Married-life class at UD agrees with retired priest, 80
UD teacher's course impressed upon 26,000 during the decades

By Mark Fisher

DAYTON | All 140 of his students' eyes focus intently on the Rev. Norbert Burns as he scans the packed classroom, challenging one student, then another, to back up their statements, explain the rationale behind their positions on the day's lesson.

There are no heads on desks, no daydreaming, no notes being passed in the back of the room. Somehow, when the topic is premarital sex, attention span is no problem for the 70 University of Dayton students who fill every available seat in Burns' classroom.

"No no no, this class won't accept that," Burns says to a student who simply proclaims sex must be saved for a committed, loving relationship. "You have to explain your answer."

Another student who says sex before marriage is OK receives a similarly robust challenge to back up his beliefs with facts.

Welcome to Religion 344, Christian Marriage, an elective that has become UD's most popular class. It's taught by an 80-year-old retired priest who has never missed a class in 58 years of teaching. UD officials estimate that Burns has taught the marriage course to 26,000 students - about one-third of all alumni of the Roman Catholic university that traces its history to the 1850s.

"Father Burns makes this class," said Amanda Hobor, a junior from Amherst, Ohio. "He really touches your life."

Burns "challenges us to find out who we really are," Hobor said. "In some ways, it's the hardest class I have, because it really makes us look at ourselves."

Burns retired as professor emeritus in 1996 but returned part time to teach two sections of the Christian Marriage course. Before his retirement, he served as a professional marriage counselor, and for 25 years, he hosted a radio call-in show, Challenge of Modern-Day Marriage, on WVUD-FM. The priest holds a doctoral degree in spirituality counseling.

In class, Burns prowls the floor like a talk-show host, his top shirt button open and his priest's collar tucked into his shirt pocket. Looking nowhere near his age, he smiles impishly and gestures frequently, calling students by name to make sure they're fully engaged in the classroom dialogue.

"Emily, did you get that?" Burns asks. "Are you with us, Drew?" he says.

The Marianist priest makes it clear he wants students to examine relationship issues fully, weigh pros and cons and reach well-thought-out decisions. In the class on premarital sex, Burns summarized the pros as well as the cons that students had brought up in a previous discussion - though the arguments against premarital sex seemed to garner just a bit more time and attention.

Those who decide against premarital sex avoid the risk of pregnancy, AIDS, venereal diseases and ruining a budding relationship, Burns said. Plus, those students who abstain are following the teachings of their pope, their minister, the Bible and their parents - "and don't you want those folks on your side?" he says.

When Burns started teaching Christian Marriage in 1963, a majority of the seniors taking his class were engaged. Today, maybe one or two of the 140 students in his two sections wear engagement rings. Students are "more cautious these days about life commitment," he said.

It's apparent that Burns has had an impact on alumni as well as current students. Former students have created an endowed scholarship in Burns' honor to make awards to religious studies majors who have financial need. So far, alumni have contributed $38,000.