in the field of the science of psychology for two reasons.
“Firstly, I had been a prison chaplain for five years, working with serious violent and sexual offenders and many men suffering mental illness. In light of this, I very much felt the need to learn more about human behaviour and how positive change can occur for all people in their personal struggles.
“Secondly, being middle-aged, having been ordained 15 years at the time, I knew I needed to engage in some professional development.”
And the fruits of his studies are already evident in his ministry (he is administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Palmerston North).
“. . . The great gift Divine Mercy University gives its graduates is the ability to take modern evidenced based psychology and integrate it into the Catholic understanding of the person, whereas secular psychology can at times be at odds with our faith, particularly in the understanding/treatment of some conditions,” Fr Leslie said.
“Every day I am putting into practice the skills and knowledge I have learnt regarding care of people, our personal challenges, adaptive coping, servant leadership and the goal that God has for us all to flourish in life, not just fall through it.”
He described his thesis as “a practical workshop designed to help priests in the different stages of adulthood, mindful of the psychological and developmental changes that face us (priests) through life, from the young to the elderly”.
“I hope to share this work and research with groups of priests who are interest in flourishing personally and professionally.”
Knowing how expensive post-graduate studies overseas are, Fr Leslie said studying online was a very cost-effective way of doing this.
“Studying online kept the cost down, especially as the university offered me a scholarship and with a grant from a Catholic charity, my own savings and some generous benefactors, I was able to fund the studies.”
Fr Leslie did 12 courses, each one being eight weeks long.
“The great thing was that the professors were only an email or skype call away.”
Nonetheless, fitting in his studies around his full time pastoral work in a parish was a challenge, Fr Leslie admitted.
But good organisation was the key to success, he said.
“My friends and family would tell you, over the two years of study, I was constantly reading, writing discussion posts, assignments and a thesis. When I look back, it was so much work, but all necessary and most enjoyable, as is anything that is worthwhile.”
Divine Mercy University has invited Fr Leslie to continue on to doctoral studies, but Fr Leslie said “while this is very humbling, further study is not my call to make”.
Fr Leslie added that it was great to be able to finally meet his lecturers and classmates at the graduation.
At a reception in Washington, Fr Leslie met Archbishop Pierre, who had been the Apostolic Nuncio in New Zealand in the late 1970s.
“He remembered New Zealand warmly and enquired of the dioceses of Hamilton and Palmerston North as he formed them when he was nuncio . . .,” Fr Leslie said.